I took the kids to eat pho for lunch. We were sitting at one of those casual outdoor eateries that are so common in VN, on a side street about half a block down from the main thoroughfare where my aunt’s apartment building is located. As I was spooning noodles and broth into the kids, I looked up and saw something moving on the ground several yards from us. It was a man lying on his side at the corner of the intersection, dragging himself across the street to the next corner. He was propped up on his right elbow, which was cushioned by some sort of thinly padded shield, and his shriveled, limp legs dragged uselessly behind him. It must have taken him a full five minutes to cross the street, all the while lying almost completely prone on a high traffic street, with motorcycles, cars, and trucks whizzing by or turning the corner barely inches away from his head or his feet. I was horrified. My first thought was, Oh my God, it’s so hot! It was a little after noon, the hottest part of the day, and we were baking under the shade of an awning. Whenever we had to walk anywhere, we would race as quickly as possible to our destination because anything more than a few minutes of exposure to heavy pollution and direct sunlight was unbearable. This man’s entire body was laying on hot black asphalt, the merciless midday sun beating down on him as he inhaled exhaust fumes from passing vehicles. I can barely tolerate breathing exhaust fumes while walking around, but this man’s head was only a few inches from the ground, putting his face directly in the path of countless exhaust pipes. It was a miracle that he wasn’t run over or mutilated even though he was literally lying on the side of a busy street with vehicles moving dangerously close to him. What was more astonishing was the fact that, although drivers must have been taking care to avoid hitting him, no one seemed to notice him. I felt like I was the only one staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed. To everyone else, he was ordinary. He didn’t garner any lingering looks, any double takes. Motorcyclists who were turning at the intersection he was trying to cross came so close to him that they could have touched him with their feet, yet none of them gave him a second glance. He was utterly mundane.
I didn’t get a good look at his face because he was laying with his back toward us, but I could see that he wasn’t an old man. He might have been my age, perhaps younger. His feet were bare. He was wearing what once, long ago, might have been a nice pair of dark slacks and a white button down shirt, but which were so old and tattered that they were little more than rags. Maybe a decade or two ago, in much better circumstances, his outfit would have been presentable in a business casual office. The idea that at some point he had wanted and tried to be dignified, to look respectable, struck me as tragic. The sight of him was so shocking that I stared at him the entire time he was dragging his body across the street, unable to tear my eyes away. Eventually the kids noticed him too, and the girl pointed and asked, “What is that?” I could see her trying to process what she was seeing and her confusion over why anyone would be doing what he was doing. The boy looked at him and then looked at me, his baby eyebrows furrowed in genuine concern, and asked, “Momma, why isn’t anyone helping him?”
It was such a simple and forthright and obvious question coming from an innocent three-year-old, and it broke my heart. The girl chimed in as well so that both children were inquiring again and again, “Why isn’t anyone helping him?” I had no response for them other than to repeat, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” At one point a motorcyclist pulled over and bent down to him and relief flooded through me. Finally, I thought, someone’s here to get him. I wondered if it was a family member, maybe a brother or a cousin, and briefly resented this person. What kind of person leaves a crippled relative lying in the street to drag himself around? Why wasn’t this poor man’s family taking better care of him? Then I noticed the crippled man and the motorcyclist exchanging what looked like money or pieces of paper. Maybe the motorcyclist wasn’t a relative after all, maybe he was one of those motorcycle taxi drivers (xe om) that a lone passenger can rent instead of a taxicab. Maybe he took pity on the crippled man and pulled over to give him a ride, or maybe they had an understanding and the crippled man was a regular customer. But then the motorcyclist climbed back on his motorcycle and rode off. What was that about? It happened twice more while I watched, and I realized that the motorcyclists were pulling over to buy lottery tickets from the crippled man, who dispensed them from a black cloth satchel slung over his shoulder. Street beggars rarely beg for money outright anymore; they sell lottery tickets instead. I don’t remember lottery tickets being so ubiquitous the first time we came to VN almost 14 years ago, but now they’re offered to us every time we sit down at an eatery, sometimes multiple times over the course of a meal. We automatically shake our heads at solicitors offering lottery tickets, always avoiding eye contact with them, and turn them away so often that we’ve become indifferent to all beggars and solicitors, if for no reason other than not wanting to trouble ourselves with pulling out our money all the time. Although initially it struck me as callous of the motorcyclists to leave a crippled man lying prostrate in the street after they had purchased their lotto tickets, I realized they were at least helping him. I don’t know why I had expected/hoped that they would pick him up and carry him away. They were doing more than other motorists who sped by without glancing at him, and they were doing more for him than I was.
I felt miserable. I wanted to run over to the man and give him all the cash I was carrying. I wanted to hail a taxi and help him into it so he could get out of the glaring sun. I wanted to put him up in some sort of a hostel or inn and tell him he didn’t need to drag himself around on the street anymore, beg him not to do it because I couldn’t bear to see it. There were so many things I wanted to do and felt like I should do, and yet a part of me knew that I wasn’t going to do any of them. I could say that I didn’t want to leave my kids at an outdoor pho shop while I ran down the block to execute good samaritan deeds, but the real reason was that I didn’t want to see this man up close. As riveted as I was watching him from afar, it pained me. I didn’t want to see him at all, let alone approach him and talk to him. I didn’t want him to exist, because his very existence was forcing me to acknowledge that he was real, his suffering was real, his poverty was real, and there were other people in the world like him. Even though there are homeless people in the U.S. who are disabled, the sight of this man would be shocking to Americans. This level of destitution would be hard for most Americans to imagine. If I had had my phone with me, I would have taken a picture of him, as exploitative as that sounds. There’s American poverty, and then there’s Vietnamese poverty, which is in a class of its own. I don’t like to think that this man and people like him are part of a legacy that my children will inherit. We live in an age in which things like wifi are possible, why can’t we as a society figure out how to eradicate this level of human suffering? Why not eliminate unnecessary animal suffering while we’re at it? How can I live with myself knowing that this man is out there, living the life he’s living, while I go on feeding pho to my kids and planning vacations at four star resorts? How on earth could I possibly care about things like plush bath towels and artisan cheese? These are all rhetorical questions because I know I have the capacity to get over it and continue living my life as I always have. As distraught as I was, the memory of him will fade; the sensation of shocked horror has already begun to wane.
I often feel guilty when reflecting on my good fortune and blessed life. Encountering the less fortunate evokes mixed feelings and reactions, not all of which I’m proud of. Watching this man drag his body across the street made me think of things like “quality of life” and “euthanasia.” What kind of awful person am I to think that his life wasn’t worth living, when he apparently thought it was? I didn’t want him to exist. Why? Because of pity, and empathy for his suffering? Or because the sight of him was so distressing? I was grateful when a massive truck rounded the corner and parked, finally blocking him from my view.
I tend to lump my reactions into three categories: #1) wanting to dedicate my life to charitable and philanthropic causes and leave my children a world that’s in better condition than when I entered it, #2) throwing my hands up in despair at the enormity of the world’s problems and the impossibility of solving them, and being depressed about the unfairness of life, and #3) turning a blind eye to the plight of others and enjoying my life as much as possible while trying not to make things worse, but not making an effort to make things better. I alternate among these reactions all the time. Committing myself solely to one category seems extreme and unworkable, but does dabbling in category #1 exonerate me for devoting most of my time to category #3? Wallowing in category #2 doesn’t do anyone any good but I still waste energy there. Category #1 is the noblest option and seems like the obvious choice, but for me, categories #1 and #2 go hand in hand. Doing pro bono work for underprivileged children has afforded me some of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but at times has also led to soul-crushing disillusionment and hopelessness. The forces of history, poverty, demographics, socioeconomic factors, culture, class, among so many others, seem too powerful to overcome. Struggling against them feels futile, a proverbial drop in a gargantuan bucket of fucked-upness. So if you know you can’t “fix” a systemic problem, should you give up and not try? I’ve posed this question to myself and others from time to time. I think I came to the conclusion that incremental improvements are better than none at all.
When I saw the crippled man, I thought to myself that the money in my wallet could improve his life for several weeks, maybe months. If I withdrew money from an ATM I could change his life for a year. But then what? After my money ran out, what would become of him? Nothing would change in the long-term, would it? He would still be selling lottery tickets while dragging his body on the ground. What was the point of trying to help him? The point was that I could have eased his suffering for a week, a month, perhaps more. But I didn’t. I didn’t do anything.