May 25th, 2019 | Tuy Hòa, Vietnam
The ocean-hugging town of Tuy Hòa has three phases of time;
-The tired, early morning of pho makers, aging sea swimmers, and business suit motorists.
-The sun-blasting afternoon, a vampire’s village of desolate streets where shop keepers wait under cloth awnings for lunch patrons.
-And pulsating nights, when the entire town can save on sunscreen, drink their fourth coffee on low red plastic stools and watch their children in neon bumper cars set on almost every corner.
Tuy Hòa thrives under moons.
Most tourists seem to be other Vietnamese. I counted one westerner on the drive to ‘Big C’ where kids would run to us, giggle through their best English phrases, and retreat behind the jackfruit stand.
My travel partner and I would spend our second night in Tuy Hòa at a fad ice cream shop next to curbside karaoke tables. Six women recognized our faces from the other night and had pushed each other to the front by the waist, turned red, and laughed for one of them to speak English. We were simple and ordered the first menu item, coconut ice cream with pea-sized ice cubes. The young girl chosen to speak sighed relief and widened her contagious smile.
The pink-painted shop was filled with local Vietnamese with different agendas for the night. Some were dressed in nightclub wear, others were mothers and families, most were young teens comparing whatever on their phones. After the mini fanfare settled, we took our seats and ate rather quietly.
In Vietnam most shop doors stay open, fans cool, and life is placed next to the elements. So there wasn’t any notice of two young girls walking in, barefoot, gliding from table to table at the hip. They wanted money. First I noticed them at a table across from us, a young teen saying “Không” but eventually reaching into her purse for 5,000 dong.
I let the ice cream melt, my breath became short, and I cycled through all the articles I had read written by westerners before they could reach our table. The articles forbid giving money to begging children in South East Asia. I thought back to the frowning girls dressed traditionally on the countryside who posed with tour bus zoos. Was 10,000 dong (43 cents) for each sweaty, middle-aged man palm on their back worth missing a day or two or twenty of education? Was giving money to children worth the risk that their ‘guardians’ were keeping the profit? Would this ignite children to stay working on the streets? Or did these young minority girls in an ice cream shop, wearing a shirt two sizes too big need to eat that night? After all, I’ve given in the past and these girls were as deserving as anyone I’ve given to before.
I watched mothers give money without crisis. (Buddhists value generosity) I looked at my partner, who held all the money, as he focused on his ice cream. The girls were now at our table.
“Money?” This seems to be the English word everyone knows.
The friendly-faced workers that once greeted us as peacemaking people now waited to see our donation. With terrible sorrow, I closed my eyes and shook my head. I swore the whole store crowded around our now shrinking table. The little girls with their empty hands held out didn’t prepare for the white people, richest in their wildest imagination, to deny them simple change.
I now shook my head no for an entire ice cream shop. On our way out, nobody smiled.
I grieved over our example as travelers to local people. I examined anyone under 4 feet on the motorbike ride home to see if it was the girls. My night was spent rereading the articles to justify I valued education and child labor laws.
Even when a room full of charitable people didn’t understand the ‘lesson’ I was hoping to root, I had to know personally I was trying to do the right thing.
In a state of mind that only comes from numerous brainstorms in the shower (and advice from a mother) inviting the girls for ice cream would have been a simple, delicious answer.
June 25th, 2019 | Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
With last month’s prior grief unknowingly dormant in my body, I listened to the man’s story who approached my car at a gas station. He was $16 short for the mechanic cost of a flat tire. He said his father and horse were on the side of a highway on an unpleasantly hot day. He crouched by my window, where his belt buckle pressed on the underside of his belly, explaining how his father would mail me the money back*.
In his white tee, tough denim jeans, and the stench of possible farm life, I thought he might own a horse? The opportunity to finally help someone in need and restore my guilt I souvenired from a developing country was here.
“I don’t have any cash on me,” I said with my hands on the keys ready to start with dreams for a way out.
“There’s an ATM inside with no fee.”** He said rather too quickly.
I walked in with hesitance but hopeful there could be an overheated horse on I-83. I withdrew the cash, with no fee, and handed him the $20 outside.
He frantically thanked me and walked off to his truck. I noticed other people witness the transaction, their heads poking around like meerkats, imagining the dunce hat I wore. In my small red dress and headband, I stood alone with no promise of returned money. I felt tiny, robbed, but still adorable.
First day back in Pennsylvania I was unemployed and free of any schedule or thoughts of safety. I decided to follow him.
Caught at the traffic light, I sat behind him. I’ve watched enough ‘Dateline’ to think of evidence that would help in my potential kidnapping so I took photos of his license plate. With obvious effort to make him uncomfortable, he realized his hunted status and pulled into a mechanic shop around the corner.
Both of us staying in our cars, I pulled up by his window. “I hope this is going where you say it’s going.”
“Ah yes, don’t worry honey. I’m just frantic. My father is stuck in the heat and I’m trying to get directions.” He stuttered before parking his truck in an unmarked spot to use the restroom.
I wasn’t satisfied but I pulled away.
A louder voice in my head reminded me that I work hard for my money and if I could say “no” to poor children, I can say “hell no” to suspicious men asking young women for cash. I reversed back into a spot, wrote down my P.O Box on a ripped envelope, marched back, and waited for the potential fraud.
“You know, I have to give you my address to return the money, I need to know I respect my situation too,” I said as he rechecked his fly.
“Sure thing, honey, my father will mail it.” He sensed my distrust.
I didn’t believe him but I also felt better knowing I tried. I gave an opportunity for justice.
He slumped his shoulders in the parking lot asking me one last question. “Could you help me Mapquest*** directions to 83?” He motioned me over to his truck.
“You can bring your phone to me.” I felt the confidence of Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU.
He stumbled opening his phone, I felt his breath cloud my face and in seconds I smelled the alcohol. It was 11:30.
I closed the case. I shook my head with my eyes closed and like tongues blurted out, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask for my money back. I’m uncomfortable.”
With no hesitation, he handed back my $20 and speedily drove off in his truck turning left, the way we came. Presumably back to the gas station.
I’m not sure when the battle of contributors etiquette will or if ever end. I’ll spend the majority of my life denying panhandlers with lingering guilt diminishing in my later years but when the moment hits where a dollar feels right to give. I’ll give.