This past New Years I traveled with my brother and friends to Cambodia and saw something unexpected. I saw terribly poor families without clothing and without much shelter. Children played in the dirt streets without shoes because their feet grow too fast. They don’t require helmets for children under 16 because it’s too expensive to buy the new equipment. I saw another thing, strong families. I saw the mother and father together with the children and the grandparents in the same room. It was clear that the society we’ve created today lacks these strong survival bonds because economic power lets us transcend the shackles of responsibility to family. We can pay for the nurse for our ailing relative; we can have a nurse stop by to take care of mom or dad. In Cambodia, that’s not an option for these poor rural people; the family is the safety net.
As a child of immigrant parents, neither of whom graduated from high school, I have often wondered how it was possible that all six of their children graduated from college and earned advanced degrees from some of the best colleges in the country — Harvard, Brown, UC Berkeley, Cornell, Columbia, etc. It certainly wasn’t the public schools we attended. Most of the kids I went to school with in Brentwood, NY, a working class suburb in central Long Island, didn’t go to college at all. Those who did go on to higher education went either to a SUNY school — Albany, Buffalo, New Paltz — or to the local community college. The majority of my peers, however, were thrilled to find a good-paying union job at one of the psychiatric hospitals in the area or at the Entenmann’s factory for which our town was known. My siblings and I were the exceptions in a variety of ways. While my friends ate typical American food — McDonalds, meat ‘n potatoes, white Wonder bread — we ate the Caribbean food of our parents’ upbringing: rice and beans, curried chicken and goat, and only whole wheat bread (which, to my embarrassment, was used