LEE: Developing without pressure

I spent spring break in Tena, Ecuador, helping deliver much-needed primary care to the indigenous. To get to the small city, which lies next to the Amazon rainforest, we took a four-hour bus ride from the airport through rubble-ridden mountain roads and saw all but 20 buildings on the way; at our hostel, dead butterflies littered the floor and there was no hot water. We were even told to not use the tap water for drinking or brushing our teeth.

Those conditions are attributes of a developing country. Although not as primitive as other countries in South America, Ecuador is still some distance away from matching American or Western European standards. As habitants of such countries, we often sympathize with those living in developing areas and give our time and support to help them become more modernized and lead better lives. I once also shared that mindset, but I now question it.

At a mobile clinic that saw more patients than usual, I chatted in broken Spanish with Javier, a middle-aged man, about his life as a farmer. As I expected, he said his lifestyle was difficult, laden with hours of physical labor, even during the daily torrential rains that hit the area. However, he also added that he still very much enjoyed getting the steady income, working close to home and being able to watch his four kids grow up together.

My family and community are everything, he whispered. He once had the opportunity to move his family to Quito, Ecuador’s capital. But although he would have taken a job that garnered more respect there, he decided to not go because he would have lost the close connection to his family.

When we weren’t working with patients at the clinics, the many children in the communities, swarmed around us, eager to play and horse around. As one piggyback ride turned into several, I noticed a subtle difference between these kids and those I’ve played with back in the U.S. These preteens and teenagers are not under the pressure of scoring high on standardized exams or gaining admission into the top schools of their region. Liberated from the burden of grades, they freely immerse themselves in learning for learning’s sake. There is no competition — there isn’t much to compete for — no badmouthing, no nothing. I saw in their faces a kind of lightheartedness and cheerfulness that just isn’t present in American children anymore.

In developed nations such as ours, however, we’ve sacrificed the values those Ecuadorians still hold dear. We relinquish precious time with our friends and lose massive amounts of sleep in pursuit of lofty goals. We travel 3,000 miles across the country to attend our dream college, leaving behind our family and hometown. We drool over that prestigious scholarship or job position.

But after we’re all done, after we’ve become the established authority in our field with a large paycheck and résumé littered with names and titles of all sorts, what are we left with? Though we may be happy with our accomplishments, can we say we’re truly as happy as Javier is? Can our pressured children ever be as carefree as those kids I had so much fun with? During our search for success as we define it, we lose people and things that once meant so much to us without even realizing it.

My point is not that developed countries breed nothing but expectations and stress. The modernization of societies has indeed worked wonders for us, and it would be egregious to say otherwise. There are opportunities to do amazing things in the U.S., Europe and East Asia that you just can’t find anywhere else.

However, just because we think our resources are superior to those in countries like Ecuador doesn’t mean we should always be actively pushing for advancement and industrialization there. Who are we to think that everyone else wants our ostensibly enjoyable lifestyles? What gives us the right to define who or what is developed?

I didn’t come back from Ecuador having learned that it’s a country with much room to develop, for I had known that already. No, I came back from Ecuador questioning how much Ecuadorians should want their country to change. Before nations like ours push for more development in nations abroad, we should contemplate the hidden adverse effects that come with such growth, think about whether the people in the other country would like it and reevaluate what it really means to be developed.

Ike Lee is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at ike.lee@yale.edu.

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