What I Learned About Begging by Traveling to Different Countries

Travelling the world is not always beauty and adventure. Sometimes it can be rather unpleasant. One of the more depressing aspects of world travel is being approached by people begging for money.

My own position on giving money to street beggars outside of my home country went through a considerable evolution, an evolution that left me with more questions than answers.

A phenomenon you see in other countries that you are far less likely to see in a place like the United States is children begging for money or food. I first witnessed this when I was 16. I was on a school sponsored trip to Peru during the 4th of July. Since it was a special day for us, the scientist from the organization hosting our trip treated us to a restaurant in Iquitos.

Toward the end of our meal, a little girl saw us through the window, came walking through the open entrance and, in meek Spanish, asked us for some of our food. As with every other situation in that country that we weren’t sure how to handle, we turned to the scientist sitting at the head of the table and asked what we should do. His response was simply “The restaurant doesn’t like people begging.” He walked over, gently ushered the child out the door, and had a word with the waiter, who later brought the girl a bag of food out by the door.

This was the experience that guided me years later when I encountered people begging in the streets of China. In the city of Nantong, however, the demographics of the beggars seemed to have flipped. Rather than encountering children, the bulk of the panhandlers seemed to be at least middle aged or even elderly.

Some would very boldly put their bowls right up in my face and follow me around when they saw me while others would kneel down, place a bowl in front of them, put their faces almost on the sidewalk and never once look up at the people passing by.

At least once I gave money to one of these gray-haired people silently asking for money outside. However, when a woman spotted me through the door of a movie theater, walked right in and put her bowl in my face, I tried to walk away from her. I still remembered the lesson of not encouraging that within the walls of an established business.

She was one of the more aggressive beggars and followed me across the floor, shaking the bowl and petitioning me loudly. Before too long, the woman who worked at the snack bar came to my rescue and firmly instructed the beggar to leave the premises in the local language.

That same year, I took a vacation and flew to Cambodia. This was where I learned how very complex the issue of begging can be.

I first had a long layover in the capital city of Phnom Penh. While visiting this city, a local resident who had lost a limb, presumably to the landmine epidemic in the country, approached me and held out his hand. I’ve never been able to get this man out of my mind.

Growing up in the United States, I heard all the usual arguments against giving money to panhandlers, such as it enables them to continue an illicit lifestyle and discourages them from doing legitimate work. However, that man in a wheelchair sent a million questions through my mind. What kind of “real” work was available in this country to a man who had lost his leg? Was there anything in the way of disability payments or support to be had by him?

Up until that point, most of the arguments that I had heard against giving money to beggars were predicated on the notion that the person begging had other options. Was that the reality for that man begging in the streets of Phom Penh?

Afterward, I traveled to the religiously significant region of Siem Reap. As I flew from Phnom Penh to the Siem Reap Airport, I saw my first government-sponsored flyer that is characteristic of the province. It contains a list of do’s and don’ts about visiting the area.

Somewhere in between don’t take pictures of the monks and keep your thighs and shoulders covered was the instruction not to give food or money to children. Furthermore, visitors to the province were asked not to buy anything from children trying to sell items to tourists as it “discourages them from going to school.”

I kept this in mind whenever I was approached by kids around the tourist destinations. However, it threw me off when, rather than just asking me if I had any spare change, the kids would offer to sell me postcards or make it appear as though they were conducting an official fundraiser. When I declined to buy souvenirs or postcards from them, the appeal was “I don’t have money to pay my teacher.”

Whether there was any truth to that or whether the kids just said it in the hopes of arousing sympathy, I honestly don’t know.

I also kept this in mind when I went to the Philippines several months later. When a small child came to me in the streets of Manila and asked, “Can you buy me food, miss? I’m really hungry,” I swallowed hard to hold back the tears and walked away.

Later on, however, an adult came to beg from me. He took an approach that I had not seen before. He got down on his knees and started wiping my feet with his shirt. This made me very uncomfortable and I handed him some Philipino rupees to get him to stop more than anything else. At the time, I honestly had fewer qualms about giving money to him because he was an adult.

Then I went to India. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is the issue of begging so convoluted. It was also here that I concluded, while giving to an adult may be morally justifiable, giving to a begging child is never a good idea. Just as in Cambodia, I was told that I should never give to kids in the street, but unlike in Cambodia, the explanation was far more sinister.

I was already familiar with the existence of the “begging mafia” as a way to organize and utilize the practice of begging. However, in India, my perspective came full circle.

In India, tens of thousands of children are abducted every year. While their fates are never certain unless they are fortunate enough to be rescued, many of these children end up enslaved to organized begging rings. These begging rackets teach them the nuances of effective panhandling and send them out into the streets every day. These children bring the money they collect back to the same begging ringleaders every day.

The begging mafia will use any tactic conceivable to invoke sympathy in even the most jaded heart. They prefer to use children because doing so makes it easier to exploit human compassion. These kids are intentionally fed very little so their tears from the hunger pangs will make people passing by more likely to give them money. Adults who have also been kidnapped or join these begging rings out of desperation will carry a toddler or baby with them all day that has been drugged so it will arouse compassion but not distract the beggar from their task.

And those beggars with missing limbs? The begging mafia will pay to have the limbs of its “employees” amputated for no reason whatsoever other than to make tourists such as myself feel that much more sorry for them and more likely to give. Doctors in India have been arrested after undercover police operations caught them agreeing to accept bribes in exchange for performing medically unnecessary amputations for begging rings.

So after this stark reminder about the extremes of human depravity, I never gave to anyone begging in India, except for one instance.

My friend and I were in a tricycle, trapped at a standstill in the notorious Indian traffic. I saw a band of women weaving through the jigsaw puzzle of vehicles. This might sound like a dangerous situation for them, but it really wasn’t because Indian traffic moves just that slowly. I spotted them coming from a long way off.

The moment she saw us, one of the women started feigning sadness and tears. She ran over to us and showed us what, my friend explained, was supposed to be evidence that she had a child in the hospital and needed money. The whole thing was clearly a total act, but they persisted. Once these women realized they had failed to create the desired response in us, they started to move onto the next prospective customer.

However, in the back of the group was a young boy.

The women he was walking behind had already shifted their attention to finding a new possible donor, but as he started to move past my tricycle, our eyes met. He lingered for a small moment. We were both completely silent, but he held my gaze. I considered the half empty box of cakes in my lap. He seemed to read my mind as he made the most subtle of glances down to the box, as enticed by the idea of sugar as any child from any circumstance would be. After a moment of mutual hesitation, I leaned forward and offered him the pastries. With equal timidity, he accepted them and quietly carried them off with an expression that suggested he was both thankful for the gift and hardly sure what to do with it at the same time.

Whenever you are approached by a beggar, it is crucial you take where you are into consideration. The same rules don’t apply everywhere. However, no matter where you are, there is something you can do for them, you can look them in the eyes.

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I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to California to get my first bachelor's degree. I am currently living and working as a teacher in China while studying the University of North Dakota's online bachelor of Communications/Journalism program.

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What I Learned About Begging by Traveling to Different Countries

Travelling the world is not always beauty and adventure. Sometimes it can be rather unpleasant. One of the more depressing aspects of world travel is being approached by people begging for money.

My own position on giving money to street beggars outside of my home country went through a considerable evolution, an evolution that left me with more questions than answers.

A phenomenon you see in other countries that you are far less likely to see in a place like the United States is children begging for money or food. I first witnessed this when I was 16. I was on a school sponsored trip to Peru during the 4th of July. Since it was a special day for us, the scientist from the organization hosting our trip treated us to a restaurant in Iquitos.

Toward the end of our meal, a little girl saw us through the window, came walking through the open entrance and, in meek Spanish, asked us for some of our food. As with every other situation in that country that we weren’t sure how to handle, we turned to the scientist sitting at the head of the table and asked what we should do. His response was simply “The restaurant doesn’t like people begging.” He walked over, gently ushered the child out the door, and had a word with the waiter, who later brought the girl a bag of food out by the door.

This was the experience that guided me years later when I encountered people begging in the streets of China. In the city of Nantong, however, the demographics of the beggars seemed to have flipped. Rather than encountering children, the bulk of the panhandlers seemed to be at least middle aged or even elderly.

Some would very boldly put their bowls right up in my face and follow me around when they saw me while others would kneel down, place a bowl in front of them, put their faces almost on the sidewalk and never once look up at the people passing by.

At least once I gave money to one of these gray-haired people silently asking for money outside. However, when a woman spotted me through the door of a movie theater, walked right in and put her bowl in my face, I tried to walk away from her. I still remembered the lesson of not encouraging that within the walls of an established business.

She was one of the more aggressive beggars and followed me across the floor, shaking the bowl and petitioning me loudly. Before too long, the woman who worked at the snack bar came to my rescue and firmly instructed the beggar to leave the premises in the local language.

That same year, I took a vacation and flew to Cambodia. This was where I learned how very complex the issue of begging can be.

I first had a long layover in the capital city of Phnom Penh. While visiting this city, a local resident who had lost a limb, presumably to the landmine epidemic in the country, approached me and held out his hand. I’ve never been able to get this man out of my mind.

Growing up in the United States, I heard all the usual arguments against giving money to panhandlers, such as it enables them to continue an illicit lifestyle and discourages them from doing legitimate work. However, that man in a wheelchair sent a million questions through my mind. What kind of “real” work was available in this country to a man who had lost his leg? Was there anything in the way of disability payments or support to be had by him?

Up until that point, most of the arguments that I had heard against giving money to beggars were predicated on the notion that the person begging had other options. Was that the reality for that man begging in the streets of Phom Penh?

Afterward, I traveled to the religiously significant region of Siem Reap. As I flew from Phnom Penh to the Siem Reap Airport, I saw my first government-sponsored flyer that is characteristic of the province. It contains a list of do’s and don’ts about visiting the area.

Somewhere in between don’t take pictures of the monks and keep your thighs and shoulders covered was the instruction not to give food or money to children. Furthermore, visitors to the province were asked not to buy anything from children trying to sell items to tourists as it “discourages them from going to school.”

I kept this in mind whenever I was approached by kids around the tourist destinations. However, it threw me off when, rather than just asking me if I had any spare change, the kids would offer to sell me postcards or make it appear as though they were conducting an official fundraiser. When I declined to buy souvenirs or postcards from them, the appeal was “I don’t have money to pay my teacher.”

Whether there was any truth to that or whether the kids just said it in the hopes of arousing sympathy, I honestly don’t know.

I also kept this in mind when I went to the Philippines several months later. When a small child came to me in the streets of Manila and asked, “Can you buy me food, miss? I’m really hungry,” I swallowed hard to hold back the tears and walked away.

Later on, however, an adult came to beg from me. He took an approach that I had not seen before. He got down on his knees and started wiping my feet with his shirt. This made me very uncomfortable and I handed him some Philipino rupees to get him to stop more than anything else. At the time, I honestly had fewer qualms about giving money to him because he was an adult.

Then I went to India. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is the issue of begging so convoluted. It was also here that I concluded, while giving to an adult may be morally justifiable, giving to a begging child is never a good idea. Just as in Cambodia, I was told that I should never give to kids in the street, but unlike in Cambodia, the explanation was far more sinister.

I was already familiar with the existence of the “begging mafia” as a way to organize and utilize the practice of begging. However, in India, my perspective came full circle.

In India, tens of thousands of children are abducted every year. While their fates are never certain unless they are fortunate enough to be rescued, many of these children end up enslaved to organized begging rings. These begging rackets teach them the nuances of effective panhandling and send them out into the streets every day. These children bring the money they collect back to the same begging ringleaders every day.

The begging mafia will use any tactic conceivable to invoke sympathy in even the most jaded heart. They prefer to use children because doing so makes it easier to exploit human compassion. These kids are intentionally fed very little so their tears from the hunger pangs will make people passing by more likely to give them money. Adults who have also been kidnapped or join these begging rings out of desperation will carry a toddler or baby with them all day that has been drugged so it will arouse compassion but not distract the beggar from their task.

And those beggars with missing limbs? The begging mafia will pay to have the limbs of its “employees” amputated for no reason whatsoever other than to make tourists such as myself feel that much more sorry for them and more likely to give. Doctors in India have been arrested after undercover police operations caught them agreeing to accept bribes in exchange for performing medically unnecessary amputations for begging rings.

So after this stark reminder about the extremes of human depravity, I never gave to anyone begging in India, except for one instance.

My friend and I were in a tricycle, trapped at a standstill in the notorious Indian traffic. I saw a band of women weaving through the jigsaw puzzle of vehicles. This might sound like a dangerous situation for them, but it really wasn’t because Indian traffic moves just that slowly. I spotted them coming from a long way off.

The moment she saw us, one of the women started feigning sadness and tears. She ran over to us and showed us what, my friend explained, was supposed to be evidence that she had a child in the hospital and needed money. The whole thing was clearly a total act, but they persisted. Once these women realized they had failed to create the desired response in us, they started to move onto the next prospective customer.

However, in the back of the group was a young boy.

The women he was walking behind had already shifted their attention to finding a new possible donor, but as he started to move past my tricycle, our eyes met. He lingered for a small moment. We were both completely silent, but he held my gaze. I considered the half empty box of cakes in my lap. He seemed to read my mind as he made the most subtle of glances down to the box, as enticed by the idea of sugar as any child from any circumstance would be. After a moment of mutual hesitation, I leaned forward and offered him the pastries. With equal timidity, he accepted them and quietly carried them off with an expression that suggested he was both thankful for the gift and hardly sure what to do with it at the same time.

Whenever you are approached by a beggar, it is crucial you take where you are into consideration. The same rules don’t apply everywhere. However, no matter where you are, there is something you can do for them, you can look them in the eyes.

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