Saturday, September 22, 2007

Guava Mouth

Seven score and one week ago, Abraham Lincoln, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Tomorrow will mark the fifty year anniversary of 9 black students entering the doors of the exclusively white Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas. Over the years, things have become much better in the USA, not only for blacks, but also Asians, Latino and all other ethnic groups. Many people will say racism is a big problem in the US. While I don’t disagree that racism is an issue in American culture, I have to say that it is not nearly as bad as other places.

As a white man living in Vientiane, Laos, I face a daily barrage of racism. Most of it is petty remarks or assumptions (I’m white hence I filthy rich). While most Laotian people are friendly and welcoming, racism is an inescapable fact of life for whites in Asia. I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about, dealing with, and deflecting racism.

Last weekend I went to the supermarket to restock my cupboard. This particular supermarket is located at ITECC (Lao International Trade Exhibition and Convention Center) and has a good selection of western and eastern food. I like shopping at ITECC because not only does it have some hard to find items (kidney beans in a can, for example), but there is something about supermarkets that I find very comforting. Even in my own country, I will often spend a couple hours wandering the aisles of a supermarket during off hours. However, the experience I had last weekend was not as comforting as I had hoped.

About midway through my shopping, two small Laos children unaccompanied by an adult, noticed me. “Falang! Falang!” they yelled. Falang is what they call foreigners in Laos. They made a big production out of my being in the supermarket. Hanging on to my cart, touching everything I had placed there, they continued to shout, ‘Falang’ and other observations their language such as bald, big, big nose and so forth. Everything I touched, they had to touch. And they said things like “Falang likes this” or Falang likes that. The other shoppers chuckled at this – some ignored it. I tolerated their behavior since I can understand that I may be quite different than what they are used to. After about 15 minutes of these two kids pestering me, I finally said, in English, “Ok, enough, time for you to hit the highway.” They disappeared.

Later, I thought about this experience. I thought about how that would go over in my own country. What would happen in an average American supermarket if two white kids followed an Asian around yelling “Asian!, Asian!”. Would the other shoppers chuckle? Would the store manager walk by, blandly amused. Ah, just kids!. I don’t think so. I think if a kid did that in a Southern California supermarket, at best they would be dispatched from the store. If I were there to witness it, they would have the pleasure of hearing a very long and sharp-tongued lecture on the shame of broadcasting ones ignorance and hate filled mind.

This type experience is not an unusual occurrence, it’s just one example. I try to explain to my Laos friends how, in my culture, if a shop keeper tried to charge varying prices based on the color of someone’s skin, they would very quickly be in serious legal trouble. If a group of customers all stood around joking about how an Asian immigrant could not pronounce words as well as they should, I would think there is a good chance someone would speak up and say “Hey, that’s not right”. I know this type of thing does happen in the USA, but not anywhere near as frequently as it does in Asia.

I wonder about the source of racism in America, specifically, anti-Asian sentiment. I don’t think I’m going to win any friends with this next remark, but I have to say it. Is it possible that some of the racism Asian-Americans feel comes from their own deeply ingrained racist behaviour?

It’s a slow day for beggars today – five in one hour, 3 repeat visitors. The rich Lao people sitting at the next table are not approached. The beggars only beg from white people.

For a little more understanding of the word Falang, this person’s blog sheds a little light on the etymology and blithe attitude of racism in Southeast Asia: Real Life Thailand - Farang kii nok

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Free Market Mirage

A colleague of mine and I have lost touch for the past year an a half while I have been in Southeast Asia. The other day, I noticed him on Facebook and added him as a friend. My reasoning for wanting to stay in touch with him is twofold. First, I consider him a friend; a person who I respect immensely for both his professional acumen as well as being a man of impeccably good character. Second, I want to stay in touch with him because, professionally, we share the same ideology of enthusiasm, integrity and an inquisitive nature – hence, there is potential for us to enter into mutually beneficial business relationships. (As an additional note, Naisan’s capacity for light-speed synapse inspired many advanced educational techniques I developed between 2003 and 2006)

Looking into his current endeavors, I noticed he has a blog at\blog. His latest entry dealt with the death of capitalism. I found it very interesting to read his short post and move my mind back to the conditions of the USA while I have been immersed in a very different situation here in Laos.

As capitalism dies from the insidious workings of the omniscient “them” back in the USA (and in most of the globe), I am watching Laos go through the painful birthing of it’s own form of one-party capitalism. Laos, in an attempt to sustain itself as a sovereign nation and free itself from least developed nation status by 2020, has entered into a free market economy. It’s not like there is much choice for Laos. After decades of solidarity with the Soviet Union, once big brother conceded that great philosophical mind-plays are not always sustainable socio-economic methods, Laos had to enter into the global market.

How will that work? I wonder. How will a country who has sustained itself in a vacuum outside the free market since 1975, transfer it’s ideology to a free market mindset while at the same time the world free market seems to be collapsing under the weight of the likes of Cheney, Bush, GE, Haliburton and the rest of the behemoths? Will this birth into free market become a stillborn lark – too little, too late – or will Laos’ expertise learned from decades of corruption, lobbying and special interests be boon to its role in the soon coming free market mirage?

DISCLAIMER: Of course, what I write here is merely off-the-cuff, personal pontifications. I certainly do not claim to be an expert on capitalism, communism, socialism or the current state of affairs on the global economy – or even the Peoples Democratic Republic of Lao, for that matter. I shudder at the thought that any harm would come to the nation of Laos – a country I love immensely and for which I have great respect for the perseverance of it’s people and leaders.

By the way… beggar count today: 22 individuals in 90 minutes. Four adults, 18 children. Akiki is taking the day off, I guess.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Begging Monopoly

Begging. I don’t like begging. I used to give money to beggars. Now, only under a very extreme circumstance will I give a beggar anything at all and in those cases, only food. It’s not that I am unsympathetic, it’s just that I can not tolerate the idea that a stranger who is completely uninterested and unwilling to do anything for me expects me – often demands of me – to fork over my own cash. I just don’t work that way.

Back in the 1980’s when I was living in Brooklyn, there was a beggar at one of the subway stations in my neighborhood. Each day I would see him sitting in the passageway mumbling to himself with his hands outstretched. On occasion, early on, I would drop a few coins in his hands. Then, one day, I realized that I had been passing this same person in the same place wanting the same thing for a very long time. I thought about it. I had had over a dozen jobs over 8 years, moved house five times, put myself through school, bought a car, wrecked the car, sold the wreckage, got married, went from wearing $80 suits to wearing $800 suits… why on earth did I give this man money? His “job” was to profile those people who have money and expect them to hand over their cash, assuring them he had no intention of doing anything other than living off their wages.

Now, granted, this is not a simple subject. The man clearly had some mental problems and Mayor Koch had flushed New York City’s mental hospital funding so the man was at a huge disadvantage (Koch later funded an effort to involuntarily remove the mentally ill from NYC streets). Once the markings of disenfranchisement manifested; soiled clothes, unbathed body, tangled hair, unwashed teeth, deprivation of medication, getting any form of employment was much more difficult. The momentum grew in his terrible plight. However, I firmly believe the number one reason why this man was (and still is as of 2005) begging, is because he makes money doing it. Lots of money.

I know another man in Vancouver, Canada. He is a crack addict. He gets funding from the British Columbia government to pay for housing and food. He uses 100% of his begging income for drugs and alcohol. I’m not making this up – I’ve had plenty of conversations with him. Each night you can find him outside the 7-Eleven on 10th and Alma asking people for money and cigarettes (retail value of one cigarette in BC is about $0.50CDN). Does he have any intention of stopping drugs or stopping begging? Absolutely not. He likes crack. And the 7-Eleven customers have no problem paying for it.

Why am I talking about this today? It is something that I have been paying attention to here in Laos for over a year. A year ago I noticed only a few beggars on the streets of the central tourism area of Vientiane. Today, I see a dramatic growth. A more official counting by Peuan Mit/Friends-International in October 2004 counted 209 street children in one day. Whatever the actual numbers may be, I am confident in my observation that there is a very real growth surge in the begging industry in Laos.

One of the most notable and prominent beggars in Vientiane, Akiki, sits outside Joma Bakery (the most expensive coffee shop in the city) or next door at the Phimphone Market (one of the most successful retail businesses in the city). He’s a nice enough guy and is respectful to his “customers”. To be fair, I should mention that Akiki has Downs Syndrome. And, granted, it is hard enough for a skilled, healthy, young man to find work in Laos, let alone a person who is mentally or physically challenged. However, there is no way Akiki is going to change his profession. Why? Money. Lot’s of it.

Consider the average monthly wage for a government worker in Laos is 350,000kip/month (about $35USD). One afternoon, I watched how much Akiki earned in 3 hours: 150,000kip. I’ve seen him make less, but certainly those numbers are not unusual. I have even had discussions with others who, like me, have seen him using his ATM card. An ATM card!!!

The other day, right after I posted my last entry, “Coopetition”, I saw Akiki do something which inspired me to write this entry. It was a thought of competition. I was sitting outside the Joma CafĂ© when three other street children had approached me for money. I told them no. They were about to approach the other table sitting outside when Akiki jumped up from his spot next door, blew his police whistle, and chased the 3 others away. It seems that not only does Akiki make a Laos fortune at his job, but he maintains a monopoly on his place of business (he does share it with one physically handicapped boy, on occasion).

Is Akiki, or the other alleged 208 beggars in Vientiane to blame for this? No, not really. He may have a monopoly on those two storefronts, but there are plenty of other places to beg. It’s not really the location, it’s those people who fund the industry who are most at fault. And the people who are funding this operation are the tourists – tourists with wonderfully benevolent intentions.

Some people give money to ease their conscience. Others, out of pity. Still, others, really believe they are helping someone. Whatever the reason, at the core of the issue, it is ignorance the fuels the begging industry. People who give money to beggars are ignorant of the problems they are causing – giving money to beggars causes much more damage than relief. Do people really think that beggars don’t talk to each other? Of course they do. And they know exactly how much they can earn and from who they can earn it (maybe, tomorrow, I will elaborate on that one).

Furthermore, behind the scenes of this industry is a much more insidious menace at work. It is often organized crime, the mafia or a mafia, orchestrating the begging circuit. If the cartel came to you safe suburban door and asked for money, exactly how much would you give… to ease your conscience?

Maybe I am opening myself up to a lot of criticism, but it is important to spread the word. Under no circumstances should anyone respond to begging with anything other than a polite ‘NO’. If you feel you must give a portion of your income to the needy, do so in a proper way. Here’s one example: $50 = One below the knee prosthesis - COPE Laos. Using PayPal, about 7% of your $50 donation is NOT used towards helping someone in need; the rest goes directly towards the recipient’s care.

In the time it took me to write this (which included a number of delays and stopping for lunch), I was approached seven times by different beggars. In the same time, I did not see one single Laos national approached for money. It is clear that tourists are targets but it is not only because of the apparently enormous cash roll they are carrying, but also because they do not understand what they are financing: a highly competitive, dangerous, and self-esteem destroying, unnecessary way of life.

Never stand begging for that which you have the power to earn
– Cervantes