If you have read any of my non-fictional tales of past financial struggles and child abuse, you already know I am not what any sane person should call lucky. I fought my way to the First World and either myself or my family has paid every last penny for everything we have. No one handed us anything.
Yet, every so often, I run into an American, who after seeing the end results of my uphill battle exclaims:
You’re so lucky!
As a Third Worlder with a background like mine, few things in life irritate me more than a First Worlder telling me I’m lucky. It grates a nerve that spews venom every time I hear it. Sometimes, I manage to keep my thoughts to myself. Other times, my response is not quite as pleasant as they anticipated.
I understand that a lot of people believe they are somehow doing us a favour or commending us when they say this. Most of us do not think of it this way. Let me give you a handful of a million reasons why this is so insulting.
1. Your Privilege Is Showing
When people talk of privilege in America, there tends to be a strong focus on White privilege or patriarchal privilege for men. Little do many Americans of colour realize that to Third Worlders, even they are also privileged.
Being born and/or raised in the First World is a privilege, regardless of what social stratum you occupy in your society. There is a wealth of opportunities for people to take advantage of and the government does more for its people in the First World than even well-intentioned governments can afford to do abroad.
According to the World Bank, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. For this and other reasons, Haiti and its neighbors (the third-closest being Jamaica) earned the reputation of being a “shit-hole” country. Imagine going to Haiti and telling someone who survived on a meal a day, lived in a shack and had no running water, that they were lucky because they completed college when you did not.
On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you think that person might want to smack you for speaking from a place of privilege to tell them they are “lucky” for all they suffered because they achieved one thing you did not?
When we bring that degree with us to foreign countries with better opportunities and achieve great things, and you say, “Oh my! You’re so lucky!” and we think of all we suffered in Jamaica, Nigeria, India or wherever we’re from, you don’t want to know the thoughts that are going through our heads.
2. It Undermines Hard Work
According to Census.gov, 34% of U.S.-born residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. When I was in university, my human resources lecturer shocked us all when she told us that only 1% to 3% of Jamaicans had achieved the same.
The Jamaican Gleaner reports that 15% of our workforce at home has tertiary-level education. Note that this includes foreigners as well as people who attended trade schools. Jamaica has also suffered immensely from a “brain drain” where people like me, move overseas with our degrees to seek better opportunities.
Many people may look at those figures and believe that surely, the 1-to-3-percenters with an actual bachelor’s degree or higher must be lucky. If you truly believe that, you have no idea how college or university works in the Third World.
When I was in college, I lived on $200 per month between 2006 to 2008, and in university, between 2008 and 2012, that increased to $520 per month. I lived in the ‘hood for my first semester, because I didn’t know Kingston and had picked the wrong town to move to. I also almost dropped out in my third year because Mom lost her job and could no longer afford it. Thankfully, an aunt and my stepdad chipped in. It was a stressful year.
My situation was not unique. Many of us learned to do more with less so that we could complete our degrees and move on to a better life. I lived through a year-long drought with no regular running water for almost my entire freshman year, which led to a skin condition that I will have for the rest of my life. I washed all my clothes by hand for four years, had no water heater, and lived through the 2010 Civil Unrest in the middle of my second-year university exams.
In my first year of college, there was also a string of kidnappings involving young women at my rival university. Problem is, I had to walk past that school every day to take a cab to my own. No one went missing from my campus because we have one of the best security systems in the West Indies, and also, as a tech campus, our students were mostly men and they were very protective of the female population.
So, when foreigners tell us how lucky we are to have completed our degrees, or worse, that so many of us graduated debt free in a country where it is sometimes damn near impossible for young people to get credit … like I said, you don’t want to know what we’re thinking.
3. It Overshadows the Problem
Here’s the truth. No matter where you live in the world, immigrants will come to your country and do better than you. When I lived in Jamaica, foreigners came to my country, mostly from America and Europe, took the best jobs and had choice words for us on why locals weren’t doing as well.
Do you want to know how I ended up quitting my job and moving overseas? I listened. I listened to every critique they gave. While they did not always have a good grasp on why we could not afford to do certain things or did not show an interest in the things that would help us to advance, they were nonetheless spot on with the whats.
I didn’t tell anyone to go back to their country then if they didn’t like Jamaica, or that it was disrespectful to criticise us. Instead, I implemented changes to correct the critiques that did affect me and recognised the complacencies that had seeped into me as a local.
When I moved to America, I found myself in exactly the same place as the expats back home—minus their big bank accounts. I could pinpoint opportunity after opportunity and it was glaringly obvious to me why so many Americans were living above their means, falling behind their peers and failing to meet their personal expectations. Subsequently, in the past four years in America, I have achieved more than I did in 25 years in Jamaica, and have surpassed other 29-year-olds here on a fraction on their annual salary.
When they tell me how lucky I am, I challenge them by presenting them with my formula. In 100% of these instances, when they learned how I had gotten to where I had, the responses were negative. No one was willing to lose sleep, move outside the city, share property with family members, give up having their own car, or living on half their paycheck, to be where I was.
“How is that I’m lucky then, if you wouldn’t do it?” I would ask them.
“You’re right,” they would eventually decide. “You’re not lucky. You’re nuts and one day all that work is going to catch up with you. But, at my age, I should have X, Y and Z by now.”
“If you’re not willing to do what other people will not, then you cannot have what other people do not,” I would reply, which almost always ticked them off.
Here’s some hard-to-swallow truth. Every American I know who is losing sleep, did move outside the city, shares a home with family members, decided to delay owning their own car and/or live on a portion of their paycheck are living lives as fulfilled as, or even more fulfilled than, my own. This holds true regardless of their original nationality, race or the economic class they were born into.
Most times when people throw the word lucky at me, it is bitter. But, there are some instances when people mean it is a genuine compliment. However, I have to argue semantics on when you can and cannot use the word luck—a lesson that most Jamaicans already know and follow naturally.
Luck implies that something happened by chance. If I never buy a lottery ticket in my life, then buy one and win? I’m lucky. When a Dodge Charger made me swerve out of my lane and I swerve back just in time before a truck flew by me? That was lucky. Meeting the love of my life? Super lucky!
Luck, however, is not the result of hard work and sacrifice.
When a parent lives in someone else’s garage to cut costs and ensure their child graduates college debt free, they are not lucky. When an entrepreneur works three jobs to build their business from the ground up, they are not lucky. When a millennial lives on half their paycheck for four years to pay off their student loan debts and then takes a month off from work to travel through Asia, they are not lucky.
Why? Because none of those things happened by chance. They happened because people were willing to make sacrifices to make it happen—and all the rest of us are welcome to do the same.