We had been standing in line for the last checkpoint of customs entry into the United States for a while, and we were finally reaching the front of the queue. My Dad was struggling with his suitcase, which we’d discovered too late had a dodgy wheel. Mum was looking down at her landing card. There was a family in the lane next to us, who I think came off the same flight from Hong Kong. A mother, a father, a son – and a luggage trolley. They were speaking Cantonese. We both reached the front of the line at the same time.
We handed our landing cards to the border guard. He turned them over to look at the Nationality on the back. “Ah, Australians,” he said, not unkindly. “Welcome to the United States.” And then he waved us through. I looked over to the family next to me and the mother looked worried.
“How much currency, in cash, are you bringing into the United States?” I heard the guard ask her abruptly. “Ma’am, I asked you a question.”
They were still talking as we walked away.
A few months later, I was standing on a train travelling 21 hours from Beijing to a province in the south of China, which bordered Vietnam. Yes – you read that right – standing. For 21 hours.
The section of the train we were standing in was next to the toilets, and the conductor’s office. It was also where the carriages joined together, which happened to double as the smoking section. It was as crowded as a subway train during peak hour. Every time someone wanted to use the bathroom, we all had to shuffle away so the door had room to open, and then shuffle back again. Thankfully, we managed to secure some sleeper seats in another part of the train about 3 hours in.
The next morning when the train was well on its way to our destination, I was sitting on the middle bunk on one side of a 6 bed cabin, when a conductor ushered an elderly couple onto the bed diagonally below me. They carried with them a large white hessian bag which had characters written in red – an old rice sack repurposed as a suitcase.
The old woman sat down and seemed out of breath, a little disorientated. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying but I gathered they had been standing for most of the journey and she was unwell. I sat quietly on my bunk, not wanting to disturb them, and hoping she was okay.
The atmosphere changed quickly. The woman collapsed, hitting her head against the table, her movements uncontrolled. Then her husband grabbed her arm but she tried to push him off and they struggled back and forth, violently. I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to help her or whether he was trying to hurt her. I had no idea what I should do – what I could do.
Two men sat on fold down seats, watching, saying nothing. One of the woman who worked on the train selling things came into the cabin to collect something. I tried to ask her what was happening and she told me the woman was crazy before she left. Three train guards walked by without saying anything.
I was immensely uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to climb down, to get out of there. Part of me felt like it was wrong to look away, to pretend that nothing was happening. But the thing that bothered me the most was how utterly powerless I was to help with anything.
Watching this old lady, her skin tanned and wrinkled, her clothes old and warm, her hands callused – I was struck by a sense of how little agency she had in her own life. If she was suffering from a mental illness, she was in a situation where she had little to no ability to seek adequate assistance with it, where she was ignored and stigmatized by others. If she was not truly crazy, as everyone seemed to presume, then she was unwell and someone was assaulting her.
Either way, I thought about how old she must be. About the age of my own grandmothers. About how she would have lived through a World War, the Communist Revolution, a period of immense famine during Mao’s collectivisation of China and the Cultural Revolution. And here she was on the other side of it.
It struck me then, all at once – perhaps because I felt powerless in that moment, when I was so used to having the ability to make choices about my life, to control the situations I experience. But for this woman I had the sense that may not have vastly been the case.
I could be wrong about all of it, of course. But even if I am, what I realised was that having the agency and the ability to make choices is a privilege.
As compassionate, empathetic people; as people engaged with the issues of injustice that face our world – we are quick to say that some circumstances disempower others. As a young person I belong in a culture which is ready to call out others, be it individuals who might make a comment which is racist or sexist online; organisations which do not engage in ethical practices, or governments which make laws we disagree with.
But are we so willing to call out ourselves?
Just as actively as people – especially people living in poverty, people from minority groups, women, children, migrants and refugees – find themselves actively disadvantaged and stripped of autonomy and opportunity; others – especially we as young Australians generally find ourselves with autonomy and opportunity to exercise choice. For me, this brings two obligations.
Firstly, that we are willing to acknowledge situations where unconsciously we are advantaged. That we do not blindly accept the way systems function simply because they are helping us. If something is designed so that I, as a middle class white Australian, am benefiting from it then it is not impossible to conclude that very same system disadvantages someone else by default. In that case, I have an obligation to realise that something which gives me a boost up by standing on someone else is not something which is helpful to society and not something which I am willing to justify.
For example – as a consumer, I am part of a system where businesses value my choices. What I consume and how I consume drives what they produce and supply. So I try wherever possible, to use my consumer privilege to ensure I am not using and buying products which have been made in unethical circumstances.
I am aware of the fact that there are companies which use forced and child labour to make their products. Just this year, Rip Curl was found to be using slave labour in North Korea. Coles and Woolworths had sourced their seafood from Thai companies using forced workers. If as a consumer, I still choose to consume these products then I am essentially justifying the actions of these companies. I am turning a blind eye to it because it has an advantage to me – it lets me consume the product I want.
That brings me to the second point – if our ability and freedom to exercise choice is not something available to a large number of people, then it is a privilege. And if our choice is a privilege, then it is vitally important that when we make choices they are considered, and where possible, for the benefit of others – specifically people who may not have the same privilege and freedom of choice we enjoy.
Making the choice to use only ethically made and sourced products for me is important because it lets me exercise an unconscious privilege that I have to choose a path which will have less negative impact on other people. It’s a great way to fight against a system which robs children of their childhoods; forces people to give up their ability to speak about poor working conditions out of fear. And, unlike when I was on that train – its something where I have the power to help.
– By Georgia Kalyniuk