beggars, canvassers, nomads

words & images kenny ong

On my first visit to Shanghai, I watched a little girl in burgundy sweats and a pink, long sleeved shirt walk into my subway car. My seat was first in line, so she came up to my teenaged knees and, without speaking—no expression in her face blushed with dirt—she held her small, cupped hand out to me. I couldn’t speak Chinese, so I tried to gesture that I had nothing to give. It must have looked like I gave up, didn’t know, or didn’t care—arms to the side, elbows bent upwards, as if contorting the torso into the ‘w’ of, “Whatever...” So she knelt at my feet, tapped her head to my shins, looked up, and held out her hand again. As I searched my pocket for whatever loose change I had, not even in local currency, she bowed her head again.

I put a few quarters and dimes in her hand, and she went on her way to the next person—a man standing by the doors, looking like he was on his way home from work. He acted as if she wasn’t there, but when her head bumped his knees, he started berating her about, as my parents later explained, whether her money was going to her next meal or to the gang member keeping her.

Almost ten years later, I lived in New York City and was acquainted daily with public transportation as a great equalizer. Not in the sense that we were all equally miserable to be in an overcrowded bus or a boggy subway, but that we could all travel anywhere within the great city, despite our differences.

Those who remain in perpetual transit; those who go car to car singing good mornings or sad happy birthday tunes, looking for percussion in hollow pops and jingles; loose change in recycled paper cups. Before it’s even my turn to contribute, I tell myself it’s a lost cause; that every little bit does not matter in the face of society’s failures. And, it’s convenient to pretend that they don’t exist, to absolve active empathy.

One summer, I left New York to spend a few days in Paris with my parents. When we visited the Eiffel Tower, I noticed groups of women around my age, going person to person with blue vests and clipboards, asking, “Spake English?” They looked like canvassers for some local non- profit, and I thought it was smart that they were going after tourists, like me, who had expendable income for a good cause.

I was sitting under the Eiffel Tower, waiting for my parents to finish their bathroom business, when one of these canvassers approached me.

Spake English?
“Yeah, hi.”
“Donate money, please.”

She held out her clipboard, which I took, only her clipboard was actually a flimsy square of cardboard ripped from what looked like a box of microwaveable dinners. Taped to it was a pen and a crinkled piece of paper with a handicap symbol printed at the top, some French text beneath it, and below all that, an empty spreadsheet for name, number, and amount donated. It all came across as a scam, so I handed back the cardboard and said I didn’t have any money to donate.

“ must donate!”
“Sorry. I don’t have any cash on me.”

As she sighed and walked away in a huff, I thought about all the stories I had heard about “gypsies” tossing babies into a stranger's arms before pickpocketing them. And I remembered all the experiences an ethnomusicologist had shared with me—from her brief time as Wife Three to a Roma chieftain, to her tenure as a college professor taking students to Roma settlements in Central Europe. There were isolated urban housing projects reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto and pick-up soccer games dispersed by riot police. I realized that I might have just come face to face with that which I had heard so much about, but didn’t know what to make of the encounter.

Much later in the day, my parents toured the Louis Vuitton store on Champs-Élysées. I’ve never bought into the market value of fashionable name brands, so being in a store dedicated to selling expensive bags—with someone else’s initials patterned all over them like Warhol soup cans—sucked the life out of me. The concept of paying thousands of dollars for a bag that could hold one’s life debris no better than a twenty dollar bag, was, to me, obscene and offensive—a perverted con by psychopaths, laughing their way to a Swiss bank. I stuck with my parents as long as I could before going outside for a bench and air.

I sat down, melodramatically tired and ready to go home. I tried to lose myself in the surroundings through vacant staring at people, places, streets, buildings, the sky, just as complete abstractions, devoid of particulars. I thought I could be anywhere in the world, and I would see nearly the same thing. None of it could look that different from somewhere a town over, or an ocean over. There would always be a place, at any time, where the sky was blue, the sun warm, and the breeze cool, and I could lose myself in it. And then a woman held a paper and piece of cardboard in front of me.

Spake English?
I stared at the paper, too tired to engage past thinking, This shit again.
“Sir! Spake English?” I looked up at her, still not saying a word; tired to the point of petty rudeness.
“Donate money, please.” She held her pen out to me. I looked down again, narrowing my eyes at the paper in facetious concentration.
“Sir? Spake English?

I looked up again, noticing faint hairs on her upper lip; her brown skin, eyes, dark, stringy hair pulled into a pony tail behind an increasingly frustrated, or desperate, expression. She looked similar to the woman at the Eiffel Tower. I still didn’t say anything.

“Sir, donate money please,” she begged, shaking the cardboard and pen. I tilted my head and narrowed my gaze even further. And then she sighed and walked away in a huff. I pathetically chuckled to myself, until I realized I could have had an actual conversation with her.

Not long after, I was home and I read about a genetic study which traced Romani ancestry back a thousand years to India’s caste of Untouchables—still the lowest, poorest, darkest class of India’s society today. The study’s conclusion implies that some Untouchables migrated, away from the society which ostracized them and in search of another. And yet it would appear they’ve struggled to be a part of one since, still migrating, still in transit.

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