Doing Laundry

Neil Singh - Ecuador


March 10, 2014

Back in the States I used to hate doing my laundry. It was a long trek up the stairs and to my destination, burdened by my ponderous basket. Then, leaving a trail of dirty socks, I wrestled with my sworn enemy: the laundry room door. My back aching from such arduous labor, I placed my dirty garments in the washer with a cup of detergent, pressed a few buttons and presto. The journey finally complete, I would then proceed to the refrigerator for a well-deserved snack.

Here I use my suitcase instead of a basket to carry my dirty laundry. Here I wash all my clothes with powder detergent and a brush, and curse the rain that soaks my clothes after pinning them on the line to dry. I make doing my laundry a day-long activity instead of a five minute chore, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, when I return I don’t think I’ll be using laundry machines very much. My grandma shakes her head and laughs when she sees me whistling happily while scrubbing my boxers, but I love doing my laundry now.

Why? As a citizen of a very privileged country I complained about doing the simplest of things, whether it was shoveling snow or putting the dishes in the dish washer (not even washing them myself!). I had hissy fits when nothing good was on television, mental breakdowns when the internet was slow. I whined about such luxuries when they didn’t work properly and took them for granted. It wasn’t until I came here I began to appreciate them.

I do not live surrounded by poverty, but I think many people from my neighborhood back in PA would disagree. All my neighbors have a TV and a fridge, but they have such a different lifestyle from what many citizens of other countries have. What struck me was that I felt so entitled to such things that I could complain to my poor mother about the “millions of chores” I had to do around the house. I have a different standard of living than my neighbors do, and during my learning process of how to adjust to this different lifestyle I had a very powerful epiphany.

My parents are two immigrants from northern India that wanted a better education and lifestyle for their children, and like almost every first generation child I was very ungrateful of their sacrifice. I experienced firsthand what it’s like to come to a foreign country and not be able to communicate myself intelligibly. I had to learn things that people here had been doing for their entire lives. The difference is I only stayed for 7 months. They stayed for over 30 years.

Here I saw the other side that many immigrants like my mother and father had left behind. Almost everyone in Quingeo has a family member that lives in the States, most all of them illegally. Many people I’ve met in Quingeo talk about foreigners with resentment, sometimes even hostility, because of the damage it has caused their families. Spouses who won’t see their children for years, broken households, infidelity. All of this bitterness from shattered hopes of a better life turns towards the gringos that come to their home country. This is the American Dream for them.

I felt very distraught after this realization. I had gone through 18 years of my life not knowing what that struggle really was for my mom and dad and how much worse it is for others. I will come back to all those luxuries that my neighbors here don’t have, to brain-draining technology and a happy, loving family. This depressing epiphany came to me when my sister visited two weeks ago. She bought a two bottles of water, and was surprised when it ended up being $0.70 and claimed the price was unfair. She gave the lady two dollars before I could explain what she had just done. As a New Yorker, where during sporting events bottles of water can go for about $5.00, I could understand why her jaw dropped. Between such a low price and all of the small houses she saw around the tienda she must’ve thought she was ripping off some poor farmers. In reality she reinforced the concept that gringos view people from where I live as poor, and when you are treated like you live in poverty you feel angry about your situation.

I was almost as frustrated at my own. I felt like I had personally done something wrong for simply being a U.S. citizen. In any Econ book you’ll find in the States every author praises the beauty of consumerism and individuality of capitalism, but no one ever talks about the history of exploitation and imperialism that it took our country to get to where it is now. I can see the other side of imperialism here, and how it has affected daily life in South America to this day. I have become very fond of Ecuador during my half-year abroad. All of us have friends and family here now, and it pains me to know that my government played such a convoluted role in Latin America’s history.

However, I don’t disagree with those textbooks. Capitalism is the closest thing to a representative democratic economic system, which means each and every individual participating in it has a say. We can choose what goods to purchase, what we do with those products and whether or not to continue using them. The problem is most of us don’t choose to exercise that voice.

My sister didn’t know the inadvertent damage she had caused, and that experience taught me to be more conscious of my actions. In order to be more mindful of my decisions and to truly be a Global Citizen, I think it is absolutely necessary to be a responsible consumer. For me that could take the form of a 5 minute shower instead of a 10 minute one, doing my laundry by hand rather than machine, or choosing a different brand to buy from. Corporations like Dole and Texaco don’t advertise what they do overseas, but you don’t have live in another country for half a year to find out their current and past activities.

My uncle came over for Carnival the other day. After telling him I would be leaving in only a month, he asked me: “Seeing how people live here in Quingeo, what are you going to bring back to your country?” I told him that I wanted to make my home community more aware of the issues I’ve seen and experienced, and to encourage them to take action by being well-informed citizens and responsible consumers. Then I smiled and thought: And a little brush to wash my clothes with.

Neil Singh