Poverty and Social Responsibility

Where to begin.

I tend to go about a month before I write a proper blog entry. There is a lot that happens, but I have to weigh the minutia of every day against all the rest of it, and it generally takes awhile for the lot of it to mean something concrete to me; I dont’ want to judge any of this too quickly, but lengthy observation gives you a clearer and clearer picture, and sometimes you can’t ignore what you end up seeing.

Tonight, during rush hour, near the traffic light where there are many people selling odds and ends, betel nut leaves (local legal drug of choice, for chewing), little street urchins begging with flowers, I saw a man sitting on the side of the road, fully on the road with his back against the curb. A toddler, maybe 18 months old, stood beside him, both of them just inches from the traffic. His legs were in such a way that it looked like maybe he didn’t have both of them, and as my taxi inched past, I could see that one was tucked under, and the far one, the one that had been shielded from view, was sprawled out on his far side. His foot, while still technically there, was covered in blood and split open. He sat, dazed, wobbling a bit on the side of the road, with a child inexplicably in his care. No one stopped. No one moved to his aid, or to call for help, or to move him or the child to somewhere slightly more safe.

It took me a few moments to process what I had seen, but by the time I looked back we were 6 car lengths away, speeding thru the traffic light that was now green. I felt guilty that I didn’t stop the taxi, that I didn’t check on him, or at least go down to the clinic down the street to notify them that a man was hurt near by. I also felt ashamed, because it also crossed my mind, almost simultaneously, that maybe he was faking it. Maybe it was a set up; some of those who have physical evidence of abject poverty (goiters, deformities, extremely stooped behavior, missing limbs, etc) often beg at the corner, because it is extremely unpleasant to be met with such a stark representation of need and want. Their very visible presence is then very lucrative for anyone who may feel that a couple hundred kyat is a reasonable substitute for extreme changes in social measures, or genuine goodwill and kindness. (Keep in mind, the exchange rate is 1000 kyat to a dollar.)

Also, many times you will see a woman with a sleeping infant begging for money, and I have made it a personal stance not to give in these cases, because frequently the children are drunk or drugged with heroin and used only as a prop, and I was very quick to genuinely consider this as a similar set up, as a means to excuse my inert shirking of social responsibility.

Coming back to my neighborhood an hour later, I didn’t see the man, or the infant. I hope he was ok. I really do hope he was faking, honestly, but the odds are quite good that he had actually been hit by a car and left to deal with a small child on his own, in a semi-incapacitated state. He was also probably in shock.

After the events of this past weekend, this is not something that was easy to see. There are not a lot of really visible awful things that happen, but they do happen. Some of them even get press coverage, but it is my speculation that, while it is overall a safe place for foreigners to live and reside, it is also a country that is very dependant on the resources, experience, and financial opportunities brought here by foreigners. You dont’ want to scare off the people who want to invest in your future, so incidences of crime are kept semi-secretive. Muggings happen, just like everywhere else, and its completely ignorant to think that this country would somehow be magically immune to the levels of desperation that abject poverty inspires.

To be clear, I was not mugged. I dont’ make a habit of walking down dark streets at odd hours on my own, even before hearing that a friend-of-a-friend was mugged by two girls who put a knife to his throat and took his money. That was on a dark street outside the safe bustling neighborhoods of Yangon, but it still happened, and I’m sure worse things happen. I’m also certain that details regarding these events are incredibly difficult to account for, as the city isn’t even mapped properly for GPS, much less rigged for any kind of surveillance. I don’t want my every moved to be recorded, (although¬†that still may be the case here, just not with cameras) but I do want to feel like if something were to happen there would be a way of holding people responsible or obtaining a proper sequence of events. Neither of those are an option in a country without interest in neither accurate record keeping nor public wellbeing.

People in this country are either extremely well to do (read: f*cking wealthy) or very, very, very poor.

As I have mentioned before, there is no middle class, and the burden of the lavish lifestyle of the rich (and infamous) falls on the shoulders (and back, and legs, and finances, and mental wellbeing) of the poor. This leads me to a recounting of my weekend…

Sparing the details, on Saturday night I went out with friends and ended up at a night club until morning. As we were leaving, I saw one of the Lebanese men my group had chatted with talking to a girl at a table. There was nothing specifically odd about that, except for the fact that about an hour before I had talked to a woman who said she was there with her daughter. When I said she didn’t look old enough to have a daughter, she very casually mentioned her daughter was 13, and introduced me to the girl that this 30 year old man was now chatting with.

I went over, tapped him on the shoulder, passed on that information just in case he was unaware…and when he went back to exactly what he was doing,ignoring the information that his target was VERY MUCH under age, I physically placed myself between them, and told him to go. This escalated into a yelling match, with me shaming him in the foyer of this club/bar. I’m told the turning point from “semi-rational conversation” to “verbal bar fight” came after several men tried to get me to be quiet, offering that “he didn’t know” or “its a cultural difference.” I don’t freaking care. Its wrong. Its wrong for so many reasons, and my breaking point came after a handful of adult men were so ready to come to the aid of a man who was trying to bed a child, but who scolded me for pointing it out.

Discussing these events later with another teacher who had been there with me, and who was the only person who stuck up for me, telling them to just let me talk, and that i have a point, and that some people have very strong convictions (thanks, J), we were discussing the specific strangeness of not only allowing your 13 year old daughter to be in that situation, but accompanying her there.

It was suggested later that maybe she was actually an older prostitute showing a young girl the ropes, in which case I hadn’t saved her from anything, I had actually interfered with her training and income for the night. I would not have done anything differently; I am of the opinion that no one should be forced into prostitution for any reason, and most definitely not because of 1) a complete lack of options or 2) status as a minor with complete dependency on the adults that you count on to help you. I don’t think she should have been there, and I don’t think she should be getting coached on how to be a working girl. I think that there should be so MANY other options, so many other SAFE options, that it would be LUDICRIOUS for us to suggest that it was anything other than a situation resulting from poor parental judgement…but I can’t be sure.

I was told by friends and family that I did the right thing, that they were proud of me, and that the girl was lucky to have someone to show her that she matters. These things make me feel a little better, but I don’t think I really accomplished anything that night. I wouldn’t have done anything differently, but I can’t just turn around and say “I did my part, now back to minding my own business.”

Whether or not the girl in this situation was a prostitute, many girls her age are. There are no labor or wage laws in this country, and people are paid a horrifically low wage regardless of what they do. The educational system is broken so thoroughly, and the burdens created by the resulting, extensive shortcomings leave no reasonable hope of recovery for this generation. Because of the way that education is treated here, there is a insurmountable gap from the basics provided for the general public to the comprehensive proper education reserved for children of the very wealthy. In many instances, these are the children of the very people who, in one way or another (or, to be perfectly honest, many ways) are responsible for these discrepancies. Money is already a huge issue for families, so children are frequently pulled out of their already very-sub-par schools to help pay for basic things, like food. There are no luxuries to be had here; housing is simple and rooming with at least one kind of pest is almost a guarantee. Girls who are denied proper education are set in motion to get sucked into a spiral that wipes out their ability to escape it.

But, if a girl can get a proper education… she can do so many things. The Girl Effect shows us that adolescent girls are the most powerful force for change on the planet.

The world we live in is a scary place, but when the Haves stack the cards against the Have Nots in such a staggering way, it makes both the present and the future terrifying places to live. Its no wonder we have a penchant for living in the past, because we have no idea how to properly repair our present or plan for a fair, reasonable future, and acknowledging the truth of this kind of situation is a shit-yourself kind of call to reality that most people avoid as well as they can.
I have no solutions, only expectations and standards for my fellow human beings, and that is to treat each other kindly, decently, and with the same respect and consideration you would want.
Why is that something that is so hard to follow through with?