I don’t know if I think about money more than other people, but I think about money a lot. I don’t worry about money; at least, not anymore. I think about the impact that money has on people’s lives, the privileges that it affords, the opportunities that it creates, the frustrations and deprivations that it causes when there’s not enough. I think about people who have never known financial security and never will, and I think about people who have never known anything but comfort and luxury. Maybe I think about these things a lot because I’ve experienced, to a certain degree, both sides of the coin. Not in any extreme way like being a destitute prostitute and then getting picked up by Richard Gere in a sports car. But I know what it feels like to be frustrated and angry about never having any money, to be ashamed of my clothes, to be embarrassed about not being able to do normal things that other people take for granted. My parents did the best they could with the tools they had, but they were often ill-equipped to navigate the difficulties of raising a family in a foreign country, culture, and society. As first generation immigrants, among hundreds of thousands of boat refugees who fled Vietnam in the aftermath of war, they barely spoke English and were relegated to menial, low-wage jobs. And it didn’t help matters that they seemed to hate each other. By the time I finished eighth grade we had bounced around a couple of battered women’s shelters and my mom decided she needed to put some real distance between herself and my father. Less than 24 hours after announcing that she was leaving my father (again), our worldly possessions were stuffed into a cardboard box and a couple of trash bags and our newly single parent household was on a Greyhound bus headed to Lynchburg, Virginia. I didn’t mind living at a battered women’s shelter as much as I minded living out of a cardboard box and a couple of trash bags. Sure there are more important things than worrying about your clothes or appearance, but for a self-conscious 13-year-old starting high school in a new city, a severely limited wardrobe, broken eye glasses, a generic brand backpack and cheap shoes were a daily source of mortification.
Our financial situation improved when my parents got back together and my mom opened her own nail salon. During my sophomore year of high school I got a part time job at a local pharmacy and saved to buy my first car. Still, money was always a concern. From a very young age my parents had instilled a deep anxiety about money — how it was earned, spent, or wasted. I worried about bills long before I ever became responsible for paying them. I dealt with banks, credit card companies, and debt collectors on my parents’ behalf, serving as interpreter and translator, applying for loans or pleading to have loans refinanced, negotiating longer repayment terms or reduced fees, haggling for lower interest rates. If a financial institution didn’t treat my father fairly or give him the result he wanted, I would get yelled at. I dated much older guys and worried about their finances too. Money was always the source of stress and unhappiness, and it made my parents wretched and miserly. I remember my dad screaming at me for wasting too many stamps on my college applications.
I hated being stingy, but couldn’t afford to be any other way. I used to cringe at so many memories involving money or lack of money, like the time I went on a road trip with friends over a long weekend during college spring break. At meals I always ordered the cheapest item on the menu but the group always divvied up the check equally. After this happened a few times, I pretended I wasn’t hungry so I could opt out of the meal entirely. I sat at the restaurant table with my eyes averted, trying to avoid watching people eat as I silently fumed. I was angry and hurt that my friends didn’t realize I couldn’t afford to subsidize their meals, and humiliated for being so petty. I was very conscious of prices, taxes and tip, never bought anything full price if I could help it, vigilantly watched every penny as it was coming and going. On more than a few occasions I had been absolutely devastated by minor financial setbacks. I think my hypersensitivity about money was one of the commonalities that attracted me to Tom. He grew up with even less money than I had and was, consequently, even stingier. We had the same socio-economic value system.
Fast forward to the post-law school, double-income phase of married life, and I can hardly recognize myself. I buy whatever I want at the grocery store, usually opting for the higher-priced, better quality produce. I order whatever I want on the menu; sometimes I forget to look at prices at all. And although I haven’t completely abandoned my frugal roots in favor of unbridled extravagance, when I think about where we started, our lifestyle feels relatively extravagant. I marvel at how freely we spend. Money is no longer a source of stress or resentment, but a source of endless opportunity and enjoyment. We get to do things now that I never would have dreamed of as a child. I’m not only talking about big splurges like a Disney cruise vacation, but little indulgences like a carousel ride at the mall. I remember taking my kids to the local outlet mall and they lit up at the sight of the merry-go-round in the center pavilion. They begged to ride on the embellished plastic ponies, and I happily complied, waiting by the gate with a Wetzel’s pretzel in hand for them to enjoy as soon as they disembarked. As I watched their delighted faces, it occurred to me that this scenario had never happened, could never have happened, in my own childhood. The carousel ride costed $2 per child, and the pretzel costed almost $4. I calculated that I was paying approximately $1 per minute of enjoyment. $8 was nothing; I could spend it without hesitation. But not without some contemplation about how my mother never would have dared spend such a sum on such a frivolous diversion. Not because she didn’t want to, but because it was beyond the realm of possibility. $8 would have put such a dent in her budget that it would have been unfathomable to waste it on a two minute ride and a bite to eat. She was already wringing her hands and tearing out her hair over how to feed and clothe a family of five on the meager allowance that my father doled out each week; non-essential purchases were out of the question.
A Disney cruise has to be the epitome of non-essential purchases, especially for people who don’t particularly enjoy cruising. This wasn’t even the first cruise that my kids have been on; we’d taken them on a Princess cruise just a couple of years earlier. But we wanted to try the Disney experience, and were willing to pay the premium associated with creating magical childhood memories. Not that I’m knocking Disney in any way whatsoever — I’m impressed by the company, the brand, and the business model. As far as the cruising experience goes, Disney does a fantastic job. Our kids didn’t want to leave the ship when it was over. But the same could be said about the park playground, the beach, or their grandmother’s iPad. Kids manage to have fun doing almost anything, which makes me question why people, ourselves included, are always bending over backwards to create memorable and fun-filled experiences for their children? I find that I’m willing to pay ungodly sums of money in furtherance of my children’s happiness, when their happiness actually can be bought very cheaply. It doesn’t take much to elicit squeals of joy; they are just as happy splashing around in a public water fountain as they are playing on an exclusive private beach in the Caribbean. But because we have more money than our parents ever dreamed of having, we feel compelled to buy experiences that we never had access to as children. For example, out of the numerous port excursions advertised by Disney for our island stop at St. Thomas, I booked what I thought it would be the most enjoyable, worthwhile experience for my kids — the dolphin encounter — despite having serious misgivings about animal-related activities in general.
When the kids were very young, we took them to see a traveling circus show that had come to town. After seeing majestic jungle animals reduced to a state of pitiful subjugation, we swore we would never take them to the circus again. Then we saw the documentary Blackfish, about the living conditions of captive killer whales who are forced to perform the same routine for audiences over and over again, day after day for years, and swore we would never patronize Sea World or similar establishments. When I was researching tours for our sojourn in Thailand, I ruled out any tours involving trained elephants or other wild animals after reading about the cruelties perpetrated on these animals for the tourism industry. At the time I booked the dolphin encounter through Disney’s online reservation system, I hadn’t seen any literature specifically addressing the treatment of captive dolphins, which now, in retrospect, seems incredibly naive and possibly willfully ignorant. Of course there’s tons of literature out there and shortly after booking the reservation, I stumbled across an article describing the inhumane conditions imposed on dolphins in captivity, specifically for and because of the ever-expanding cruise ship industry. The article attacked the very activity that we had signed up to do — “swimming with the dolphins” — and laid out all of the horrible consequences inflicted on the animals themselves as well as the marine ecosystem because of our desire to be amused and entertained by these beautiful creatures. Tom readily agreed that we needed to cancel our reservation, but I procrastinated. I procrastinated until it was too late to get a refund, and considering the fact that the dolphin encounter was by far the most expensive port excursion at St. Thomas, it was highly uncharacteristic of me to miss an opportunity to get my money back. It was paid for, and we had to go. We couldn’t let the money go to waste. But if I was being really honest, I might have secretly promised myself that this would be the last time we would actively, consciously participate in the inhumane exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes. If I was being really honest with myself, I would have to acknowledge that for selfish reasons I wanted my children to have this experience, and I was willing to pay the price for it — both economic and ecological (not to mention the bad karma we were generating). I knew that this being a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us wasn’t any kind of justification, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for countless other tourists but a daily, endless reiteration of monotonous tasks for the dolphins, who were confined to a tiny fraction of the swimming space afforded by their natural habitat. Dolphins are more intelligent than dogs, and if people wouldn’t subject their dogs to such a lifestyle, why is it acceptable to subject these wild animals to a demeaning, ruinous existence? I never would have had to ask myself these questions if I had remained poor. If my children were raised in the same income bracket in which I had been raised, we never would have been confronted with complicated and guilt-laden choices about which port excursions would be most environmentally conscious and socially responsible. There was no way in hell we would have gotten on a Disney cruise ship in the first place.
There are so many reasons and so many ways to feel guilty on a Disney cruise ship. You can feel guilty for drinking too much. Or eating too much at the buffet. Or wasting food from the buffet. But mostly I felt guilty about the workers, who came from all over the world to serve our drinks and food, to clean our cabin bathroom, and to generally make us feel pampered and privileged. I can’t and don’t criticize Disney for providing employment to so many people. From what I can tell it’s well-paid employment that’s the optimal choice for many people to support their families, travel to exotic locations, and meet people from various cultures. But there’s always the discomfort of recognizing your own privilege when having an experience that your money provided access to, and being confronted by those who reinforce, and who actually carry out and administer the benefits of, your privilege, but who don’t have the same kind of money or access. Maybe we’re all on the same boat literally but we’re definitely not in the same boat. I’m there on vacation, to have my children entertained and cared for while I gorge myself. The employees are there to entertain and care for my children and to enable me to gorge myself with maximum comfort and efficiency. Who knows, maybe some of the employees are similarly situated as me and enjoy lavish family vacations on a regular basis. I doubt that’s true for the majority of the employees, however. I don’t feel guilty for enjoying a vacation that we paid for with money we earned, but I do think about the circumstances that bring people together and define their respective positions. We learned from one of our servers, a lovely woman from Peru named Mindrad, that employees sign six month contracts with Disney and work every day. That means they’re on the cruise ship for six consecutive months without a single day off and don’t see their families and loved ones during that entire time. Mindrad has a degree in child psychology but serving wine and busing tables on a Disney cruise ship turned out to be the best way for her to support her family, including an eight year old son that she doesn’t see for six month periods. I can’t help but compare her situation to my own. I don’t know how much Disney pays but I’m pretty sure being a partner at a law firm pays more. It still wasn’t worth it to me to spend so much of my time away from my children, even though I saw them every day. I quit my job because spending a few hours each week and most weekends with my children was deemed intolerable. I couldn’t imagine being away from them for six months at a time. I’m not making any value judgments, only observing that my options are far different from Mindrad’s. I have the privilege of choosing to work or walking away from a lucrative career to spend more time with my family. Mindrad is being the best mother she knows how to be by working ceaselessly for six month stretches so she can provide an education for her son. We both made what we deemed to be the best decision for our families, but the selections from which we had to choose were very different from one another.
The concept of workers who are paid to cater to tourists doesn’t bother me as much as the behaviors incentivized by a discretionary tipping policy. How workers earn their tips reminds me of how dolphins must perform in order to earn their fish, as insulting as the analogy sounds. Disney’s employees are well-trained to provide excellent customer service. Inquire enough times how the guests are enjoying their vacation, feign enough interest in which excursions and activities the guests participated, call each little girl “princess” X number of times, perform magic tricks Y number of times, and you will be rewarded with big tips, gushing reviews, occupational advancement. Let guests rub your belly, pose for pictures of guests kissing your beak, prop up guests with your fins as they slice through the water, and you will be rewarded with fish. It’s not a perfect analogy because humans are humans and dolphins are dolphins, but one can’t get away from the feeling that neither the humans nor the dolphins would be exhibiting these behaviors without the expenditure of large sums of money and the privileges that it buys. There is a price you can pay to have people pretend to care about how you spend your day, just as there is a price you can pay to force a dolphin to perform tricks that would otherwise be against its nature.
As I said, the analogy isn’t perfect because presumably (hopefully) humans exercise some degree of self-determination and free will. And it’s not meant to be insulting but rather to illustrate how the experience of privilege can be uncomfortable, even distasteful. I’m not saying that people should feel guilty for enjoying the fruits of their labor, but I do believe that people, particularly those who have access to a disproportionate share of wealth and hence a disproportionate share of privilege, power, and opportunity, have a responsibility to stop and think about the consequences of their actions and choices, and to consider how those consequences affect the global community in which we all participate and the resources that we share (and compete for). Anything and everything, even something as seemingly innocuous as a family vacation aboard a Disney cruise ship, has economic and environmental repercussions beyond the memories we create for our nuclear family.
I’m aware that my moral code is not very consistent. I boycott circuses but take my children to the zoo. I find captive marine mammals troubling but continue to eat meat knowing the inhumane ways animals are raised and slaughtered for human consumption. I’m very far from reconciling my actions and lifestyle to my moralistic aspirations; maybe I never will. For now I strive to be thoughtful and deliberate about the choices I make and hope to encourage others to do the same.
Here is a link to our Disney cruise photo album containing obligatory images of a happy family having fun in the sun, but which belies all the hand-wringing and second-guessing underlying the decisions that brought us to that point in our lives, a moment in time filled with joy, gratitude, reflection, guilt, love, all the things — good and bad — that make us who we are.
We don’t have any photos of our dolphin encounter; they were too expensive.