I Promise To Always Look Up

Poverty in Asia-3

I’ve always been somewhat cold-hearted.

I’m not sure whether it’s a byproduct of my “Field Marshal” personality where there’s “not much room for error” and where “feelings are a weakness”. Or perhaps it’s simply been honed (or blunted?) by 11 years of seeing daily poverty in Asia.

My first visceral reaction to the divide between the haves and have-nots came rather innocuously. I had just moved to Phnom Penh and was walking home from the Western supermarket, happily licking an ice cream cone on a devilishly hot afternoon. I could sense their stares as they tracked me walking by more than really seeing them, a row of dirty-faced children who hung around the parking area asking for loose change.

Poverty in Asia-4

I explored the city more over the years, my volunteer work taking me to some of the poorest areas. Sometimes it was a fishing village on the banks of the Tonle Sap River with their makeshift tarpaulin tents, right in the heart of Phnom Penh, a luxury casino and hotel providing the jarring backdrop.

Poverty in Asia-11

Or a tangled mess of pipes and wires in front of a decrepit apartment building.

Poverty in Asia-10

Or terribly small one-room rentals that flooded with every heavy rain, the residents of which resignedly mopped up smelly water and cloying mud with nary a complaint.

Poverty in Asia-2

One of the worst places I saw was this community built over a sewage ditch. Some houses were literally over the black water which you could see through the slats of the floor. I felt nauseated for the first 30 minutes after which I was horrified to realize that the smell had gone away. It took less than an hour to become inured to this place. What must a lifetime do?

In Cambodia, I worked with dozens of NGOs, funneling hundreds of millions of aid dollars into the country every year. There were NGOs for street kids, disadvantaged mothers, trafficked women, mine victims, and the list goes on. I’ve personally witnessed some amazing success stories, from teaching one young boy from the Sunrise Children’s Orphanage his first few words of English, to being there when he was accepted into an Australian university almost ten years later. There was also a deaf girl who blossomed from a shy youngster only able to communicate with her parents through home signing to a confident young woman connecting with the world around her thanks to Krousar Thmey and their efforts to not only teach Khmer sign language to students, but incredibly also creating it when none existed before.

While I applaud the generosity behind these missions, I’ve also seen enough to question how effective some of them truly are. I’ve hobnobbed with expats earning very cushy salaries, only in the country for a few months, ostensibly putting systems in place to train up local Cambodians to take over. Statistics show that Cambodia, as a country, receives more money in aid per capita than any other country in Asia. Not that there aren’t poor people aplenty in Cambodia. I’ve sat in restaurants only to be shocked when glue-sniffing teens pawed around a basin of dirty dishes, scavenging scraps of food, gnawing bones that had already been gnawed.

Poverty in Asia-9

In a country with no social support to speak of, doing whatever it takes to earn money is the norm. The more entrepreneurial youths buy a kit of brown and black shoe polish and a brush, offering shoe shines for a quarter. Unfortunately, no one has really taught them the basics of salesmanship, as they usually approach with nary a smile or a hello, instead just pointing to your shoes or sometimes uttering a single grunt.

Menial Jobs

I’ve also seen menial jobs that I didn’t know were still performed by human hands. Like gluing envelopes together or sorting out shredded paper for mere cents a day. The streets of Phnom Penh ring morning and night with calls of “ep chai”, the term for buying recyclables for resale. Food carts litter the back alleyways, putting together the cheapest of ingredients to make a quick meal. Their entrepreneurial spirit in the face of mind-numbing work, earning less in one day than most of us might spend for a bottled water in the West is laudable.

Others choose a less noble occupation. Young mothers with dirty-faced babies hang out at the Western-style grocery stores or the gas stations, hands outstretched for a bit of change. Older people shuffle the streets with hollow eyes, backs hunched over almost 90 degrees, looking for a handout.

Old Beggar

I’ve read enough literature arguing against giving to the supposedly needy, fueling a vicious cycle of parents keeping children home from school where they only cost the family precious resources needed for books and uniforms instead of generating income, however meager, or adult children forcing elderly parents onto the streets to beg. I’ve also see grown men, perhaps missing an arm, using their other limb to beg while puffing away on a cigarette. Was I justified at simply shaking my head, convinced that they’d be able to find some kind of work if only they tried? Or that they’d spend my donation on their next packet of cigarettes or bag of homemade alcohol? Were they less deserving than the horribly disfigured woman I saw every time I went to the market, with her same basket of tired postcards, but always with a ready smile for everyone, whether they bought something from her or not?

We live in an unjust world which forces me to make a split-second decision every time I’m faced with poverty. The kind of poverty that actually has a face.

My reaction often depended on my mood. Perhaps it had been a particularly hard day at work. Or maybe the weather was stifling hot, the air hitting your face like you just opened an oven door. Maybe it was the 10th person begging for money in the last 10 minutes while I was trying to have a meal, not an uncommon thing to happen.

Then it happened.

I sensed someone standing in front of me. The dirty, unkempt toe nails, the calloused feet and cheap plastic shoes signalling another faceless soul in a long line of unfortunate souls. I felt myself sigh, shaking my head without even looking up from my meal.

Almost immediately, I felt it.


Poverty in Asia-12

Shame on me for not at least looking up. For not at least acknowledging another human, no matter how deserving (or not). For not having the courage to look into the eyes of a person who may have been hungry or suffering or simply having a bad day that was immeasurably worse than my own.

Yes, it’s nearly impossible to make a split second decision of whether someone is truly needy or just looking for an easy payday. But from that moment, I vowed to myself that never again would I ignore a beggar. At the very least, I’d look them in the eye and offer something, even a smile, if nothing else.

In Vietnam it’s easier. While there’s no government assistance other than for war vets, local communities often pitch in to help the elderly and needy. There is significantly less begging, with most choosing to sell lottery tickets for a small commission instead. While I never buy the tickets because I’m morally opposed to gambling, I sometimes buy older sellers a cup of sugarcane juice. Another old woman’s face lit up when I offered to buy her the same lunch I was having, her profuse thank you’s the best reward. Additionally, for my own mental well-being, I’m also involved in providing volunteer education which helps people overcome unhealthy habits such as smoking, gambling and drug abuse. Does it feel like it’s an unworthy drop of water in the ocean? Most definitely. But it’s my way of fulfilling my promise to always look up.

For a recent article, I sat down to interview a humble street seller who’s been at the same spot for 40 years on Saigon’s poshest shopping street, someone I would normally walk by without paying much attention. Of course, my conversation with him sitting on the marble steps of a ritzy boutique as he spread his coins and stamps on the pavement, proved that behind every face, there’s a story worth hearing. For the full text of the article “The Faces of Dong Khoi” in Vietnam Pathfinder, please click on the image below.

Faces of Dong Khoi - Vietnam Pathfinder - April 2013

What about you? How do you deal with begging whether it’s in your hometown or while traveling?

Photo credit: Old man in wooden house by MisterSven

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20 thoughts on “I Promise To Always Look Up

  1. Fay Gaskin

    WOW!!!! What a story!! As I read,I couldn’t help but thinking how much we all need the Kingdom…..
    It was so easy for me to visualise the peoples, streets, their condition, everything.
    Heartwarming though was the experience of the deafie who found her place in society through signing, her native language. Yeah, I like the other story of the young boy who accomplish so much with education.
    Great story-teller you are.

    1. James Post author

      You’re a kind soul, JR! For me, it’s easier to discount the people who visibly seem not to deserve help, ie. the glue sniffers, the able-bodied men, druggies, etc. It’s the huge section of “other” that I have a problem with!

  2. Frank

    Very well written and touching article. It hit a nerve for me, because no matter how often I deal with beggars, I always feel pangs of conscience as to whether I could have handled the situation better. When I arrived in Ulaanbaatar 8 years ago, there were still many “street children” living in the sewers; kids whose parents were alcoholics and were abused. They felt safer living on their own under the streets. Because there were so many of them, it was hard to know what to do. I used to buy extra groceries and then give them food, especially to the youngest ones, who used to get beat up by the older ones and have their stuff stolen. Thankfully, due to the efforts of the foreign NGO’s and the Mongolian government, there are few children left on the streets to fend for themselves.

    1. James Post author

      Glad to hear that things have changed for the better, Frank!

      I’m trying to be more sympathetic to the plight of others – that’s the first step I’m taking. In Cambodia, I felt that so many people were eager / willing to share their life story with me, even on meeting me for the first time. It’s a very different, open attitude as compared to the West. I wonder whether it has to do with people’s resignation as Buddhists to their lot in life?

  3. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Good-NESS James, how you do manage to top yourself each and every post lately. Truly (yet) another gem!

    Love this:
    “At the very least, I’d look them in the eye and offer something, even a smile, if nothing else.”

    Yep, the guilt of privilege is tough – but a veritable PICNIC compared to living the sorry life of one not so privileged.

    Thus the very LEAST we can do is honor such folk as human beings, look them in the eyes and offer them a smile.

    And as far as the dilemma of sorting out the deserving from the (allegedly not so deserving) “glue-sniffer” and/or puffer of nasty cigarettes?

    Simple. Just ask yourself if a bit of glue or a momentary high on nicotine might not be a tiny touch of relief if you lived that lad’s life, yes?

    IOW, it is not for we to judge, but rather – to simply offer a warm smile and do what little else we can.
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..Only In Asia: Save a Dry MarkerMy Profile

    1. James Post author

      Thanks for your perspective, Dyanne! It is a dilemma. It’s easier to ignore it back the US when you know there are social programs people can apply for. But here in Asia where having lots of children is basically the only social support available, the issue seems simply Sisyphean.

  4. Mike Montross

    While visiting Mexico a number of years ago with my parents in the 70s, I saw some of the poor extremes that you described there in Cambodia. One woman tried to “sell” her own baby daughter to us because she could no longer feed the little one, and she needed money to help feed the rest of the family. The police did not agree with this type of “human trade trafficking”, however; and while we did not want the mother to get in trouble with the law, my mother gave her some monies to help.

    A more recent visit to Mexico just last year found cleaner environment -paved streets and more modern conveniences. I only hope our little girl was able to be raised by her own mother, with her own brothers & sisters.

    In one of his famous discourses, Christ made a comment that, “For YOU always have the poor with YOU, but YOU will not always have me.” (Reference Matthew 26:11) A harsh, but valid reality statement even in this 21st century.

    1. James Post author

      Definitely a conundrum and any obvious, immediate answers seem beyond policymakers and politicians. The skeptical me is thinking that Mexican mother was just putting a new spin on an old scam, knowing that no tourists would likely take her up on her offer…

  5. Heather

    The poverty in Cambodia broke my heart. I nearly cried the first time I was accosted by street kids at one of the temples because I knew I couldn’t help them. Having now read First They Killed My Father about a little girl who lost her parents during the Khmer Rouge, at least I better understand how things got so bad there. Our tuk tuk driver – who never stopped smiling – told us he lost his own parents during the KR. His dad was a doctor and his mom a teacher. In another lifetime, he could have been well-educated and wealthy instead of having to shuttle around foreigners and wearing the same set of clothes every day. And yet, still he smiled. Heartbreaking.
    Heather recently posted..Stanley: A Beach Town in Hong KongMy Profile

    1. James Post author

      Just got back from a quick trip to Phnom Penh and was really impressed with the Friends NGO. Part of their work is creating jobs for mothers of disadvantaged children so they won’t be tempted into sending their kids out to beg. Sounds like more than a band-aid solution!

    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Rachel! I have a feeling Liberia is sadder than Cambodia / Vietnam. I felt quite helpless when I was in Africa, more so than here in Asia where I think anyone with a bit of elbow grease can make a living, however meager.

  6. eemusings

    “But from that moment, I vowed to myself that never again would I ignore a beggar. At the very least, I’d look them in the eye and offer something, even a smile, if nothing else.”


    Cambodia was where we learnt to cross the street if we saw/sensed someone about to approach us, and I hated myself for it.
    eemusings recently posted..Safe travels? Yeah, nahMy Profile

    1. James Post author

      Yeah, I much prefer Vietnam where very few people outright beg. They more try to sell you something. It’s hard, though. What I wouldn’t give for the supernatural ability to look at a person and know what events shaped their life course to the present moment. Forget flying or invisibility!

  7. Kylie Chua

    All we ever want is to be validated; Ms Oprah Winfrey famously told the crowd at the 2013 Harvard commencement speech. It reminds us that it doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, doctor, actor, housewife, child or beggar, we just want to be heard, to be acknowledged. Thank you writing so honestly..

  8. Jeffrey Thompson

    Hi James,

    I just came across your “always look up” post. During our short visit to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2015, my wife and I frequently felt the guilt of privilege but our overwhelming feeling was actually one of anger at “the system”.

    On our first night in Phnom Penh we were walking near the river-front when a young girl about four or five years old started following us asking for “one dollar please”. She was so vulnerable (to cars and trucks and Western paedophiles) and our hearts went out to her, but we gave her nothing because that’s what everyone said we should so. We saw her later with, we assumed, her mother and we asked ourselves what difference it might make in their lives if we were to give them A$1000, then and there. We could have done it easily. In Australian terms, we are “comfortably retired” rather than wealthy.

    Next day, we were in the street a couple of blocks back from the river where all the consulates and NGO offices are located and we walked past a new car dealership with, literally, a row of brand new Rolls-Royces, S-class Mercedes and 5 and 7 series BMWs out the front.

    In aggregate terms, there is no shortage of wealth in Cambodia, but the decisions about how it gets allocated are being made by the rich and influential to benefit the rich and influential. Who gets the lions share of the money generated by visitors to Angkor? Who gets awarded the concessions to build the huge new hotels and casinos? Senior NGO staff get ferried around in chauffeur-driven limos.

    Yes, I know the casinos, hotels and the like create work and some of the NGOs do wonderful work, but the reality is the majority of Cambodians are just scrabbling for crumbs from the tables of the ultra-rich.

    My apologies if this sounds like a rant – I guess it is – but the system sucks. In what world is it fair and decent for a 5 year old child to have to beg for a dollar and for someone else to drive a Rolls-Royce? Do I want to take everything away from the wealthy and give it to the poor? No, we have already proved that doesn’t work. What is needed is a system that ensure and equitable distribution of wealth based on both effort and need.

    My two bobs worth.



    1. James Post author

      Hi Jeffrey:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I can completely empathize with how you feel.

      In my 10 years in Cambodia, I had the privilege of working amongst some of the poorest of the poor, and while there were lots of extremely hard-working people who could simply not catch a break, there were many who were in an unfortunate position because of bad decisions. Sometimes, they were the victims of simply a bad situation, eg. a family member falling ill and having to borrow a large sum of money from loan sharks for 20% interest PER MONTH to pay medical bills. The interest would simply pile up until there was no hope of paying it back and then the family would have to up and move in the middle of the night. I (and other expat friends) have helped pay off those types of loans as we felt that was a worthy cause.

      On the other hand, I’ve seen poor people who came into a bit of money and promptly spent it on an expensive phone or TV with absolutely zero sense of budget or restraint. Without knowing someone’s situation intimately, I would never even consider handing out money as more likely than not, the person simply wouldn’t have the ability to formulate a coherent plan to parlay that sum into a better life.

      If you’re looking for a way to help, I’d ask around for the names of some NGOs who are truly doing good work – helping provide education / jobs / training to hopefully make a long-term difference in someone’s life. But living in a society where there’s no social welfare net is most definitely brutal.



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