I am not sure that I can ever really have sympathy for the homeless people on street corners in America any more. Sure, they look scruffy and needy, some of them even manage to look thin like they haven’t eaten (or are living on a liquid diet). And so they stand there with signs proclaiming they need work, or they’re disabled, or that they just want to drink so we will give them a dollar. And we pass them by, with this little thought in our mind that it doesn’t get much worse than that, how humiliating.
Going in to the mall at Seacon Square today I passed a man with one arm begging on the street. I don’t mean he was missing an arm, I mean that was all he had: One arm, and zero legs. He didn’t need a sign, in any language, telling us what his problem was. I watched him taking the money from his cup and carefully putting it in his fanny pack, which rested on stumps just below his hips. He didn’t need to tell me what was wrong with his life, it was pretty obvious as I put 5 baht in his cup that he had issues that even drinking wouldn’t solve. Like getting back down the stairs; I’m not certain, he may sleep there.
We don’t have a comprehension of what poverty is in America, not the same way they have it out here. We think poverty and we think of the homeless people out on the streets, of shelters for women and children, of the occasional story buried in the back of a local newspaper about a hobo freezing to death. It is out of the way, we know where to avoid so we don’t have to see it and we avoid it. But there is no avoiding it out here.
It is the great paradox of Asia, or at least South/Southeast Asia, that you can walk five minutes from the gleaming metropolitan towers of Central World (Bangkok’s Mall of America, on crack) and see poverty the kind we really like to look away from. A ten minute drive can take you from shining spires of modern or post-modern elegance to veritable shantytowns by the riverside, where people live under sheets of metal that can only be called a house out of a sense of pity or a very loose definition of the word.
Ask someone what they think of when they think of Asia and they’ll likely think of spit shined opulence or teeming masses of sweltering humanity. And the people in one category want to go to Asia, and those in the other don’t want to go to Asia, each thinking the other is foolish. And each, in their own way, totally correct. It struck me first in Hong Kong, but then more than anything it came home to me in Bangkok and Malaysia. There is the true culture shock, where not just one city but one block can hold such a study in whip lash as you walk from a super modern hotel to someone crawling on the ground with their palsied legs trailing behind them begging for help, see children standing next to their aging grandparents in rags.
It is eye opening to walk from one end of the city to the other and go through these different zones, because more than anywhere I’ve seen in the United States they really do seem to be different worlds. The financial district, the Broadway, the slums, the tourist areas, the areas where tourists dare not tread…how can they be on the same planet, let alone the same city? These images get burned in to your mind, one next to the other until it leaves you struck with the wonder of human experience; that this is not something you see in Europe or America, this jarring jam of contrast. It is too dirty, too unplanned, too wild and unpredictable. Too much of a paradox to see in a world of people who like their rich on one side, their poor on the other, and their middle class uncomfortably keeping the two apart. You can’t put all of those things together and have it come out anything resembling sane.
And yet because of that, because there is no distance except for the distance away from the super ordered regimen of the West and the rest of the supposed ‘first world’, because of that paradox and because of that insanity…it seems, in the end, that much more a human experience.