What to Do With Privileges

Food for Thought

This plate was $3. In Manhattan, I’m not sure how any business can survive by selling something like this for $3. I’m curious what the motivation of the owner is. If they catered to the average New Yorkers, they can easily double the price. At $3, it’s almost like community service for Chinese immigrant workers. Is that what they are thinking? Or, do they think they can’t attract non-Chinese customers? Or, perhaps, they hate dealing with non-Chinese customers so much that they would rather make much less money?

Every immigrant group in New York has unique limitations and opportunities that are not immediately clear to outsiders. When I started working in 1990, Japanese businesses were still doing well here, so I was able to get a job easily on Wall Street despite my degree in fine arts. I don’t think it’s possible now. People often talk about “white privilege” but, personally, I can’t complain because most of my college friends were white and struggled financially in their 20s. I never did.

When I walk around in Chinatown, I’m reminded of the huge disparity between the Chinese immigrants working at these restaurants and Japanese immigrants like me who got cushy jobs on Wall Street. The only difference is where we happen to be born.

I used to feel guilty about it. After I worked for a Japanese firm for 4 years, I got a new job without taking advantage of my Japaneseness. My substandard English became a handicap, but this actually made me feel better about myself as if I stopped cheating.

But there is something dishonest and delusional about compensating in this way too. It’s not like I leveled the playing field by refusing to exploit my Japanese connections. Far from it. I’m sure the idea is laughable from the point of view of those Chinese restaurant workers.

These days, I feel like everyone should simply do his best with whatever privileges he is given. Everyone in the US is privileged in one way or another. Trying to deliberately drag yourself down just so that you can fool yourself into believing that you are playing a fair game, is worse, I think, than taking advantage of the privileges you were given.