“Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance.”
Cycling through Suru valley was wonderful as I mentioned in my last post, but one unfortunate factor, something I have talked about before as it has followed me through India and Nepal, started to ruin it for me.
Imagine that every single child you pass (dozens a day, maybe closer to sixty or seventy through populous areas), and even some adults, throw their hand out when they see you and say, “give me chocolate,” or “give me money.” No hello, no good day, no preamble whatsoever except give me, give me, give me. And keep in mind these aren’t poor kids. No, these aren’t beggars, or the homeless, in fact, often times these are the same kids you later see on their fancy little smartphones. But they have been taught from their parents (and Kevin and I suspect at school as well) that the second you see a white person pass, the appropriate response is to demand something from them.
I first saw the “give me candy” phenomenon in Nepal where the children in trekking regions, who were at one time given money or candy by stupid tourists, are especially violent with their demands. It then started up a bit in Kashmir, but got especially horrible through Suru valley where literally every single person we passed demanded chocolate or, the speciality of the region it seems, “one pen.” (Took us at least a dozen children to realize they were indeed asking for pens. We assume they learn this one from their teachers). These children don’t need pens, in fact, they probably had a few in their school bag at that time, but they all knew to say the exact same phrase when they saw us… Give me, give me, give me.
Besides being annoying, it is sad that other tourists have ruined it for the rest of us by portraying us white people as candy and money dispensaries. It’s a shame that in many of these areas we are no longer seen as humans, but as objects, and this objectification and extremely annoying harassment has made India miserable much of the time. It seems that only the oldest generation, such as the nice man who offered us his field (read the last post), wants nothing from us. Everyone else demands candy or money, a photo (which we always refuse), or even just a conversation purely because we are white. It’s a sad fact when having a photo of yourself pretending to be friends with a complete stranger who is lighter than you makes you cool. Being hassled dozens and dozens of times a day, every single day without fail purely because of my skin color has become the most frustrating part of India, and has made me realize that I have absolutely no desire to ever come back.
Now, it isn’t actually their faults. After meeting many wealthy tourists, you know, the kind with three DSLR cameras around their front who hand out bills of money at random, I can see why they automatically categorize all of us westerners for our money. And even though I may not be wealthy back home, I am here, even with my meager earnings, because the quality of life I come from is so much higher than the norm in most of areas. Intellectually I know this, and I know that if I were them, I would probably do the same thing, but that hasn’t made it any easier to put my own feelings aside every time I am harassed.
I’ve been approached by a well-groomed man, dressed in a clean shirt and tie asking for money, he looked like he had more than I did at the time! I’ve given an apple to a child who threw it straight into the bushes. I gave bread to a man who then looked at me in disgust. So now I also generally don’t give money or food out to people that come begging. It’s a shame that because the masses ask for help, those that genuinely do need help aren’t going to receive any.
Please do not drag your Indian experiences down over the whole of Asia, because I have never in Thailand meet a child, that asked me for money and in the other countries it does not happen often. Even in Sri Lanka it was not very common.
India is in a league of their own on this matter. This and the starring has until now keep me away from the country, but I have decided that my next trip is for India and Nepal, because many recommend to go and experience the con tries before it is too late.
Happy traveling and tail wind for you
You are right, I should specify India and Nepal and not use Asia in general.
It’s a sad state of affairs, to say the least.
Hey, I have been following your awesome journey for some time but never left a comment, so now it´s time for one. 🙂
Before I traveled to India I read a lot about the begging children, and the most common advise from other travelers seemed to be “don´t give them money, give them pens instead”. And that was because the pens in India are so bad quality compared to the western ones (which is not a surprise at all…). So maybe it´s not the teachers of the children but the tourists who encourage the children to ask for pens by giving them, only to make themselves feel better. And even though I never gave anything, I think it´s totally understandable, for the culture and seeing the poverty in the cities can be totally overwhelming to some people, especially if they only spend a short time in the country.
I also think you should not judge all Asia based on your experiences only from India and Nepal – they are different from the rest of the continent.
Good luck for keeping your nerves together in there and safe travels to you two! 🙂
Yes that’s also what we though, that candy and pens have been handed out before by tourists and that’s why we are always approached (especially in Nepal I know this to be true as I have been tourists giving out candy by the handful). And you are right, it’s not all of Asia but India!
Hey Shirine—I’m glad you’re doing well and keeping safe. I’m interested in continuing this discussion a bit as I will be heading out in a year through many of the same regions. I don’t mean to be didactic in my writing, though I think I end up sounding that way as I try to explain my perspective. Keep in mind that this is only my perspective and I’d love to hear any thoughts you have, especially with respect to how my thoughts line up with your experiences traveling every day (I usually have spent more time staying in one place and getting to know a particular region).
Your frustration with being accosted on the street with constant requests for candy, money, and, funnily enough, pens, is understandable. The feeling of being objectified and stereotyped is always a shitty one, especially when it feels accusatory (which it always seems to when it has to do with wealth and socioeconomic class). There are a few complications that come to mind from my reading of this situation, though, and I would be interested to hear what you think about them.
First, from my experience in underdeveloped countries, technology doesn’t equal wealth. Half of the houses in the corrugated iron slums of El Salvador seem to have 70” T.V.’s, even when they run on generators and the family struggles to find their next meal. You can get a knock-off iPhone in China for $30. Cheap labor in China, India, Bangladesh, and other countries has ensured that tech is accessible even in the poorest of areas. Its utility and an increasing dependence on technology in the developed world have made new technology into a status symbol in the areas, just as it is in the US. I don’t think it’s possible to judge wealth based on tech alone, and even if it were, it’s relative. Maybe these children’s parents can afford to send them to school, to feed and clothe them, but does that mean they are affluent? When they grow up, will they have the ability to gear up and take months at a time off of work to bike around the world? That’s probably the comparison that is being made in their minds. You may not see yourself as wealthy, but why would they think you were anything else?
Second, I think it might be helpful to look at more social/political context in your approach to understanding the demands that are put to you. You probably learned all of this before traveling through the region, or knew it from our excellent 4j education, but I’m going to include it to make my perspective complete. As I’m sure you’ve seen, the kind of systemic poverty that exists in these areas of the world is unparalleled in the developed world. These underdeveloped regions haven’t just lagged behind the rest in the search of a better quality of life; they’ve been repeatedly subjected to a cycle of violence, destruction, and abandonment which has left them vulnerable to the continued exploitation that we see today. Understandably, this sort of interaction sows seeds of resentment.
It’s not your fault. I’m sure you wouldn’t have made the decision to invade these countries repeatedly and pay sub-living wages to people whose cost of living is less than $5 a day. You wish that you didn’t carry the weight of colonial guilt with you at all times. Most of us who choose to travel there feel the similarly. You carry that weight, though; just as people of middle-eastern origin in the U.S. carry the weight of terrorist attacks that they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies. We can’t escape the weight of history, of politics, of culture, except partially, by imparting to others a deeper understanding of who we really are (if there is such a thing).
I think considering the mindset of people you meet while traveling—especially those you don’t agree with or don’t “click” with—can be helpful. It is part of human nature to fall back on one-dimensional stereotypes when confronted with something different. You, as a light-skinned traveler fall into the “westerner” box, a box built by pop culture, loud and obnoxious tourists whose only obvious merit may be the candy they give out, and soldiers who bring war and its favorite companion, loss. Materialism is probably a part of what makes these kids ask you for things. The opportunities you are given simply by being born in North America are something to be envied, and even if focusing on things other than material wealth is ideal, that’s not necessarily practical for people who need that focus to survive. But depending on the travelers who have come along, getting candy and pens might be the most positive representation of Western society that they have experienced.
You obviously don’t have time to stop for more than a small fraction of the children, but I think it might be helpful for both them and you to flesh out your conception of the other. The immediate human reaction is to jump to the stereotype, but all that does is render a one-dimensional copy of a three-dimensional human being, useful only as a jumping-off point for real human interaction. If you don’t go deeper, you remain isolated; you are excluded from each other’s worlds. The photo opportunity and the conversation might only be for a memory of “that one time I met a white person,” but why do they want to “[pretend] to be friends with a complete stranger who is lighter” than them? To be cool? What if they actually want to be friends with you? Understand what’s behind the giant power that’s dominated their lives in many ways but never really cared to do anything for them except leave a pen? They’re just people trying to understand their world, like you are, right? I agree that you can’t escape your cultural paradigm. But that doesn’t mean trying isn’t helpful, that you won’t learn a metric ton in the effort. Is the culture pushy and hostile? Or is it just that the idea of personal space is absent, the communication difficult, the travel wearying, and the history of Western imperialism an implicit, ever-present source of resentment?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, or what you’ve tried and what you haven’t, but the two images of the area that I have put together from your writing, one of a close-knit, generous community, and the other of a selfish, pushy, and hostile society, seem contradictory. Is there any way to merge them? I usually find that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
You are very right, and it’s true I come into a new culture with my one steriotypes and cultural ideas about how I grew up and what I think is normal. Though for my first few months in India I was indeed much more positive and open, the constant attention, oppression, and objectification has made it so I can no longer come at it with a fresh perspective as I should. (Which is why in a month I’m flying out and continuing the rest of my journey in another part of the world).
I don’t know by but it’s not letting me write more, I’ll try more later!
This comment was eloquent and well-put. I have spent several months of the past year in Latin America, where I stand out as a blond gringa. When traveling, interactions like the ones above become exhausting, and it becomes all too easy to lump the experiences into one negative box. I’m still working on navigating my privilege as an American outsider, how that impacts my perceptions, and how that impacts others’ perceptions of me. I think it is an inherent aspect of travel, neither fully positive nor fully negative, but undeniable and difficult to navigate. When do you give some coins to a child who is surely needier than I will ever be? How does my presence as a foreigner perpetrate stereotypes, and potentially negatively impact those around me? Travel is an incredible privilege, something I try to remind myself while I’m off on adventures. I may not be wealthy in the context of my home, but I carry incredible privilege just because of who I am. That doesn’t make me bad, it’s just a fact.
Your adventure continues to amaze me, and best of luck dealing with future uncomfortable situations, and I hope the rewarding, welcoming ones that restore your faith in humanity far outweigh the rest.
A professor of mine recently gave me an article to read called “Fieldwork stories: Negotiating Positionality, Power, and Purpose” by Bourke et. al, which might be interesting. It’s specifically about ethnographic fieldwork, but there are some parallels to experiences while traveling. You might want to read it for more thoughts on the subject! I found a link online: http://agi.ac.za/sites/agi.ac.za/files/fa13_profile_bourke_et_al.pdf
Happy travels! Can’t wait to read more about your adventures.
Great I will be sure to check it out! It’s true that in the moment the hares end is overwhelming, but thankfully, the good always seems to outlay the negative eventually. The beauty of time and retrospect!
I totally understand where you are coming from, I also left India feeling the same way, I felt it too in South America and North Africa only not quite so bad. It is a sad, annoying and frustrating situation. Having said that, there have some good experiences too, I will never forget a little boy on the station platform at Agra. He had a little acrobatic dance routine where he was somersaulting through a little hoop and doing handstands, I swear he wasn’t more than 4 or 5 years old and it was a real joy to behold, particularly so because of all the previous encounters of sad, desperate faces and begging outstretched hands and occasional attempts of intimidation from all quarters and that includes officials trying to hustle more money from us.
!0 years on and I will go back there now the memory has faded somewhat.
Good luck with all.
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