Poverty in Asia
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
We docked in Bangkok, Thailand, and eagerly rushed to the shuttle bus that would take us downtown -- away from the protests that were happening at the time, of course. I wanted food and to pick up some coffee beans, and Lamar, another production vocalist, was hungry for a non-mess meal. We opted to go to what appeared to be a strip mall, because they had a Starbucks.
The wifi was useful, and I'd purchased my coffee grinds, but we craved better nourishment. Lamar wasn't very culinarily adventurous, and he insisted we walk to the Subway down the block. On the continent with the most exquisite food created by man, I had to eat at a franchised American hoagie joint. At least I'd be spending less money.
We went through the line, got our sandwiches, and chose to sit on the stools in the front, looking out the large window.
The sunny streets of Bangkok displayed a hustle far busier than Manhattan. Motorcycles and scooters by the dozen dodged around tuktuks, which were barely able to go the speed limit. Food carts got pushed along the sidewalk, and bicyclists carrying kilos and kilos of merchandise, people, or God knows what, zig zagged to avoid colliding. Pedestrians meandered, seemingly with no purpose, in no discernible traffic pattern, carrying shoppings bags and food. Cars and trucks putted along, careful not to run anyone else over. It was a whirlwind of color and exhaust.
Lamar and I evaporated our sweat in the a/c of Subway while eating sandwiches in silence, mesmerized by the chaos in the filthy street outside. A head of thick black hair bobbed into view at the bottom of the window frame, bouncing in and out of sight as it moved along.
A child, I subconsciously assumed.
The head moved away from our window to the street curb, and when I realized what I was seeing, I almost choked on my food.
The bobbing head was a full grown man with protruding cheekbones, a weathered face, and a deformity so profound, he had to walk on his knuckles. His spine was twisted in a crunched 'S' shape, to the point where his back was shorter than the length of his arms. His hips were askew and he couldn't straighten his legs. Instead they were tucked under his torso in a permanent Indian style, and functioned as a cushion when he stopped walking. He avoided eye contact with everyone. He was, at his tallest, less than two feet off the ground.
The man toted a bag slung around his neck, out of which he pulled a pad that he set on the edge of the street. He climbed into the middle of it and pulled out dozens of plastic bags of pork rinds, which he spread into a display. When he was satisfied with the arrangement, he looked up with determined dignity.
The crowd in the street responded to him instantly, and dozens approached him with handfuls of cash.
"How many bags?" he would gesture towards his display.
People would gesture "no thank you" and would more determinedly shake fists of money at him.
"No!" he would adamantly shake his head and decline.
When offered cash, he would offer a bag of rinds in return, and refuse the cash until the bag was taken. Tourists were the most persistent about refusing the snack, and some got frustrated and threw the money on the ground before hustling away -- and there the money remained, untouched.
My heart lodged itself in my throat while watching the scene unfold. Locals approached him with familiarity after the tourists thinned out, and gestured how many bags they wanted, and paid. People were so eager to help him that he never seemed to establish how much each bag should cost. But the only way to give money was to purchase his product. This man, dealt an unjustly rough hand in life, did not demand pity for what he couldn't do, or for the quality of life he'd never experience. He instead focused on what he could do with what was available to him. He refused to be a beggar, he insisted on earning his way. It appeared to be a matter of pride.
How different from America, I pondered. In offering government assistance to those in need, we've accidentally created a society with groups of people who believe they deserve a lifeline without giving anything in return. One would be hard pressed to find a scene like this back home. How many able bodied people stand on their own two feet, asking for money? This man put things into a harsh perspective.
He likely had a family -- maybe parents or siblings he lived with, or maybe a spouse and children -- and he needed to help with expenses. Perhaps he felt obligated to repay them for any special care he may have required. His tattered t-shirt suggested he didn't come from much money, so medical care for even a healthy person with no handicap would've resulted in a huge sacrifice for his family.
Lamar recoiled from the scene. He came from a low-income situation himself, and wasn't well educated or very worldly before the ship gig. He didn't go to college, and before our producer discovered him, he'd hardly gotten out much at all. He was working at a 7-Eleven when she found him. None of us understood how he'd been hired.
You'd never see a person this deformed in the US - even low income infants would've been operated on to try to help them develop more normally. At the very least, he would've been provided with a wheelchair. This was a big shock for Lamar, who then lost his appetite, and packed up his leftovers. His reaction of disgust without empathy shouldn't have surprised me, but it made me angry. His ignorance made him difficult to work with and next to impossible to relate to. But I was his supervisor so I had to keep trying.
I took my time finishing lunch. It was difficult to swallow food with a lump in my throat. And I certainly wasn't going to rush for Lamar's sake. I crumpled my trash inside the bag, and before standing up, I took out every paper bill of Thailand Baht on my person, and folded it into a neat, tiny wad.
On the way out, I covered my welling eyes with sunglasses, and walked up to our merchant on his mat. I gestured for one bag, and he handed me the pork rinds matter-of-factly. I pressed the Baht firmly into his palm and walked away quickly, so as not to give him a chance to give me change, tears falling slowly behind the privacy of my sunglasses.