To Give Or Not To Give…
My relationship with street beggars has hit an all-time low. Having a dead baby dropped in your lap while getting in a car at three in the morning will do that. That was the last thing I needed after a night of swilling thousand dollar bottles of champagne and sinking shots of 30 year old brandy with the decadent nouveaux-riche Shanghai set. From time to time the doors to our VIP room that opened out onto a private dance floor above the D.J were closed and lines of cocaine were racked up. The leggy models in their couture took turns at rubbing my hairy arms and grabbing tufts of hair from my 70’s disco chest, squealing with delight. I danced like a God overlooking the crushed hoards below. I have no problem being the token Westerner on such nights out. I was but a trophy guest and therefore the bills were not mine to pay. It was a very cheap night.
So why did I run the gauntlet of bedraggled and desperate street beggars between the club doors and her shiny black chauffeur-driven car without dropping a single coin? If I’d wanted to impress this diamond encrusted girl then a handful of coins would never suffice. Anything more would cause a riot. I did the gentlemanly thing and heroically fended off two sack-covered old women and an earnest street urchin clutching a handful of bent roses while the girl clambered, laughing into the backseat. Flapping my arms to swat away another wave of the desperate, I managed to squeeze in myself. My brand new girlfriend decided it was time to grab another handful of my chest hair before I could pull the door shut. If there is a ‘Saint of the Street-Beggars’ then she must have been watching. The next thing I know, Diamond Girl is screaming in horror at a floppy, purple baby that has just landed in my lap. I instinctively jump in shock and manage to catch the baby before it falls on the floor. Swathed in a dirty towel, it feels cold and slightly damp despite the balmy Shanghai night. I support its head and notice thick crusts of white mucus dried around its tiny nostrils and the corners of its mouth. It looks dead. It feels dead. Someone is grabbing at my shoulder, pulling at my shirt, crying in my ear. “Money,money, hello, hello.” The girl is still shrieking beside me and I thrust the baby out and am shouting myself. “Take it, take it! Get out! Bu Hau! Bu Hau!” I force the baby into the beggar’s arms and start pulling the door closed, jamming the beggar in as she refuses to pull back. “Money, money, hello, hello.” The driver starts to drive forward and I manage to squeeze her out. The door closes and we speed away. I slump back and the girl buries her head against my chest crying and apologizing for some reason. God damn beggar killed the mood.
It’s not always been this way between me and the street beggars. I used to be quite generous. But as time goes by and I see more and more of these unfortunates around the world I am becoming much more selective about to whom I give. There was a brief time when I first lived in London when I resolved to drop a coin for anyone who asked. That didn’t last long. But that was when I had never seen any really poor people before and the line “spare ya change, guv?” was quite endearing in a Dickensian kind of way. Cost me a small fortune. But I did become an avid collector, if not reader, of “The Big Issue,” which was often exchanged for a coin in the pretence that you weren’t just giving your money away. They blocked up the draughts in my flat fairly well during winter and I took my cue off of the street bums and used them to line my bed also. Perhaps if I hadn’t given so much money away in my first few weeks I could have afforded a woolen underlay.
I’ve always felt guilt when confronted by beggars. I suppose that is what they are banking on. This is especially the case when you are living or travelling in a foreign country. If you have enough to travel, then you have enough to save the local poor. But you can’t save everyone and therefore it is often easy to decide to save no one. Surely pumping money into the local economy through the goods and services received is good enough? But we know that this doesn’t really reach the truly poor so we are inclined to dig into our pockets and do our bit not only for the poor but more often for our bruised consciences.
These days I am more inclined to give money to the enterprising beggars. The blind old man that sits on a battered wooden stool playing the mandolin (quite badly) down the road from where I live gets a coin every now and then. Just a little further down the road there is an even older guy with eyes like a hawk who can spot a foreigner from forty yards. He starts shuffling towards you, rattling his tin cup, and pointing to the band-aid stuck on his face to try and elicit sympathy. He gets nothing. Nor does the old guy down at the Suzhou Railway Station who spends his days and nights hobbling up and down the taxi queue on one crooked crutch. As my Grandmother would say, he looks “in fine fettle” with a well tanned and healthy complexion, plump, rosy cheeks and an even plumper body. All he has to offer really is the crutch and a long, white, wizened beard. He tries to look mournful but his sparkling eyes betray him. I even took the time to learn the correct Chinese from the guy sitting next to me on the train ride to enable me to give this guy the message I’d been wanting to for a long time that went some thing like, “No chance, Sunshine. You look better fed than me.” I tried it out on him. First he pretended to be deaf and rattled his cup again. I repeated it much louder with my hand cupped against his ear. He shuffled away, gave me a wink and a deep chuckle. His open mouth gave me a view of better dentistry than mine. In the same queue I also turned down an amputee waggling his knee stump around, a blind women repetitively bowing and wailing, and declined the purchase of a map in Chinese from a fully hunchbacked woman with matching goiter. None of this lot met my criteria.
The thing that makes me really uncomfortable is when beggars rush to me as one of the very few foreigners in a crowd or a queue. What makes them think I have any more money than all of the wealthy Chinese around? There is no shortage of money in China right now. It is unevenly distributed of course, but everyone else who can afford a taxi can afford a spare coin. Is it my guilt that stands out? Or is it the collective memory of the discomfort of the constant stream of travelers who find it easier to drop a coin than come face to face with poverty and despair for more than a few seconds at a time? Make someone feel socially uncomfortable and they’ll do anything to escape. Coinage is an easy way out.
Aside from the dead baby throwing variety, there are two types of beggars that I will never give to. I particularly dislike the beggars that grab you or don’t take no for an answer and follow along tugging at you. There is no easy way of dealing with this without losing face. Shrugging or batting them away, or jerking your arm back makes you look like a violent asshole. Similarly, swearing and cursing makes you look like an intemperate asshole. The last thing you want is to make a scene in your denial of patronage. Most foreigners I have seen dealing with the grabbers just want to get away as fast as possible. This type of beggar knows this. They want to pester you until you relent. They want you to look foolish and uncomfortable. They want to do a deal; “You give me money and I’ll stop making you look like an asshole for not giving me money.”
The other group of beggars I won’t give to is children. Boo and hiss all you like but there is no way in hell that the children sent out onto the streets at night to get sympathy money are gaining anything from it. Adults take it all. I felt particularly affronted once in Siam Reap when a child of no more than five or six gave me the full range of pitiful, hungry histrionics. The sighing, moaning, rubbing of the belly and hand to mouth gestures nearly wore me down and if I had some spare change in my pocket at the time, this supposedly miserable and ravenous youngster probably would have received it. With the kid on my mind I ventured into a pizza restaurant and made the sacrifice of ordering just a half happy pizza with the other half free of nature’s good greenery. Before I lost my short term memory for the evening I took the weed free half outside in a takeaway box and found the poor little lad. I expected to feel good about myself as I envisioned him grabbing it gratefully from my hands and wolfing it down on the spot. I was disappointed. The ungrateful little shit tossed the food on the ground, stamped on it, spat at my feet and ran away with a stream of fairly raw expletives thrown over his shoulder in admirable English. Maybe I should have gotten rice?
No one does Asia without encountering beggars and this forces us to ask some fairly searching questions of ourselves. Do I give or don’t I give? If I don’t give, then why not? What kind of person does that make me? If I do give, then why am I giving? Is it to make me feel better about myself? Do I need to give to feel good? If you are like me and give some of the time, then under what criteria do you give?
There is no question that the poor need help. I just don’t like to be manipulated into giving it. When someone really needs your help it is obvious. The burns victim sitting silently in a doorway trying to sell plastic combs gets my money. The blind or disfigured musician gets my money. The guy dragging himself along on a piece of cardboard gets my money. The woman with the dead baby gets nothing. Either hiring a baby and drugging it or getting hold of a dead baby to attract sympathy is perhaps one of the lowest things a human can do. But then I don’t know what drove such a person to do such a thing. I don’t think I’ve been there.
In the tourist and central / downtown parts of Bangkok most of the beggars are "organised". Bangkok locals recognise the same beggars there month after month after month. It is a lifestyle choice and essentially is their job. I seldom give and when I do it is usually to a single older person. I never ever give to supposed mothers and babies – few are genuine.