A Stranger’s Act of… Kindness?

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A few days ago, something interesting happened. I say interesting because it was untypical behavior from me and I still can’t quite understand why I did what I did. But I have a hum, an idea of what happened. Let me tell you.

I was in the city center at the shopping mall, when a young man with an immigrant background came to me and asked in English, if I could give him money for food. I didn’t have any cash with me so I said no (I also think it’s always problematic to give money to a stranger because you don’t really know what the money is used for and even if I had cash, I probably wouldn’t give it).

But then he pointed to Burger King next to us and asked if I could buy him and his girlfriend a meal. I said no as politely as I could and left the situation.

But then I watched them ask more and more people for the same thing and everyone kept saying no, and I noticed how this started nagging me. I had just spent fifty euros at a hairdresser and another fifty to buy myself new jeans – but I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, buy two people a meal? And in addition to this, I was also curious: were they here, every day, asking for money for food?

I twisted and turned for a couple of minutes thinking about it – but then walked back to the couple. 

The look on their faces was vague amazement, like they didn’t really dare to hope for what they thought was happening. 

“Don’t you have any money for food? Ever?” I asked them.

“Well, yes, when we are at home in Tampere”, the young man answered me, speaking with his accent. “But we are here to look for a job.”

And I nodded and said: “I can buy you a meal, this time.”

And so we walked to Burger King. 

Reasons For Taking Action

I asked how old they were. The man was 22, the girl 19. He was the one who spoke English quite well, the girl could only a few words. I watched them make their order and paid for their meal that was 17,95 euros in total.

The young man shook my hand (although it was a weak handshake, and I would have liked to tell him how important a good handshake is) and thanked me, but the real gratefulness was in the girl’s eyes.

“Thank you”, she said with her struggling English as she hugged me.

“Take care”, I answered and hugged back.

I think we shared a moment, then and there, me and that girl.

But then, afterwards, I started thinking why I had done it. Why did I help this immigrant couple? Why did I give them money when I’m trying to find a job for myself and don’t really have a regular income?

I can’t say it felt like I had done the good deed. I didn’t feel especially good about myself although one could categorize my action as charity and charity is supposed to give you a good feeling. I didn’t even know how to share what happened with anyone because I didn’t know what I thought about the whole thing. 

So what happened in my mind when I decided to go back to the young couple and offer them a meal?

After turning it for a few hours in my mind and finally sharing it with a friend, I came to one kind of conclusion: instead of being an act of kindness it was more like an act of rebellion. Rebellion against the stereotypes, the hate speech, the prejudice.

I believe it is so rare in our western society to help the less wealthy especially if we don’t share the same skin color and language. It’s easy to judge someone based on their appearance. 

And still, these two were clothed normally, they behaved well, they didn’t shout or curse or throw ugly glances at those who didn’t want to give them money.

I have seen many Finns who behave the exact opposite.

Somehow, it was seeing the reactions of other Finns when someone with an immigrant background asks for their money that made me turn back and do precisely the opposite most people I know would do. And I wanted to know – it was curiosity – why did they have to do this? Why was this happening?

The Future of Societies

The thing is, I can’t be sure they told me the truth. It can be that they live in this city rather than somewhere else, that they have money and they simply want other people’s money just because.

It can be that they spend their money on other things and that leaves them without food, and I can only hope it isn’t drugs, alcohol or any other addictive substances. There is still doubt in me: were they really as poor as they made it seem?

The only thing I could do, this one time, was to trust these people and give them what I could spare.

The world is changing – the immigrants are here to stay, the societies become more and more multicultural and we have to work hard to have a society where we can trust each other and believe in the good in strangers. 

Because how can we help if we don’t trust? And how can we trust if we don’t help?

I don’t know if I would do it again and that makes me wonder what it tells about me, about good deeds and the future of our societies. But may that be another thought process for another time.

Instead, after all this, taking action and wondering about it, my friend said it quite well: “It’s a good thing to do surprising things, every now and then, as long as it doesn’t throw you off your budget. And it’s good for the brain.”

And it’s good for the brain. That I can agree on – definitely.

 

The Trouble With Tourism

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For a developing country, dealing with increasing tourism can be an extreme challenge.

After exploring Southeast Asia for a few months, we’ve seen this with our own eyes and through our own experience. Already in Malaysia, but especially in Vietnam, we could see what kind of a weight tourism puts on a country’s infrastructure. And it’s not pretty.

During the past ten years, the tourism in Vietnam has grown from 4,25 million to 15,5 million tourists. Generally, increasing tourism is seen as something positive. When more people visit a country, they bring in more money – and they, with their money, create more opportunities.

The Vietnamese have taken advantage of these opportunities. However, from what we’ve seen, the opportunities come with a cost – especially if you don’t know how to benefit from the opportunities in the long run.

Easy Money

As the amount of tourists visiting a country increases, it becomes very attractive to take a job that has to do with tourism. Driving a taxi, running a homestay or other forms of accommodation, organizing trips and courses, running a restaurant… There’s a lot to choose from.

And those who don’t have the money needed for the investments to drive a taxi or run a homestay or a restaurant, can get money from the tourists by selling smaller items such as fans, scarfs or sunglasses; selling fruit or drinks; or posing for a photo together with a foreigner.

The possibilities seem endless and the money easy – and that makes business in tourism so attractive. However, as there are such easy money sources available, it can become too tempting to get a little bit of extra income while you’re already at it.

That’s what we call haggling (or scamming), something that characterizes many of the Southeast Asian countries.

It can be seen as an opportunity – but it really is not. Not, at least, in the long run.

Short-Term Success

Haggling and tricking tourists for money is so attractive because Vietnam as a country has been poor for a very long time. Many of the locals who haggle are living their life on a day-to-day basis because they don’t know what life brings them the next day, if they even live that long. Therefore, what they gain today, they spend today.

That’s why haggling seems like a good idea for the locals – it gives you the possibility to spend more money today than you did yesterday.

Seen that way, it makes sense. However, when you look at haggling from another perspective, you can see that it only brings you short-term success and is actually more harmful in the long run.

The benefit of having fixed prices with your products is that it allows you to take a peek into the future. If you sell ten t-shirts, all for the price of one dollar, you know you’ll have ten dollars when you’ve sold all ten shirts. And if you, in a month, sell one hundred shirts, you’ll have one hundred dollars. In a year, if you sell one hundred shirts every month, you make 1200 dollar – and that allows you to ask yourself the question:

What do you want to do with that money?

But if you have 100 shirts that you end up selling them for 100 different prices – how much money will you have? Can you do anything extra with it? Is is worth saving the money from todays sales if you don’t know how much you will get for your shirts tomorrow?

Haggling only brings you success in the near future. However, if you’re playing the long game, you are not doing a favor for yourself.

Developing Harmful Behavior

The Vietnamese are not in any way stupid – they know that Westerners have money and that for us, their products and services are cheap. We can afford the price they ask even if they’d ask us a bit more. But that’s where things start to go downhill.

In a taxi, the drivers have taxi meters that tick in an incredible speed and that mean you end up paying four or five times more than the actual cost would have been. In a restaurant, there is one menu for tourists with fixed prices and another for Vietnamese without prices. Somewhere else there are sudden extra costs for something or someone comes up claiming there is a parking fee for motorbikes. And if you need to haggle for the product you want, a tourist will certainly pay a higher price than a local.

It almost becomes worth it to play dirty – but how does that affect your personality, your ethics? In the long run, haggling doesn’t make you a good, trustworthy person. When you’ve lied once, it’s easier to lie again. When you’ve successfully tricked someone, your likely to trick again.

Haggling isn’t sustainable – but it’s too tempting to ignore.

The Bad Loop

Although haggling maybe gives the locals the thrill of debating and is part of their culture, it’s actually more harmful than beneficial for the locals.

It’s not a sustainable way of doing business because it doesn’t build for a better future – or for a better personality. However, that is the only way of business the locals know and because they know it, they can also use it to their benefit when it comes to tourists.

Tourism invites the locals to keep up their harmful behavior. It keeps them in the short-term loop instead of helping them to look longer into the future and help them develop better ways of securing their income.

If the locals would give up haggling and tricking and settle for fixed prices, they could end up with more time and energy – two of the resources needed for making more money. But they can’t see that because they’ve learned to see only the opportunities right in front of them – the opportunities growing tourism gives them.

Vietnam has developed into a lower-middle income country, which means that tricking for money shouldn’t be as necessary than it was before. As their GNP is growing and the average income is on the rise, there shouldn’t be a need for haggling and tricking.

However, it takes a long time to change behavior.

And tourism, for sure, is not helping with this.