Monday, February 15, 2016

Why I hate the term "third world"?

I know that hate is a strong word. However, that is the best word to describe what I feel when I hear the term "third world". It feels like a racial slur to my ears. It sends spiders crawling up my spine every time I hear it.
The three worlds
Many people who use the term, do not even know what it is supposed to mean.  The term originated from the cold war era, when the West was called the first world, the communist bloc was the second and the countries that remained neutral and did not align with either side was referred to as the third world.

Most people that use the term today have no idea about the history of the term. In their mind, the term represents a metaphor for a poverty stricken, disease ridden, unhygienic, under developed parts of the world, which do not have the "amenities" that they take for granted in their world. It is an easy way to paint a picture of all those unpleasant things that you don't want to mention but you want other people to understand.

Inherently, to the people that don't know the history of the term, the term means under development and something that is not just different but beneath what they expect to be the "standard" for living. They do not mean it as insult but they do wish that the 'third' world and all the people who live there would be better off if they lived in the 'first' world, like them.

I grew up in India and I have never heard the term being used when I was there. I have read about it in history books. I have heard the more politically correct term 'developing world' but the terms  'underdeveloped world' or 'third world' was strictly out of the vocabulary.

Since I have moved out of India, I hear the word being used more often. I have had people (in a very nice way) ask me how I feel having left a third world country behind (implying, how I am enjoying the privileges of the first world). Well, what do I say? India is the 'first' world that I knew. I enjoyed every moment of my life there, as I enjoy my life now. It was very different but definitely wasn't the dismal 'third' world that people imagine. It was a place full of hope, charm and life. The sights and sounds that come to my mind when I think of my 'first' world are very different to what someone who sees it as a 'third' world might perceive. I don't see slums, hear car horns and smell sewers. My 'first' world has the tallest mountains in the world and the lushest green paddy fields that feed over a billion people. I hear the sophistication of Carnatic music battling with the catchy beats of movie music for my ear space. I smell the bats that have lived for centuries in ancient granite temples and the fragrance of the ghee that my grandmother pours into the sweets that she makes with love. It's all in the perspective. How do I explain what might take a million words to explain to someone who has a pretty clear idea of what it is that they see when they say 'third world'?

Development is a matter of perspective. What the third world lacks in terms of amenities, it make sup for in history, culture, values, tradition and spirit. To all my western friends I say humbly, please leave that word out of your vocabulary. It hurts me to know that you think that the world that has made me the person I am today (my pseudo mother so to speak) is beneath some arbitrary standard set by the West.

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