First World Problems (or, Between Worlds)

I’ve had bits of this post floating around in my head for a while. In the past couple of years there’s been a lot of talk and joking about “first world problems.” You know, like this:

It got me thinking about what exactly a first, second, and third world country is. First world is pretty easy: the countries that are economically and technologically advanced. I Googled to try to find out what the others are but didn’t have a whole lot of success. It’s easy to categorize the richest and poorest countries. But where does a place like Thailand fit? There are parts of the country that would definitely fit any definition of third world–small villages where hill tribes live in much the same way as they have for hundreds of years. There are other parts of the country–like Bangkok–that are nearly on par with any other major urban area (not quite, but not quite third-world either). I’d say that we live somewhere in the middle. Chiang Mai is a moderately-sized city of about 190,000 in the city itself, nearly a million if you include the surrounding developed areas. It’s an old city–established in 1296–and there are still visible remnants of those early days, especially down around the moat. Yes, there’s a real moat that surrounds the “old city,” and parts of the original city walls are still there too. But I digress. 🙂

Life in Chiang Mai doesn’t feel like what I would expect of a third world country. There is running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity in all but the poorest shacks. But it’s not first-world either: we can’t drink the tap water, and quite frankly the electrical system in my house terrifies me. We have a washing machine but no dryer except the sun (which is pretty efficient at this time of year). Dryers are available but not common and quite expensive. There is a building boom going on in Chiang Mai right now–condos, shopping malls, you name it. But the people building these luxury condos and shops often live in shacks. There is little to no oversight at these job sites, either. Just across the street from us a man was electrocuted and killed while building a house. I’m told it isn’t an unusual occurrence. Corruption is rampant, pollution is uncontrolled, driving is interesting to say the least, and yet… a lot of the time, living here isn’t all that different than our old life in the U.S. So where does Thailand fall on the spectrum of worlds? Developing, definitely. Different parts of the country are at different places along that spectrum, but it’s all still developing. 

But what got me thinking about all this today was food. When I look through my Facebook feed I see posts and links with information about paleo, vegan, vegetarian, whole-foods, raw foods, green smoothies, low-carb, all-organic, plus lists of “eat this or you’ll die,” and “don’t eat this or you’ll die.” I’m not going to argue for or against any of these, except to say that I would guess that much of the (third) world would be shocked to hear of people who can be so selective about what they choose to eat or to abstain from eating. Here in Chiang Mai with our western grocery stores, it would not be difficult to adopt some of these specialized diets (especially the variations on vegetarianism). When we were preparing to move here I was really excited about the prospect of fresh markets with inexpensive locally-grown produce, eggs, and other good things. But now that I’m here I’ve learned that the food in the markets isn’t necessarily the safest due to people using who knows what pesticides and other chemicals on it (see this article for more information). So now that my language skills are about to the point that I could shop in the fresh market if I wanted to, I still go to the western grocery store and I’m on the hunt for more places to buy organics. There’s a lot of produce in the grocery store labeled “pesticide safe” (see the article I linked to above) but with so much corruption here I don’t know if those labels actually mean anything. The article even says that buying organics can only make you “reasonably sure” that your food is pesticide-free.

So where am I going with all this? I’m not sure. I guess it’s just a snapshot of life as a first-world-native in a place that’s not first world, but not quite third world either. I still have my first-world tendencies to complain about petty inconveniences but I’d like to think that my perspective has changed at least a bit.