When you are asked for money by someone who doesn't have any, you have a split second to decide; yes or no, to give or not to give.
I've come across all types of scenarios, within Canada and without, where I had to make this decision and it never gets any easier. Three main situations stand out in my memory, with one happening just recently that I want to share and lay bare the workings of a mind still unsettled about what is the best choice.
1. Tuesday, Calgary, Canada. Outside of a C-train station
As I was carrying my grocery bags home I was asked outside of a c-train station if I had any spare change. Out of reflex I said no then stared dumbly as the consciousness of the weight of my groceries pressed sharply into my hand. The woman with an older man by her side smiled cheerfully and said “Okay, by the way I love your hair!” I thanked her and tilted my head to the side so she could touch the curls if she wanted (which is also a reflex of mine). After looking more closely she gave me more compliments and I returned them feeling quite at ease. She told me then it was her Uncle’s Birthday today and he was turning 45. I wished him a Happy Birthday and he seemed genuinely pleased. I turned to go still mulling in my head what should I do or if this was just a ploy, when she asked me one last thing holding both hands out “do you need a ticket for the train?”
My heart thumped, she was giving to me.
2. Beijing, China. Inside a subway car
I was sitting on the subway headed to a friend’s house, when an old woman entered with her hair all ragged and wearing soft toe shoes, the kind that silently glide across the floor. She had a cane and was stopping every few feet bowing and asking for money. I starred at my e-reader hoping the uncomfortableness would end. When she came up to me I made eye contact and shook my head slightly. Instead of moving on she stared at me and insistently asked. When I didn’t reply she started jabbing at my knee. Feeling picked out and picked on, I had an overwhelming feeling of anger and wanted to kick back.
Long after she left my pulse was still racing and my mind was irritated.
3. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On a sidewalk
When I went to Southeast Asia on a study abroad with the University of Calgary I was 19 and it was my first time traveling independent of my parents and family. We were given half a day in the Capital to explore so I ran out, headed to a promenade that banked on the Tonlé Sap River if I remember correctly. I went strolling about enjoying the humidity and sunshine when not too far from me I spied a bench with a man lying stretched out with his head covered, and a few feet away a woman with two little children sitting on the ground. I knew well enough that the man most likely was her husband and the women was begging with her children. Once I reached them she motioned to me and made the universal gesture of wanting food by putting her hand to her mouth. I was fresh out of a developmental studies class so was resistant to give money but got some bread to share. Perhaps because of my willingness to get food she also motioned to me to look at one of her children. She lifted up his shirt and I saw a rash with small red marks like chickenpox or bug bites all across it.
I don’t quite remember all the details but somehow I ended up at a pharmacy store. She had written down on a piece of paper names of medicines and had directed me there. I was extremely self-conscious of the fact that I didn’t know the language, and the seller knew I was doing someone else’s bidding. I wondered if this happened a lot and if I truly was getting medicine for the kids or medicine that could be sold again at a higher retail rate. What stuck out the most though was how expensive it was. If this was the price of medicine for a small child no one in poverty can ever afford to get sick. Returning back to the women who I now considered a bit of a friend, I gave her the medicine and sat down in the middle of the promenade with her and her children and ate bread.
As the sun beat down we talked as only people who don’t share the same language can, and she tried teaching me a few words. We smiled and made wild gestures, and I alternated between feeling completely comfortable and acutely conscious of tourists and locals who walked by. By being on the ground you are always forced to be looking up. Those above you don’t just seem big but they tower. It’s a vulnerable position to be in and I only seemed to notice because of the contrast it gave to the position I usually am standing in.
Just as we were getting really at ease with each other I noticed four policemen and women come by and make a circle around us, slowly narrowing it in. I didn't know if they were trying to protect me, thinking I was being taken advantage of or harm me, so I slowly got up gave a quick goodbye and walked away in an effort to avoid any conflict.
As I walked away I thought about her, I thought about me, and I thought about how much we have in common.
So these are my three scenarios. I've thought about the Beijing incident a lot and why it made me feel so angry. I think there’s this assumption when giving that the recipient must be grateful. If instead they are snide or brusque it makes us less willing to share. But then we take another look and ask: what are they to be happy about? Should they feel giddy that they are in a position of begging or joyful to be forced to rely on the goodwill of others? There are many reasons for why people are in situations of destitute with some having it solely to do with bad personal decisions while others are born in to a pecking order where they are at the bottom.
Really what I've learned the most is to not forget the human factor of need.
We could apply Blackstone’s ratio and change it to "It is better that ten pretenders receive than one genuinely in need goes without”. Common sense should be used in when and how to give but so should clemency. As for me there are times when I give and there are times when I don’t. I wish I could come to one overarching consensus that would do away with the mental conflict but it hasn't been formulated yet, I’m constantly finding myself thrown into different situations that cause me to reflect and re-evaluate my prior position. I think a better understanding will come with experience and age. I will no doubt travel more and be more involved with what I’m just seeing now on a superficial level. So even though it’s a painful process I can see the good in it, I become compelled to take a moment and see the person as they are and not as I imagine them to be. This way I’ll be able to know not only who I’m giving to but why, and slowly I can put names to the numberless faces we constantly see.