I wanted to write something positive, something nice for the last day of my seven day reflection. After all, there is a lot that is pretty awesome about living the expat life. The thing is, there is something here that I think really showcases another key difference between first world nations and developing nations. Something that can be so confronting there are people who do not go outside of their ‘bubble’ so they don’t have to deal with it. For me, it is the single most challenging aspect to living here. It is the poverty.
Now, I’m not going to write an essay on the why’s and how’s. I am not going to shake my finger and go tut-tut. Rather I’m just going to share with you what we see day to day at the moment, and how it makes me feel. That is a changed view from when I first arrived and I wanted answers, and I wanted accountability and I really wanted to save the world. Now I just, I don’t know, am I more understanding? Not really. I guess I just ‘get it’ somehow. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from the outside.
Seeing beggars on the streets is part of normal everyday life here. When you first arrive it is confronting. For me, it made me feel so uncomfortable, my chest would constrict and I’d feel the emotion in my throat, the one that threatens tears. Sometimes I’d turn my head away when a beggar came to my window. I wanted at once to protect my own children from being centimeters away from something so wrong I did not even have the words for it. Yet I wanted to give that child at my window the world, and for mine to understand what it is to have compassion, to help.
Over time I have become ‘used’ to seeing what I see. I am not immune and I will never be. However now I turn my head a whole lot easier. Now I can look past it a whole lot better. I have the words to help my children try to understand. No, I am not proud of my behaviour, this is necessary for my survival.
There is one thing however. I struggle beyond words when I see children on the streets. Sadly there are a lot of them. I do cry, I feel very uncomfortable. I feel completely helpless and powerless. The amount of times I have wanted to grab babies from beggars’ arms, to ‘save’ someone. To pick that young boy off the side of the road, protect him. That is someone’s son.
The thing is you have to be careful. There are ‘syndicates’ that run, they use a lot of little kids for it. The beggars have a quota to fill and it is the head honchos who see most of the money. Sad I know. Then you have the drug addicts. Sadly one day in a hurry, I wasn’t careful and I gave money to a beggar. The taxi driver said to me, ‘he is going to buy drugs’. I felt myself sink. I have seen a young boy passed out on a shop step, beer can fallen from his hands. I have seen kids sniffing substances and I told my children to look at some make-believe something out the other window until the lights turned green again. If you feel the need to act in that moment, the best thing you can do for the beggars is give them food, or do nothing. Five peso’s can buy some bread if you really want to give. People carry packets of cracker biscuits to hand out. The beggars take the food but you can see it is not their priority. If you want to help there are a huge number of initiatives that provide long term solutions. Not the band aid one.
There are problems here, so systemic they are part of the DNA of this place. Just a few weeks back I was joking with B-Bug about the inappropriate clothing for young girls in the shop we were in. It is so sexualised and totally, totally horrid. Then last weekend I was at a charity dinner for an organisation that helps child prostitutes. I remember sitting in the car driving home, upset and affected by the information we were given. I was thinking about the young girls around us that night who were smiling, but who had been through unimaginable horrors, which is driven by a few things, poverty is a big one. I remember thinking about those clothes and thinking if the government was really interested here, they would be looking at the systemic situation, they would be regulating the retail market, they would stop the use of the word ‘sexy’ in so much of their advertising. Don’t they understand how everything is connected?
There are levels of poverty, which is true of every country. Here a lot of people can barely afford the basics and it is up to expats and other wealthier people to assist their employees through bonuses, loans, paid overtime. I have had to stop advancing my maid as she was using it as a crutch, rather we came up with a solution that had longer term benefits to her and her family. I have a responsibility to help her be sensible economically; otherwise I become part of her problem. I am unable to catch jeepneys with the children because we will be, not might be, we will be mugged. A group of strangers in the back of a jeepney will work together to rob me. It is not because they want to, it is because of necessity. Because here, the majority of the population work their arses off for tiny pay packets that see them survive day to day – barely. People do what they need to for survival.
So you see, this is a monster sized issue. It is like ivy that grows on buildings. It starts and it gets a hold and it infiltrates every crack. It attaches itself so well that it is really difficult to pull off. Then when you do, you are left with a stain. It is never fully eradicated.
I took this picture today. It is Christmas time and that sees a group of people migrate down from the mountains to try their luck begging on the city streets. You can immediately see they are not from around here, with the really dark skin and afro hair. This group carry babies and small children with them to get extra sympathy. That is not unusual. They come to your car as you are stopped at lights, and they leave greasy hand prints on your windows from peering in and looking at the contents of your car. This group are quite aggressive. They don’t beg politely. Doesn’t that sound bad? They won’t leave your car. They look around at the inside of your car, checking out your bag, your stuff. They get your children’s attention, until you move. Even if you have given the sign you give when you want them to go. If you give one person money you then get mobbed. They glare at you and say things through the glass and I can tell it’s about how I gave to someone else, what about them. I give this group money in five peso amounts.
I decided to write about this because yesterday as I was driving on this road I passed a young child, only about aged two, lying on the sidewalk, half naked, in the sun, just laying still, staring out, mouth open, spindly limbs curled up, arms sticking out. This boy was wearing a dirty, ripped red and white striped tee, no pants. I started to cry, really cry. I was so very very distressed. I am still distressed as I cannot get the image out of my head, it is burned there and even though I know I could not just grab the child and take him away, I feel that I could have done something. I spoke to my maid about it to get some reconciliation in my mind, and I have a small amount. Not much though.
In this picture you see a young girl, she’d be about thirteen or fourteen, staring into my car. You can see my white skin reflected in the window and I cannot tell you how much this hurts. I come from a place that is imperfect. I do not in any way want to downplay our own issues with poverty which are extremely challenging. The difference is, that back home there is infrastructure in place, no not perfect at all, but it is there and that means that no matter where you are at, there is always hope. Here as I become more aware of the harsh realities, I fear that many do not even have that. I have lived my adult life believing that there is always a way because the world I inhabit allows that to be the case. There is always a choice. With my whole heart I have believed that. Now I see that perhaps I am wrong. My values are challenged. My beliefs are challenged. My social schemas have been challenged.
Today I gave this young girl five pesos, so she might buy bread. Then I gave one of the group she was with some more money and soon had a few others vying for my kindness. The light turned green and I drove away.
So where does this leave me, on day seven of this seven day challenge. I want to give readers a glimpse into life as an expat in a country so very foreign to home. I want readers to see that the expat gig isn’t always glamorous with trips to nail spas and bridge clubs. That seems to be the story that gets told. It also isn’t about every expat becoming the next Mother Theresa. To live here, you have to choose your attitude; you have to find a way to reconcile your beliefs and feelings so you can survive. You need to adjust behaviours to keep you and your kin safe. There are changes in your relationships, all of them. There are decisions you need to make where the choices are between the not so good and the slightly worse.
You know what though, I am happy here. There is so much scope to be a part of the change. There is so much scope to become a better person through this experience. There is so much scope to raise socially aware children. I am meeting amazing people, visiting amazing places and learning about myself every day. That is worth every tear and every nightmare I have.