The Burden of Being Viet Kieu

One of Tom’s cousins in Phan Thiet hit us up for roughly US$200. This cousin is unemployed and had to borrow money from a friend to buy medication for his teenage daughter. At least that’s what he told Tom. Being unemployed, he has no means to repay this debt, so he’s forced to ask us for the money (to his great embarrassment). At least that’s what he told Tom. Neither of us know this cousin very well, so we don’t know how trustworthy he is. The suspicious/cynical part of me thinks, what if he’s making up this story about his daughter to take advantage of our sympathy? She doesn’t seem sick at all. Another part of me thinks, stop being such a stingy, distrusting jerk and give the poor guy a break.

Tom and I try to be as generous as we can toward our VN relatives because we know how obscenely rich we are compared to them, but we have certain limits when it comes to cash gifts. We give based on perceived need and generally draw the line at our generation. We have no problem gifting cash to our parents’ generation and older, i.e. aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. We generally don’t gift cash to our generation and younger, i.e. cousins, nieces, nephews, etc. Mainly because members of our generation and our kids’ generation should, theoretically, still have earning capacity, while members of our parents’ generation are, for the most part, retired and often barely scraping by. Many grown children continue to live with or near their parents after they get married, so it’s more efficient to give to the parents who can dole out funds to their kids and grandkids as necessary. Plus there are just way too many cousins, nieces, and nephews for us to be able to give meaningful contributions to everyone. We’re not that rich. So it’s a little disconcerting to be asked point blank for money by a cousin. In a way it’s unfair to other cousins who could have just as much or even greater need, other cousins who are too timid or ashamed to ask. And what would this cousin have done if we didn’t happen to be visiting Phan Thiet? How was he planning on repaying this debt if we had never showed up? On the other hand, (we’re hoping) he wouldn’t have asked unless he really needed the money. And even though the amount is two month’s worth of wages for the average VN worker, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in our finances. We can afford to give him the money, and he knows it. The cost of our hotel rooms easily exceeded that amount, and we chose to stay in hotels rather than staying with relatives. The fact that he knows we have the money puts us in an awkward position. We can’t really say no without seeming like cheap assholes.

My suspicious/cynical side also wonders if this cousin’s request wasn’t the result of a deliberately strategic calculation. It was as if he knew the optimal amount to ask for. The last time we were in Phan Thiet, we gave his elderly parents (Tom’s aunt and uncle) US$300 to buy an air conditioner for their bedroom. I feel like he knew not to ask for that much, because it would be inappropriate for him to receive the same as or more than his parents. He didn’t ask for a smaller amount because we would have much more readily given him $50 or $100. He asked for exactly the maximum of what we’d be willing to give. Is it a coincidence that his daughter’s medication costed that much? Am I a jerk for thinking these things?

If we honor this cousin’s request, our total cash gifts to his family would be disproportionate compared to other families we’ve visited. Ultimately, we decided to give him the money, because we could. I was swayed by something I read recently, about never regretting kindness. Even if we wind up duped, swindled, or cheated, we won’t ever feel shame for treating someone kindly. There’s a much greater risk of feeling shame or regret for not being as good to someone as you could have, when you had the chance.

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A former corporate attorney who is now happily retired and does whatever she wants.

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