The other day I saw an old woman in pajama clothing squatting against a towering cement pole used to hold up electrical and telephone wires. it was across a large street, the motorbikes all stopped dutifully behind a red light. I pointed to the old woman to my great uncle and asked if she was a beggar. my great uncle leans towards me and says,
“if you want to give money to beggars, wait until Tet. they’re everywhere, they practically line the streets.”
With that he chuckles at his joke, also prompting my other uncle to laugh. another old woman is standing to the side, asking motorists for money. i take out 20,000 vietnamese dollars, roughly $1.30, and walk across the street with my uncles. my uncles stop and wait and the motorists by the sidewalk watch me as i walk up to the old woman. i bend down and place the two 10,000 bills into the palm of her hand. she doesn’t say anything and i tell her, “here miss, i would like you to have this”. she doesn’t take it. i look down and see no fingers on her hand. just wrinkly palms with smoothed out surfaces where her fingers should be. speechless i look at up. she turns her face towards me, moving left and right trying to figure out who is talking, and i see that she has no eyes. her eyelids are partially closed and where they don’t meet you can see the flesh-filled emptiness where the eyes are supposed to be. i stand up and see the other woman begging motorists for money.
she points back at the old woman, clearly begging for the both of them. in Saigon there are lots of con-artists trying to make extra money by feigning handicap, but this was a case where there is no doubt. destitute doesn’t even begin to describe these two old women. after living here for a while, you begin to take note of the details, the extent of dirtiness on a beggar’s body, the way a lottery ticket seller carries themself. sometimes, the details explode in your face, wrenches your heart, and leaves an incessant tapping on the back of your heart that eventually fades with time. sometimes you wish you were numb again, beg for it, pray for it. i’m used to it, i guess, the poverty and the beggars and children selling broken dreams printed on thin pieces of paper. but the punches still come and instead of drowning you’re stung, the painful realization that you are not them and they are not you still rolling. i walk over to the woman begging from the motorists, hand her 20,000, and get back to my uncles.