At the mere age of 7, I remember helping my dad troubleshoot something on our prehistoric PC. You know, the kind where the screen was like a bulbous space helmet that took up over half of the width of the table it sat on. There was something wrong with installing a program and I remember clicking a few of buttons that popped up and ta-da! Resolved. All those months of playing free PC games, Tetris, and MS paint had paid off in precociously impresive computer skillz.
Don’t get me wrong. I am actually an inherently clumsy person. I’m not great at puzzles or fixing electronics. My approach is to just start doing stuff until I eventually click the right button. Better yet ask enough people until I find someone who knows how to fix it. And then if that doesn’t work, well, then nix it and get a new one.
The problem is, you can do that kind of thing for Macs and curtain rods, printers and bicycles, but there is no right button or right person who has the solution to system failures and societal brokenness.
And that’s frustrating.
I’m sitting in a living room of a Burmese family – father, mother, aunt, two kids and good friend they call Auntie. Auntie has two teenage boys and is struggling to find work. The expression on her face is sullen and worn, like someone who has been fighting to keep it together for many weeks and months. These Burmese are of the Karen ethnicity; in my observations they are one of the worst off refugees in the U.S. because of their lack of education, job skills, and cultural awareness from their previous situations (namely poor, agricultural villages in Burma and then even poorer refugee camps in Thailand). What a shock it must be to come to Rhode Island, full of hope for a job, for a better life, and then find that it’s cold, busy, diverse, and so many are struggling for that same economic stability and integration.
And just an hour ago I was at the mall, looking at on-sale clothing and contemplating if I should buy a sweater or a pair of shoes. I ended up going with nothing. And just before I was thinking if I want to work on the East or West coast. And then I complain. It’s really unfair isn’t it. I have these choices and opportunities to shop and choose because, although my parents were themselves like refugees who fled communist China, they had the unmistakable luxury of learning English and acquiring American-compatible education that boosted their upward mobility like so many other Eastern Asians you see in this country. My father and pretty much most of my Asian friends’ parents, earned jobs in the technology and engineering sector. White collar jobs that nerdy, diligent people like the Asians fit so perfectly.
But what about people like Auntie? My cop out answer would be – well we need Socialism! Ok, that’s not ever going to happen or be the silver bullet. In this capitalistic society that rewards skill, innovation and the bottom line, how is a low-skill, English deficient ethnic female ever going to make it? How do we do it?
I don’t know how.
Experienced folks in the refugee resettlement game say it’s just a reality that the first generation will take the biggest hit and that it’s certain their children will be better off. But where is the dignity in that for Auntie? Living day after day, scraping together welfare checks and public assistance with the uncertain hope that her two teenage boys might have it better for her. I think she deserves more. But I don’t know how to fix her problem.
It’s difficult for me to just stand by idling and hope the solution will manifest itself somewhere, somehow. While there isn’t a button for this, maybe the way to get closer to fixing the problem isn’t so different from how I fixed my dad’s computer program when I was 7 – just try everything (in as appropriate and sensitive fashion possible) until a suitable solution pops up and to collaborate with others to get there.
Is it better to try and fail than to not try at all? Is it better to give a shot and miss the hoop than just stare at the ball? Is mediocrity better than barren hopelessness?
These are questions that require a lot of faith and patience to answer.