Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Art of Dealing with Begging

One thing I don’t think I’ve discussed too much on my blog, except for the orphanage entry, is the poverty here. Specifically, I wanted to share about beggars in this post.

It’s no surprise in a big city like HCMC and in a poor country like Vietnam, that there are many beggars. I would say being a pedestrian in this city, I encounter beggars on a daily basis. I think there are more beggars here than back home; however, it’s hard to say considering that most of the time I drove to and back from work and so would never encounter any beggars.

There are many types of beggars here in Vietnam: kids, mothers holding their babies, war veterans (I’m assuming) missing some limbs and very old people. Some of them actually don’t beg, but try to provide a “service” like selling gum or lottery tickets, or offering shoe shines (even if you’re wearing sandals).

I never give money to beggars. I don’t want to excuse it but I have a few reasons, that are mainly relevant back home. One reason is that beggars will use money for drugs and liquor. Second, is that I’d rather give money to a charity and ensure my money will help them. Third, some do take advantage of it, like the old lady in Toronto who went home to top of the line electronics because she made so much money begging.

So I’ve pretty much been following this “policy” about not giving here also. Now don’t think I don’t feel bad. I am Catholic and we’re good at feeling guilty. One of my other thoughts here is that there are so many beggars that I can’t give money to everyone!

The Lonely Plant had a pretty ridiculous cautionary tale about giving money to beggars. The gist of it is that one homeless boy was so good at begging, having learned English to charm tourists, that he would receive large amounts of money. Not being educated and living on the streets, he used this money and became a heroine addict. This is not where the tale ends… he caught HIV and finally died of AIDS.

I don’t actually believe giving money to beggars will lead down this extreme path. I’ve just been used to not giving money. I’ve noticed most tourists have the same attitude. Some have even worst attitudes. The Boyfriend was very angry when he saw a tourist taking a photograph of a blind old lady, sitting on the streets begging, as if that wasn’t demeaning enough. You don’t want to know the names he called her! (BTW, The Boyfriend doesn’t follow my policy and has given to this blind lady.)

A few weeks ago, I went to the pastry vendor around the corner for some goodies. When people buy something, it’s prime time for beggars since your wallet is already open. A man came and asked for money, and another customer gave him some. I wanted to ask him if he wanted food, but I was too shy. He then turned to me and said “Look, I don’t have legs. (Yes, I noticed…) I wouldn’t be begging if I didn’t have to.” And that’s when I realized it must be true and gave him some money.

Last week, I was buying my weekly sau rieng (durian) across the street from our alleyway. While the vendor was cutting my fruit a young girl about ten tried to sell me gum. (These girls don’t actually talk. They kind of half-heartedly whine and put their hands out, looking as sad as possible. Maybe they are sad.) I said no, but she just stood there. Finally, I asked her if she wanted a piece of sau rieng. She nodded in accord (Vietnamese like their stinky fruit!). I gave her a piece and she stood there eating it while I waited for the vendor to finish. I asked her if it was good and she nodded again.

This morning, I went to the pastry vendor. While I was waiting to be served, a girl came to sell me gum. I looked at her face and realized it was the same girl to whom I gave durian. I asked her if she wanted to eat anything. She nodded. "What do you want?" I had to ask her a few times before she pointed to banh khoai mi (cassava cake). Suddenly, I was circled by another girl, an old lady, and a young woman with her baby. So I bought everyone a round of baked goods and gave some money to the mother after she said she needed money for milk. (I don’t want to sound like I’m Santa Claus, all the baked goods came to under 1USD.)

I guess I have been converted. One thing I have learned is that it’s ok to give money to beggars; it doesn’t mean you have to give money to each and everyone of them, every time. You do what you can. That’s what I used to say when I fundraised for the United Way. I also used to say in my presentation “1 in 5 live in poverty”. I was so shocked when people didn’t react to this sad statement. I realized I didn’t react to people showing me their sad conditions either.

I think it’s easier to say no; it’s kind of a way of denial. I’ve found giving actually is acknowledging that there is a need, that the girl is hungry. I’ve found that I’ve been thinking a lot more about these people after I give them something rather than the times I didn’t, which is contrary to what you would think.

Meanwhile, I have a feeling I’ll be seeing that little girl whenever I’m buying food and I’m ok with that.


Wandering Chopsticks said...

I saw a man with no legs, with just part of a tire cut out and tied to his bottom half. He got around by pushing himself on a small board of wood with wheels. And he was not begging. He was selling magazines and newspapers trying to make a living. We were eating banh xeo on 46A Trang Cong. It started to rain and he was under the awning with us, just waiting it out. I don't know how he'd get around the muddy roads after the rain stopped. My friend bought several magazines from him, just to give him money.

Another time, I bought several overpriced cards from a girl walking around Cho Ben Thanh because she had been horribly burned, with one hand shriveled completely, and I think a foot had been amputated too.

Not everyone chooses to beg. Despite what life handed them, that legless man, the horribly burned and disfigured girl, they chose not to sit on a street corner asking for money.

I don't give money to beggars. But I do buy whatever the unfortunate are selling, without negotiating the price.

Raine said...

That's very kind of you to share, but I do agree in the beginning where you're never sure where the begging money goes to, but if they want food, then it's okay in my opinion.

It's very painful for me to see homeless people also (very little in my area, but I flew off to CA a few days ago and I couldn't bare looking at them)

Cathy said...

My thoughts would be that if you are better off than them, and if the need is clearly evident, then to give is good, practically a should.

We should help those less fortunate than us. Especially in Vietnam, we're not talking about a lot of money but it's enough for a meal or two and these people do have physical ailments.

My colleague advised me not to give to those who could be working or in school: young boys or girls, teens etc. I think he's right b/c that discourages them from earning a living.

But for elderly, blind, disabled, these are the poor and they do not receive social assistance in VN. I was converted last year, when I did not give to beggars(following Western habits) but upon having a simliar experience, seeing two friends buy gum that they didn't necessarily want b/c the seller needed support (in danang), I realized that I could help these ppl and that I should help them too.

We can be removed from poverty and we can ignore these ppl. But charity is a way to give back, and really, whether they are begging or selling, the question is: are they in good condition? If not, let's help.

Thanks for sharing, Nina. This is often on my mind too.

Miss.Adventure said...

Raine and Cathy: Thanks for your thoughts on this difficult topic.

Angel said...

My husband and I visited VN for three weeks and set aside Vietnamese money equivalent to 10 US dollars a day to give to beggars. We always gave to handicapped and old people, especially if they were not pushy.

In the US, my husband's business takes him to a lot of places. Not uncommonly, someone would approach him in convenience stores or gas stations. He never gives them money but only buys them something to eat. There has actually been panhandlers who REFUSE the food, they only want money.

My husband has even rented a hotel room for a couple of nights for a guy who said he was stranded until he could get his family to send some cash! Whatever!

The dilemna is not knowing when someone needs help for real. Also, no matter how much you give, there is still someone else who may need it equally.

The poor we will always have with us.