When beggars say what they think
When selling bootleg books didn’t work, the boy turned to begging for food. He looked 12 and was still perfecting his pity pitch.
It encourages them to keep working and begging instead of going to school.
It creates a dependency on tourists for their livelihood.
It undermines the role of parents as caretakers and of NGOs trying to keep them off the street.
It encourages irresponsible parents to stay at home (sometimes drinking) while the child goes out and works.
Worst of all, it robs a child of her childhood.
My girlfriend Bianca, however, let he compassion speak louder than reason. When the boy said he was hungry, she offered to buy him lunch and eat with us on our restaurant table.
It was too late for me to protest. She was already going over menu choices with the boy. All I could do was limit how much we’d spend. No more than $1, I said. Enough for a generous portion of fried rice.
As he ate, Bianca asked him questions about his life. I welcomed this idea. It would be an opportunity for empathy-building, a way to learn more about the people we sadly learn to regard as travel annoyances.
He said he needs money to buy powdered milk for his baby sister. This set off alarms, since I had heard this from other beggars, including a woman carrying her baby.
Traveling in Cambodia, you learn quickly that Cambodians are great imitators but lousy innovators. If something works for one person, you can be sure many more will do the same.
For proof, compare the menus of any three restaurants in Siem Reap. Listen to the sales pitches of souvenir sellers. Notice how every street corner has a “Dr. Fish Massage” tank full of little fish that eat dead skin off your legs. Half of them offer a free beer with the $2 service.
The boy said his father lost his legs to landmines. He kept going, and it all started to sound a little too tragic. Instead of sympathy, I felt suspicion. This kid was combining several pity ingredients in a clumsy way. As a result, I wasn’t believing a word of it.
Then what I feared happened. Two other boys, who evidently witnessed our charity, entered the restaurant. One of them asked for a plate of fried rice while the other looked on. These kids usually move on after three “no, thanks” but this one would not budge.
And this is what I hated the most: I had to be a hard ass with the kid. I had to look at him sternly in the eye and say, “I said no. That’s final.”
As we got us and left our table, the boy’s eyes followed me with a load of rage I had never seen in this country of meek and deferential people.
“You stingy,” he spat.
It’s a lousy thing to hear, especially after buying one of his comrades lunch. And it exposed the third world beggar’s logic, which is so often kept veiled behind so many Have a nice day’s and Thank you sir’s.
And that logic is this: if you have the money to travel this far from home, you have the money to buy me food. You have the money to buy all of us food. So why don’t you?
Never mind that I worked hard for three years to save money for this trip. Never mind that I chose this country precisely because it’s cheap and I’m not rich. Never mind that I’m helping his countrymen by just being here, injecting money into their economy and creating jobs in tourism.
The boy was simply saying what most beggars think all the time, whether it’s true or not.
And that’s a hard but necessary truth to swallow no matter what comforts our faith in tourism dollars may provide.