The Relativity Of Discomfort

I was at the end of a three-person turnstile line when I heard the sharp sucking of teeth and multiple grunts of impatience behind me. It was my first subway ride and I wasn’t sure why people were getting agitated. Wouldn’t everyone’s turn come soon enough?

I wondered about this too when traffic stalled for a minute during one of my first car rides in New York, and the driver began to curse. Were we late for something? I didn’t think so, and the cars moved shortly after. New Yorkers, I concluded, were terrified of not being able to move forward.

I did not understand what seemed to be an enormous waste of energy in being so consumed by a few minutes’ delay. It wasn’t until a few years after I moved to the city that I understood that it was only because where I came from, discomfort was a way of life.

To me, a short line was a blessing and a minute-long stop on the street was the stuff of dreams. I had come from a busy city in a developing country where I sat in traffic for an hour each way during a two-hour commute to and from my job. I learned to be thankful for the length of my travel time because it allowed me to nap in between work and school and write analyses of the solitary hair stuck to the headrest of the seat beside me, on a bus that smelled of fruity chemical sprays, and whose seats didn’t have enough legroom for me to sit without raising my knees and spending the rest of the ride with my feet off the floor.

Still, the bus was air-conditioned and it passed many others that were not, whose passengers stood in the tropical heat and smog, the men with sweaty underarms and the women with floral handkerchiefs pressed against their noses and arms wrapped around their purses, wary of pickpockets and “snatchers” who would grab any shiny object anyone dared to wear in public.

I had a landmark on the road that prompted me to remove my watch and earrings and hide them alongside the phone I never exposed. In college, my mother urged me to hide my textbooks because the fact that I had them made me a target of kidnapping. I went to a decent university under the instruction of professors who studied in American Ivy League schools, but was run by a corrupt government system. In the ’90s, when a big typhoon hit my college town, running water was gone for weeks, and there was no electricity for months.

This meant a few things. First, the forty-person floor of my dorm that already shared just four toilets and four shower stalls now had to do so without water or power. In a few days the flies arrived and the human waste was layered in toilet paper like a coprophiliac’s lasagna. The rest of the students and I made do, pinching our noses and aiming our flashlights elsewhere when it came to toilet time. Water was rationed every few days but was only enough to flush toilets and fill a few buckets lying around. My parents bought me an industrial size water storage barrel that allowed me to shower with a dipper, but since there was no light, mosquito larvae began to live in the water. This didn’t stop my dormmates from secretly using my water at night.

The university was also not hindered from business as usual. They set up a grid of overhead wires in classrooms to hold a couple of lights connected to car batteries. In the years that followed, power failures were common and students were asked to bring flashlights or candles during tests. If the lights went off during midterms and you didn’t have a candle, sorry! Your essay would have to be written in the dark.

Throughout this ordeal (and for most of my pre-US life), nobody ever complained about things needing to be better.

But it was considered a national emergency in 2003 when the power went out for a few hours in New York City. I heard news choppers overhead as I searched the house for a candle, remembering the many nights my siblings and I made shadow figures on the walls during blackouts. When the lights went back on we would race each other to blow out all the candles in the house, screaming “Happy Birthday!” to each other, and then pretending to eat imaginary cake.

In my apartment building now, an hour without hot water is enough for mothers to begin mentioning their children’s health. I see the pain in the faces of people waiting in lines at grocery stores and pharmacies or in the mad mob of passengers waiting to board a rush hour train on the Lexington line. The tempers flare, the crazies come out, there is mention of important jobs to get to and a million things to be done.

I used to wish that everyone who made a career out of complaining be exposed to the other world I knew where nothing could be done about anything, and one turned blinders on just so they could go on with their day. As years passed I shut up about finding the joy in inconvenience and realized that nobody appreciated my candlelit shadow puppet stories when to most, a blackout meant TV shows would be missed and the icemaker wouldn’t be working.

Pretty soon the discontent that was once so foreign to me became familiar, and then eventually became my own. As I got used to a system that often responded  to public opinion, I became less and less used to imperfections and stopped making do with things being simply the way they are.

In a way it has helped me set higher standards for myself and, bittersweetly, greater expectations for the perpetually flawed country I left behind. Yet sometimes when I catch myself sighing about a delay announcement aboard a subway train, I wonder where all the gratitude went for moments that stopped me from my mad rush forward and forced me to be still. I think about the ignorance of being happy that I was stuck doing nothing, and the belief that nothing could ever be wrong with that. TC mark

image – Espos

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_EUL6B7WZUNAHGMO5KRCKZTGP54 Damen Handle

    “But it was considered a national emergency in 2003 when the power went out for a few hours in New York City”

    That’s because the power went out from Detroit all the way to Eastern Seaboard. It wasn’t just New York City. God.

    • Camilala

      I think that’s beside the point, or that you’re proving her point. It was a FEW hours. We’re so dependent on our resources that we’ve forgotten how fragile it all is, and how grateful we should be for what we do have…

    • douchegirl

      Either way. Few hours. There are places where power outages last days and even weeks. 

      GOD. 

  • http://twitter.com/steviekew Stevie Kew

    I love you for this article. I was lucky to grow up in rural Canada – three-day power outages not an uncommon or rare thing. Go to a big or even small-scale city and, like you said, an hour and the city is crumbling and crying. Feel proud knowing that you’ll survive “2012.” Seriously, kudos. This article is fantastic.

  • Uti

    did you apply to college with this or something

  • http://twitter.com/sodiumsepia Rick

    Gorgeous. We could all use perspective and gratitude.

    If only you had written it in a disaffected tone and included nonchalant references to drug soaked casual sex, the spoiled children of America might have even listened.

    • Kx

      hey man how hard do you suck your own dick on a given day

    • Guest

      okay, so what kind of child are you then? not spoiled? everyone living in a first world country is spoiled. shut the fuck up.

  • Guest

    waiting in line remains irritating

    • Guest

      unless you are waiting with someone FANCY!

  • Random

    This would have been totally awful if it weren’t for the part about how you are now one of the impatient and that you don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. God knows we need more articles about enjoying our McDonald’s because there are starving children in Africa.

    • Guest

      i would rather starve and die as a child than be forced to undergo genital mutilation and be raped constantly.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

      In the 1980s, some of Australia’s most isolated peoples made contact with those of the modern world. Some left the outback, a few of whom returned years later to escort their friends and family out of the bush. Upon seeing running water for the first time, the latecomers began attacking those who had left previously.

       Why?

      Because living in the wilderness is fucking hard.

  • Susiederkins

    This is how I feel when people complain about the heat. We all have A/C and running, sanitary, cold water. What is the problem? 

    Please don’t turn into a person that bitches and moans about naturally occurring instances like traffic and subway delays, especially if you chose to live in the city. 

  • Susiederkins

    And of course while I was busy complaining about people that complain I forgot to mention I was engrossed in this from start to finish. Nicely done. 

  • ASH

    “As years passed I shut up about finding the joy in inconvenience and realized that nobody appreciated my candlelit shadow puppet stories when to most, a blackout meant TV shows would be missed and the icemaker wouldn’t be working.” This is beautiful in its sad truth. Instant gratification is a bitch. 

    • Sophia

      This quote practically made me cry.

  • Guest

    the world is a vampire

  • Sophia

    This article practically made me cry. I hate thinking about how far the world is getting from what’s really important in life.

  • http://saltwatercoffee.wordpress.com/ Sara K

    This is beautiful. When I studied abroad in India, I had similar experiences- a few places we stayed at had no power/plumbing or access to clean water…one such place up in the hills at a ‘boarding school’ where rice and a practically lentil-less dahl were served as the only food breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a sticky floor crawling with ants nevertheless…slept for two nights in a molding hut with a broken window no power on a board with my belongings practically chained to me. The bathroom…oh God that’s a whole other story. But it definitely brought a different perspective on the meaning of discomfort

  • Heather Inca

    This piece made me think of DFW’s speech at Kenyon about empathy and gratitude, and it prompted me to read more of your stuff on TG. You are wonderful – please keep writing!

  • Hannah

    Which country did you leave?

    • Maeby Funke

      I’m inclined to think, Philippines.

      • Alice

        This definitely sounds like the Philippines.

      • Mary

        sounded similar to a place I lived in West Africa…

      • kathurrr

        she is from the Philippines :) click the author’s name and you’ll see she came from Manila :)

    • Camilala

      The fact that this question has to be raised shows how there are many, many places the author could have lived in and left, which is telling of how much of the world is and lives, and how maybe it’s Americans or New Yorkers that need to “progress” and not vice versa.

  • eff sox

    One of the best Thought Catalog articles I’ve read in a long time.  

  • Donnerunbaiser

    I think “In a few days the flies arrived and the human waste was layered in toilet paper like a coprophiliac’s lasagna.” is the most clever simile I’ve ever read.

  • Charles Reinhardt

    I think I’d like to write an article from the opposite perspective about how, compared to the other cities and countries where I’ve lived, New York seems like the Third World, and how bothered I am by everything I see while Americans keep telling me how lucky I am to be here.

  • madeline

    I loved this article. It’s real and a reminder of appreciating the little things cause when we’re busy making choices. that’s when life happens. 

  • kathurrr

    When I read the word “dipper” and “typhoon” – I knew you’r from the Philippines, as I am :)

  • oxoboxo

    Much respect. The stories I hear from my parents about Vietnam were very similar and it makes me try to take every discomfort here in America in stride

  • http://philippinesnonfiction.com/2013/04/05/the-relativity-of-discomfort/ The Relativity of Discomfort | Balikbayan Nonfiction

    […] This meant a few things. First, the forty-person floor of my dorm that already shared just four toilets and four shower stalls now had to do so without water or power. In a few days the flies arrived and the human waste was layered in toilet paper like a coprophiliac’s lasagna. The rest of the students and I made do, pinching our noses and aiming our flashlights elsewhere when it came to toilet time. Water was rationed every few days but was only enough to flush toilets and fill a few buckets lying around. My parents bought me an industrial size water storage barrel that allowed me to shower with a dipper, but since there was no light, mosquito larvae began to live in the water. This didn’t stop my dormmates from secretly using my water at night. […]

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