Once in a while, you come across a book that stays forever with you as if they have been imprinted on your brain. For me, the White Tiger was one of them. The White Tiger is a fiction novel written by an Indian author Aravind Adiga and it has recently been adapted to a film in January this year. The book mainly explores themes such as poverty and the caste system in India through Balram Halwai’s biographic letters to the Chinese Premier. Balram is a character initially born into a dire situation where he is forced to withdraw from school by his family and make a living at a young age. However, having known he outsmarts the rest, he decides to take drastic measures to escape the ‘rooster coop’, a metaphor for the poor who are trapped in the economic system to constantly work. The film is now called the “Indian Parasite.”
This story immediately resonated with me because I grew up witnessing what Balram had witnessed in the book. Indonesia, my second home, was a country where the rich and the poor were clearly divided like many Southeast Asian countries. When I first arrived, 6-year-old me felt an immense amount of guilt each time I looked out the window to see the Jakartan streets. There were kids painted in gold and silver, people with broken legs begging for money. On the other side of the society, however, was a completely different story. Without boring you readers with obvious details, one of my friends described his experience in Jakarta the best. It was “a heaven in the middle of nowhere.”
There are multiple reasons why a huge wealth gap is an issue in our society. First, brilliant ideas can be easily washed away because of a lack of safety nets. In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, acknowledged how much luck he had to be where he is today during his commencement speech at Harvard. He was lucky to not have to work for his family as a student. He was lucky he grew up where code learning was accessible. For those without such luxury, even if they had brilliant ideas like Zuckerberg did, those opportunities would have easily slipped away from their hands. And these brilliant ideas are eventually what can be life-changing for everyone in the society.
Having moved to Korea for university, I learned the inequality in wealth can be a matter of life and death to some. South Korea’s economic inequality is growing with those with less than 12 million income earners making 37.8 percent of the labor force while those who earn more than 100 million won only make up about 1.4 percent. Many of the population that makes up the poor are the youth, and they are left with no choice but to move their shelters to ‘Ji, Ok, Go’(Basement, Rooftop, and Goshiwon houses notorious for their poor living conditions) for cheaper rental fees. Unironically, South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates due to poverty despite the glory of Hallyu and K-Pop portrayed on the media. The government launched a ‘Happy House’ project that lends apartments to people under 35 at a cheap price, but this is only a temporary solution for the lease is temporary and the competition rate is intense, often easily exceeding 0.02 percent.
Widening wealth gap also instills the idea that no matter how hardworking one becomes, they might never be able to escape the 9 to 6 lifestyle and pursue their true passion. Consequently, being a civil servant has become a popular choice for jobs among elementary students and officially in 2021, the country has the lowest birth rate of 0.84 percent when the world average is around 2.4.
The title of the book, the White Tiger, is a tiger born only once in a century. It symbolizes rarity, someone who attempts to escape the injustice of poverty when the rest are not even aware of their situation. In the past when there was an economic boom and industries were ever- growing, White Tigers lived to thrive. However, this generation makes us wonder, can the White Tiger survive in the 21st century where there is barely a social ladder to climb and even those that are left are broken or banned? And if society keeps losing these White Tigers, what consequences will we suffer?