It Comes Around
There are two sides to every coin, yet most people I know only want to talk about one side of the coin we call charity. Why is that? Are we ashamed or embarrassed to admit we’ve ever been on the receiving end? I learned about charity before I even knew what charity was about and the person who taught me set the stage for the rest of my life on this subject. Can you imagine growing up in a very rich town, nice home in an upper class neighborhood, nice schools, upper class friends, and then one day it’s gone? The modern miracle of divorce made it possible for my family. Growing up in Santa Monica was a dream in many ways, a beach town next door to Malibu, Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Pacific Palisades, there might not be a better place in the world to be a young kid. My Father was a carpenter and worked long hard hours to buy a small two bedroom Spanish stucco in an area called “north of Montana” which basically was the best part of a very rich town. Before I was eight it ended. I once made a comment that the best part about boot camp was the food, I couldn’t believe they gave me all I could eat in five minutes three times a day. It was the first time in over ten years I wasn’t hungry on a daily basis.
My “charity mentor” was my best friend’s mom. They owned a seafood restaurant at the local pier and even though they appeared to ‘have it made’ they worked the long hours necessary to run a restaurant. She never just ‘gave’ me anything, but she was always coming up with odd jobs I could do to earn things like my best friends old shoes which through the miracles of charity were never really old. I’m certain she’d replace his shoes far before they showed any wear just to make sure I’d have nice shoes to wear. When she took her son to Disneyland she’d offer to take me and give me some jobs to do so I could buy my ticket and have money for some food. This went on for a few years in many ways, earn and receive, and helped teach me about working for a living. By the time I was eleven I was working over 50+ hours a week in their restaurant and from then on always had enough money for the necessities. If I didn’t work hard she’d let me know and dock my pay, if I put in the hours and hard work she’d reward me. It never felt like I was getting something for nothing, yet I was her charity case.
Pushing his shopping cart past the restaurant was an old bald man with huge ears and he was always talking to himself. When the kids ganged up on him to tease him he’d scream “funny man, I’m just a funny man” until they left him alone. Twice a day he’s push his cart past the restaurant window on his rounds and at least once a day someone would do something mean spirited to him. One day it occurred to me that this man who lived on the streets might be cold and hungry and it bothered me that I’d been watching him for years and never thought about this before. Now a teenager I’d find a way several times a season to catch a ride up to Mammoth Mountain to ski for the weekend and I suppose the reason his plight finally occurred to me is because I’d saved all summer for a ski jacket and I was sitting outside the restaurant in the cold wind on the pier “testing” my new jacket to see how well it worked and he pushed his cart past me shivering in short sleeves. Without thinking much I took off my new jacket and ran up to him shoved the jacket into his shopping cart and then went back inside the restaurant. My friend’s mom was watching me and I expected an earful about him not earning it but she didn’t say a word. The next morning I was watching for the Funny Man hoping to see him wearing the jacket I gave him and was surprised to see him wearing a jacket, but an old frayed jacket with feathers coming out of it all dirty and greasy. Looking closer it appeared to be the new jacket I gave him, but much the worse for wear.
Feeling a hand on my shoulder I knew it was time for a lecture and sitting down with some cups of clam chowder she told me the man’s story. Years ago he was the most famous lawyer in all of Los Angeles. He defended a murder suspect and got him off free believing the man was innocent. The first night free the man went into a family’s home and murdered the entire family including the children. Funny Man walked out of his prestigious law office that day and never went back to his home, his practice, or family. From that point on he wandered the streets as a homeless person despite having significant money in the bank. This kind of person she told me wasn’t mentally able to work and take care of himself so the local merchants made sure he had food and whatever care they could provide. She thought it was a nice gesture to give him my new jacket, but explained if he wore a new jacket them the other bums would beat him up and take it.. so he probably beat it up really good to make it look old so it was safe to wear. I think I was 14 then and I’d just learned there was a difference between those who could help themselves and those others must help take care of. It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that I was one of the ones being taught to help themselves and she was my teacher. Some of you wondered why I’d go to such lengths to encourage my best friend Danny to come to Thailand and help him during a bad time of his life. Danny’s mom was my teacher and my employer and a great friend. She also taught me to repay my debts.
Since these times I’ve been all over the world and seen abject poverty up close and personal. I’ve spent time in refugee camps on the Thai/Lao borders, medical camps in several places in Africa, and much more. I’ve learned that what we call poverty in the states could be someone else’s luxury. Someone once told me poverty is a state of mind, a perspective. Perhaps, but poverty can also mean not enough food to keep your kids alive through the winter, no medical care for the HIV cocktails to keep you alive, and no hope of any kind in the future.
We’ve all walked down the streets of Bangkok and seen the dirty disabled crawling on the ground begging from the tourists and we’ve all been told these people work for the street mafia and don’t get to keep what they’re given. We’ve heard of the small children snatched off the streets and put to work begging, sometimes after having a limb chopped of to garner more sympathy and earnings. Stopping at any number of intersections in Bangkok or anywhere in SE Asia we’ve seen the small children running between the lines of cars selling religious charms and flowers, and most of us are so hardened by these sights that we just stare ahead and avoid eye contact as they move past us to the next car looking for a sale. When you’re a young boy and only exposed to the occasional hardship like Funny Man it seems there is much you can do to make the world a better place, but as a man and faced with poverty on such a large scale we wonder if there’s anything we can do to make any difference at all..
My friend’s mom told me we can’t help everyone, but we can pick those we can and do what we’re able. She told me if everyone who was capable made it a habit to always help someone, then everyone would be cared for. Was she right? Or do we just have a world full of people not doing what they can? What can we do? I think this is highly individualistic. It’s like exercise, not everyone likes jogging or stair steppers so we find something we enjoy doing, something our bodies are capable of, and then we do it. Charity can be like this. Some people find it fits to send in a yearly check to their favorite charity and this is great, some get involved with their local chapters of Meals on Wheels Good Will. Some travel great distances to work overseas in the many camps and aid stations and yet others take on personal projects.
My habit is personal projects. I operate on a few premises. First, I have to accept I can’t save the world by myself so I’m able to travel and observe poverty without becoming dysfunctional from guilt. Second, if I can help someone become like myself then in the future I’ll know I helped start in motion help to many more people than I could have otherwise. Third, I have to enjoy it or I won’t do it. I’ll share one of my projects with you.
It was my first trip to Thailand this decade and I was by myself and having some difficulty finding all the places I needed to be to get signed up in my MBA program. It was a hot day and I was sitting outside Pantip Plaza more than a bit discouraged when I spotted a very young girl dirty and disheveled. Approaching her I was surprised to find she knew a fair amount of English learned from books and television. She had been sent to Bangkok from the north to make it on her own and at this particular junction of her life hadn’t eaten in days or slept under cover for longer. Too young to be hired to a legit position the only “jobs” available to her were as an underage sex worker in one the many different venues the city offers. I didn’t know these things right away but I did know something wasn’t right and that I wanted to do something about it. Knowing it would take a great amount of trust on her part I offered to hire her to help me during the month I was in Bangkok and on the spot I took her back to my place, made sure she had clothes and food, and set about teaching her to take care of herself. In return she helped me learn Thai and to take care of my business locally. I never treated her like a maid or asked her to do household chores, I had a maid already and if I ever expected her to grow beyond a maid then I certainly couldn’t expect her to be one. By the end of my 30 days I knew I’d be back inside of a few months so I arranged for her to keep working for me while I was gone taking care of my place and make some arrangements for me. During the next few years we became great friends, she attended the university and earned her degree, worked several jobs where she could use/improve her English, and not so long ago married a professional man her own age and is now living in a western country studying for her masters in yet another language. If you met her today you’d immediately be impressed by her stunning looks, excellent English, and “power suit” demeanor and immediately start thinking how you could use such an impressive young woman in your own company. She’s one of three projects I’ve taken on in the last 7-8 years and when I stop and think what her life would have been like if we hadn’t met that day it renews my belief that one person can really make a difference.
We can all come up with ways to help others that wouldn’t seriously distract from our normal lives and that’s really the point, it’s not necessary to do what anyone else is doing or the television is asking you to do, its only necessary to do something that you enjoy and can feel good about. Something that makes a difference in another persons life. During this time I’ve also worked in a AIDS hospice here in Thailand, visited and worked in refugee camps along the Thai/Lao border, and some other small temporary things that caught my interest for one reason or the other. I’ve often observed other westerners “giving” to the local beggars and been the subject of their hard stares as I’ve walked by without giving a baht and sometimes wondered if a few baht to beggars is all they ever do, or do some take on bigger projects?
Those of you who are perhaps a bit offended by the beggars and poor in Thailand might be even more offended by the hoards of children following you around in the hope you’ll buy something from them in Cambodia, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia and even Mexico. By comparison Thailand has few beggars. If you compare the way even the poorest Thais live to those on the dark continent you’ll soon see Thai’s live very well indeed. Some can be attributed to natural resources as “living off the land” is still a reality for many, some to gifts of aid, but most to a national attitude. Thais know they don’t have much money or material things, but don’t ever tell one they’re poor.
A few days ago a man I’ve met twice was in my home. Both times I’ve met him he was part of the air conditioning team sent here to service my AC units. The first time we chatted and he caught me staring at his bare feet which were very dirty and matched his clothes and he bluntly asked me what I thought of “class?” I told him I understood how the Thai people had big distinctions in class often separated by money, social position, and education but that in the west we were different. In the west I told him class has much more to do with being honest, working hard, accepting responsibility and treating your fellow man with kindness and compassion. As I said it I was thinking how in the west money and social position really do equate to class, at least class as the rich and connected like to see it. Still, I believe “class” more than anything else is a state of mind, a perspective, and your behavior is what sets you a part from others in a different class. A year ago when I told him this I really didn’t think he’d give it a second thought, but from the moment he walked in the door this year and we recognized each other he started talking and telling me how he’d “moved up” in class and how much better it’s made his life.
“How has it made your life better?” I asked. He told me that last year he was just starting the job and was the low man on the team, but this year he was the lead technician and made 4-5 times more money than before. He said it happened after his boss noticed he was honest, showed up for work on time, and accepting responsibility for getting the job done even if he had to stay late or come in on his day off. Motioning to two new men on ‘his’ team he told me he teaches them the same things I told him and they’re quickly moving up the ladder and will soon have their own teams. I’m thinking ‘what luck’ this young man has to have found a Thai boss who values these traits when he asked me: “Can you tell I’ve moved up in class since last year?” His feet were still dirty and his clothes torn, but the look of pride and accomplishment on his face couldn’t be missed and there he was teaching what he’d learned to others and was helping to bring them along. Without breaking his gaze I smiled and shook my head up and down and told him someone would have to be blind to not notice that he’d increased his “class” significantly. Perhaps we’ll meet again next year when it’s time to have the AC units serviced.
Until next time..
I like the subject of charity. For a while I did what could be termed charity work here. It was fun and showed me another side of Thailand, one I had never seen before. It did eventually become too much and with such a hectic schedule I had to give it away.
One thing I will say about charity in Thailand is being aware of what you throw out. There are scavengers out there who get by by collecting discarded cans as well as plastic and glass bottles. And when it comes to old clothes, what you are about to throw out would be quite happily worn by many poorer people in the countryside. Being judicious about what you discard can make a small different to people's lives.
I remember an old buddy who had an bed quilt to get rid of. He went and gave it to the local guy who slept under the bridge – and the guy was thrilled!