Alms for the Poor

“Wow! You’re so pretty! What a lovely scarf you’ve got on.” She says all this in impeccable English. No grammatical errors, no hesitation on her part. English isn’t her first language. Nor her second. In fact, she doesn’t know much English beyond this. The only reason she speaks the language is because I do. She knows that I’m educated, a working woman, independent and secure. Her intention is to please me. She has mere seconds to gain my attention before she becomes a void to me, a voice talking, but one not to be heard. She knows any moment the traffic light could change color and her only chance of getting some spare change is to woo me and attract me with as few words as possible.

I can’t help admiring that she has been taught well. Not in a school, where a proper education could empower her. She has learnt the tricks of the trade from another man or woman, perhaps one like herself, or perhaps one who finds this an easier way to get money without expending much effort. Her compliments don’t melt my heart. When she realizes this, she reverts to what comes intuitively to her. To ask me point-blank, for alms. She makes to touch my feet, a sign of both seeking blessings and a mark of servitude. I’m not sure what role I’m expected to lean towards. But I instinctively move my foot away. I don’t want a child’s hand getting the dust from my shoe. Or is it that I don’t want my shoes to get dirty from her soiled hands?

My rumination has made her lose interest in me. If I had any intention of helping her I would have done so already. She knows this and decides to leave. Goes knocking at someone else’s car. Gets bored. Decides to take a break. Makes for the makeshift home her extended family has made on the footpath, a place meant for the pedestrians to walk on, but currently serving as the flooring space of the houses of such children’s families.

She reaches into a tin can her family has. My curiosity spikes. What does she treasure in this can? Food? Money? A toy? She rummages around and finally pulls out what she has been looking for. A tetra-pack of juice. The kind I have in my own refrigerator back home.

I feel betrayed. Less than a minute ago she was asking me for alms. Like her life depended upon it. Like me being charitable would count. But now she was sipping onto her drink as if none of it had mattered. Like it all had been play-acting. Like it didn’t make any difference to her. In that moment she was enjoying herself. And that was all that mattered to her.

Was I really being selfish when I thought I was being charitable? Was I entitled to more and she to less? Was it alright for me to shirk away from her insistent asking or for her to forget in a moment that I was right there, a person who could be her benefactor, even if just for a small cause.

Or was it really that tetra-pack of juice that she and I shared in common? Did I feel betrayed that she could have gotten it without me having given it to her?

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