Be careful what you wish for

Everyone has had the experience of thinking of just the right retort in some conversation…seconds after the opportunity has passed. And don’t you wish for a second opportunity to use that retort. Well, be careful of what you wish for because you might just get it.

I was walking home last week. I pass quite a few people on my daily walk to and from campus. Youngsters often practice their English greetings on me. I exchange “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” with adults. I get stared at a great deal but I am getting over that. I feel more like I belong here. Today would be different, though. A group of teenage schoolboys were walking home together in the direction opposite to mine. They were wearing their school uniforms and laughing and joking, “palling around” like boys of fifteen often do. They were clean and respectable looking.

As we approached each other, one of the boys called out a “hello.” I smiled and returned the greeting as I have so many times before with young people. But this time, his next remark took me by surprise. He said, “Do you have any money?” I rolled my eyes at him and kind of snorted and continued walking past them. As I continued I could hear the same boy ask, “Give me some money?”

This was new. Many people here want money from us and we are rich by local standards. Mostly they want to sell us something. That is fine unless the seller is too persistent and then it becomes annoying. On the streets of Kandy Town we will often see beggars. They always leave me a bit unsettled. In the US, my policy is never to give money to beggars on the street because I know that we have a pretty good, if not perfect, social safety net and a beggar in the US is almost always better off it they seek help from a social service agency. So, not giving them money is my way of encouraging them to seek the help of people more qualified than I to give them the help they need. I salve my conscience by contributing money to the social service agencies through Kris’ church. I am not so certain about whether my US policy is appropriate here in Sri Lanka. The government has a budget for social services and, as a nominally socialist state, has a governmental philosophy supposedly sympathetic to the poor. But resources are tight and I do not have any idea what options the truly destitute have in Sri Lanka. So far, I have generally stuck to my US policy, but, as I said, it leaves me a bit troubled.

What was new was being asked for money by someone with no visible signs of being destitute. The usual beggars are rumored to go out of their way to appear pitiful. This young man appeared to be asking for money just on the assumption that since I was “rich,” I owed it to him. Or maybe he has tried this with other visitors and found some confused enough to have given him some money. I don’t know. But as I finished my walk home, I decided what I should have said in response to “Do you have some money?” was “Yes, and by Sri Lankan standards, I have a lot of money. So?” To the request “Give me some money?” I should have responded “Why?” and then called on the young man to have some pride, get a job, and earn his money. I had this imaginary conversation complete by the time I got home. I wished that I had had the quickness of mind to have articulated this at the time instead of my lame, if expressive, eye roll and snort. If only I had another chance…

Amazingly enough, the chance came the very next day on my walk to work. As I approached the main road that runs through campus and past the front of the Science Faculty, my path intersected that of a clean looking young man dressed, Western style,  in clean jeans and a white, short sleeve, dress shirt. I took him for one of the technicians who live on campus in university owned housing. He said, “Good morning.” I smiled, nodded my head, and said “Good morning.” Then he said “Do you have some money?”

Whoa! When have I ever had an opportunity like this? So, I started playing the script that I had in my head. I said “Yes, and by Sri Lankan standards, I have a lot of money. So?” He stuck to his script! “Give me some money?” “No,” I said, “Have some pride.” Un-pridefully, he tried again: “Give me some money?” “Certainly not!” I replied and we parted ways.

Now immediately I regretted my remarks. First, it was uncharitable of me. What did I really know of this man’s circumstances? If you can misjudge someone who is poorly dressed, surely you can do the opposite with someone reasonably well dressed. Second, I was not exactly doing my job as a Fulbrighter of making friends for the United States. But what made me feel really stupid was the language issue. My experience in Sri Lanka is that my friends and colleagues at the university speak and understand English extremely well (aside from my accent).  However, most other people only speak a little English. So, in all likelihood, what did that young man hear from me in response to his questions? “Yes, blah blah, blah” “No, blah, blah.” “Blah, no!”

So much for my oh-so-clever retort. I felt pretty small and not very clever at all.



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