The sun was setting but she had one more thing to show me before I left.
The cement walls of the house were dull and kept the humidity in. The orange light rippled through the sheet hung over the bedroom door as she disappeared behind it. When she emerged, she carried in her wrinkled old hands a folded paper that contained a small cluster of US quarters, sporting a crowd of sleeping George Washington busts.
She sat on the bench and held them out. The deep grey roots of her hair gave her a kind of tiara, and her eyes were dark and entreating. I pulled out a 100 lempira bill and traded it for the quarters. A passing volunteer had paid for a bracelet and she didn’t know what to do with them. I told her it was no problem and left down the stairs. On the second step, it hit me in the dome:
20 US quarters was enough to support her for the next week.
I shook my head and moved on, but it got my gears turning. It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this little moment of epiphany.
A very distinct memory emerged of ordering a beer during a trip to the US, and as I wrapped my fingers around the cold glass, I realized that for the price of that beer, I could feed the four kids I had seen the day prior upon visiting a client. I knew them personally and could easily have just handed it to them instead. My chest seized a little and I quickly bummed everyone out.
After I counted the quarters in my pocket, I decided I had to figure this out; this had to be a psychological thing; there had to be name for this – a word that captured the feeling. To my dismay, trawling the depths of the internet brought up little rewards.
“Opportunity cost” was too business like. This was more emotional. Behavior economics wasn’t much better. It wasn’t just about the spending, but about the people. No one had a word for it. Reverse culture shock gave me a soap box, though..
In 1963, the Gullhard brothers published a landmark theory about the W adjustment curve that put the psychology of culture shock in a whole new light. The third step in this W theory was the decline upon returning to your own culture after living in another. In short, we get frustrated when we come back to our culture and forget how to act. Or – in many cases – mourn the consumerism and lack of purpose.
It isn’t exactly right, but it’s close. Without warning, we get thrown back into our US mindset, and it hits us just how much a dollar is worth. More powerful, though, is the realization of how much more we have compared to the people we work with.
If I liquidated all my checking and savings tomorrow, I could put a kid through university in Honduras. Better yet, I could buy a mini-bus and start a shuttle service to and from town, opening tons of opportunity for work.
Everything I have seems pointless, and everything I’m not giving seems arbitrary. That’s the feeling.
We obviously can’t do these things – we need our savings of course – because it’s not realistic. But there’s a reason that crude charity campaigns pitch it to us as ‘for just one dollar, you can feed a starving child’. They are trying to throw us into this state of shock. It’s more than a guilt trip, it’s a psychological upset about the chasm of a wealth gap, the wage gap, the inequality, privilege, all of it. It all hits us.
Thus, I’ve been referring to it in my head as the Quarters Effect. It doesn’t have a good chance of catching on, but it serves the purpose. The next time some minor currency exchange blows my top, I’ll remember the orange light in the bedroom door, the wrinkled old hands, and the small cluster of US quarters in a folded piece of paper.
I’ll remember this is a thing, and that it’s alright to get hit with it.