Things Rich People Don’t Understand

By Natasha Op’t Land

You don’t know the smell of hand-me-down clothes, worn in and half a decade off-trend. They come in large plastic bags from older cousins, and we sit cross-legged sorting through them like it’s Christmas morning. Press them to your face, close your eyes, and you can tell which house they came from.

The harmonizing of five bodies breathing (or snoring) in the same room, some high, some deep, all rising and fallingtheir physical presence wraps around you like a blanket.

All the furniture in the house is painfully mismatched—some of it’s from the Salvos, or the side of the road, or a family friend. Combined with the clatter of differently sized knives, forks, plates, bowls and glasses, the house looks nothing like the ones in Better Homes and Gardens, but there’s something personal and loveable to be found in the mismatched details.  

As kids, we’d hang on the end of the shopping cart working numbers, running a mental total of today’s groceries, and another comparing which brand is better value per kilogram (it’s usually still the Homebrand, even if name brands are on special).

The driveway is dirt, or a cement slab, cracked with age and bulging under the pressure of thick tree roots. It’s adorned with chalk, or fingerpainted with water that evaporates in seconds under the summer heat.

You don’t know what it’s like to unwrap your food inside your backpack at recess, ashamed to show the Homebrand or Reject Shop packaging while your friends trade LCM bars and chocolate custard tubs (you’re starting to realize you’re different).

You don’t know what it’s like to crouch in front of the electric heater in the morning before school, pressed between your siblings (the house is always freezing in the morning). The way the linoleum peels at the edges of the room, the war against vermin, and the damp which creeps in.

The hoarding instinct. It’s woven deep into the tissues of your fingers, tying itself to junk you swear you might need one day. Mum calls it “The War Sickness,” inherited from our grandparents. It’s hard to out-grow.

You’ve never smiled and tried to swallow the jealousy at friends who show off their new Nintendo DS. (you didn’t ask Mum and Dad for one because you know the answer). Your friends sit in a circle playing for hours, and you pretend not to be watching over their shoulder.

You don’t know the fear of mufti days at school, when there isn’t anything nice to wear. Primary school children circle like sharks, “didn’t you wear that last time?”

You don’t know the indescribable delight of building toys out of rubbish and household items, and the way resourcefulness comes so easily to you.

You’ve never hand written your tech report, when everyone else’s is typed, or spent hours at the library computers next to the same greasy man (Murray) who’s always scrolling through soft porn.  

It’s a strange shift in awareness when you stop inviting friends over. You’re ashamed that your family is barely scraping by, and just starting to realize what poverty is. You have to choose between a birthday party or a present this year.

You’ve never been dragged along to a crisis organisation to get a box of food. You’ve never sat with your Mum as she cries because she could be homeless soon. Even though we don’t really understand, all of our foreheads wrinkle up and we cry too.

In many ways we were thrust into adulthood too young. Getting a job in fast food at the minimum legal age. The constant anxiety of our card declining at the checkout (even though we just checked the balance twice). The thousands of little class distinctions that we became acutely aware of.

You’ve never seen the pain in your parents’ eyes when they softly tell you “we can’t afford it,” or felt guilt in your own heart for asking. I didn’t realise until I became an adult myself. Of how little I actually felt the burden of poverty compared to them. In spite of how little money we had to spare, they gave us absolutely everything they could.