I am in the middle of a six-week walkabout through Asia, and I'm becoming, I think, a connoisseur of beggars.
The Japanese beggar, silent, bowed, and as intent on offering you his shame as he is on accepting your money, is not overly troubling. He is the more docile, better-groomed cousin of the American street person, and the technique for encountering him is the same: Avert your eyes. Remind yourself of the need to conserve money. Feel a stab of guilt. Move on.
The Chinese panhandler is not as easy to ignore. A Shanghai beggar will not let you off with a brief flash of remorse. He will follow you down the street several paces, brandishing a floppy collection cap, tugging your arm, and yelping, in English, "Hello! Please!" A woman is usually quieter, beseeching with her hands steepled under her chin, or pointing desperately toward her open mouth. She, too, will up the awkward ante by following you, jerking your sleeve to reclaim your attention if you try to turn your head away.
In Beijing, I encounter another type of supplicant, more hustler than panhandler, easier to despise, but even harder to ignore. They are the ubiquitous touts. Stamps. Coins. Animal pelts. Guided tours. Rickshaw rides. It's all for sale at irritating volume by hucksters who hear "No," "I'm not interested" and "Leave me alone" as coy bargaining gambits.
My traveling companion, John, wonders aloud why the needy of the world seem to target me. We agree that with my pink cheeks and soft build, I have a harmless, approachable look to me. He also wonders why it is that these encounters bother me so much. I don't have a good answer for that. I feebly offer that as a woman, it makes me feel threatened when people I can't overpower make demands of me. But I realize it's more than that. It's not the extraction of cash I mind so much. It's the rush of ugly feelings I can't stand. I hate that I feel revulsion whenever an unwashed hand paws at my arm. I hate that I don't have the means to help everyone. I hate that I don't want to help everyone. I'm forced to conclude that it's not beggars that trouble me so much. In these situations, it's myself I dislike.
Now, on my way to the Bogd Khaan palace on Ulaan Baatar's south side, I see that I am about to become acquainted with Mongolian-style hustling. I am alone--John is having solo adventures this morning, which I later find out include thwarting a pickpocket in front of the State Department Store.
A smiling man approaches me and asks if I speak English. "A little," I hear myself say. My own guardedness surprises me. A little? It's my native language. Undaunted, the man hands me a laminated sheet that limns, in passable English, a litany of woes. His ger (yurt) has burned down. His wife has died. There's more, but I stop there. The flyer reads like a Mongolian country-western song with its absurd conjunction of tragedy. Angrily, I shove the sheet back at him and march on.
After my visit to the palace, I am approached by an elderly woman. She is wearing a traditional tunic of brilliant blue, cinched with a black sash, and closed with an L-formation of silver buttons marching up her torso and across her neckline. She also wears a cowboy hat and black felt boots. Her crinkly eyes disappear into her face, which is as brown and contoured as a walnut. She is smiling broadly and radiating warmth, but she's also chattering unintelligibly and approaching me too quickly. Her urgency can only mean that she wants something from me, and I hurry past, frowning, shaking my head.
It isn't until I'm 10 steps past her that I realize I understand what she's saying. I have acquired only two scraps of Mongolian, and she's repeating one of them over and over. "Sain baina uu, sain baina uu, sain baina uu," she's chanting.
Cowboy Granny is saying "hello."
In a flash I realize there is a far worse feeling than panhandler guilt. It's this feeling, the feeling of realizing that I have just repaid a random act of kindness with appallingly rude behavior.
I turn and call "sain baina uu" in return, but it's a weak effort offered far too late. I weigh my face-saving options, and scurrying away in shame seems like the best one. So that's what I do.
Naturally I wish this situation had gone differently from the start. I wish I hadn't been looking for trouble from the old lady. I wish I'd been quicker with my "sain baina uu." I wish fate had not picked the most guileless grandmother in Central Asia to remind me that when traveling, it's better to err on the side of openness.
Now that I have learned my lesson, I wish I could rewind and start the conversation over. If I could see my Buddhist Bubbe again, I'd say "hello" right away this time.
I'd also tell her the one other thing I know how to say in Mongolian: "Bayarlalaa."
It means "thanks."
Causes Nicole Clausing Supports
Trevor Project, SFSPCA