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.