In the Moment

I love 196 so far.  We have class for 2 hours and all we do is have discussion and maybe a little activity, but the time zooms right by.  I wish I could say the same for all my other classes.

Anyway, three-ish weeks ago (I know, I know, I’m behind), we talked about the contradictions that service-learning projects have embedded within them.  Usually, people that participate in practice experience type things are people that are privileged of their accord (my writing on privilege will come later).  Many volunteers do not stay long enough, so they can’t make a huge impact.  Or, international volunteers do not fully understand the environment they choose to work in.  But, the contradiction that I am going to be talking about surrounds the idea of buying trinkets from little kids.

A few posts ago, I wrote about my experience in Sa Pa: I went trekking and Hmong ladies had to escort me around the trails.  Afterwards, I felt obligated to buy some items they were selling because they literally saved my life.  But, now after talking about it in 196, I was a part of a contradiction in that moment.

Along with the older women, there were a lot of little girls too.  I had previously stressed that the population relies on not only the agricultural yields but on tourism as well.  That is why a lot of kids were there too, selling little trinkets and bracelets and bags.

So, let me try to put you into my shoes, but in a more critical mindset than I was at the time.

You are a tourist.  The exchange rate in Vietnam is highly favorable, so basically, everything is pretty cheap to you.  You understand that tourism is a way for the population to earn a living.  You have been trekking along the mountainside, accompanied about these Hmong women and children.  At the end, the children want you to buy their merchandise.

You have to two choices:

  1. Buy from them.  You are able to negotiate a very reasonable price.  Because the trinket is not worth much to you, what you actually spend is negligible to you, but you know that it is a relatively large amount for the kids.  You feel that you have helped the kid and his / her family for a little bit.
  2. Do not buy from them.

It sounds like the first option is the more socially conscious choice (that’s what I thought too, at the time).  But, is it really?

Where are the kids supposed to be right now?  I arrived in Sa Pa on a Friday afternoon.  Are the kids supposed to be in school?  Why are they, essentially, doing business on the street?  By buying from them, are you incentivizing the kids to continue this kid of work?  Maybe.  By buying from the kids, you might be perpetuating the notion that the kids can be successful with what they are doing now and not doing anything else.

It really speaks volumes about a certain region when kids are engaged in work.  These kids know conversational English well, they know all the right questions to ask tourists.  In the United States, child labor is illegal, but here, for some families, it is necessary and possibly encouraged.  Here is a picture of me and a little Hmong girl, about age 8 and dressed in her cultural attire, that followed me the entire day (trekking 10+ km).  At the end of the day, she pestered and pestered me about buying from her, continuing to follow me even though everyone else from her village had left.

She even called me “pretty”.

But, at the same time, there are ramifications when you don’t buy from the kids.  What if his / her family is having a really hard making ends meet, and the money that you give, though insignificant to you, eases the burden of putting food on the table for a few nights?

You are caught in one moment.  What can you really do in this one decision?  The first option perpetuates the negative structure inequalities of the area.  But, the second option is pretty bad too, given that they have helped you and spent time with you throughout the entire day.

It’s a contradiction, and you really can’t do anything.  There is no right answer.

There are larger obvious structural elements that are at play here, and I really hope that they get addressed in the near future…

I would like to mention that I’m only making assumptions based on my limited interactions with these women and children and what I’ve learned in my classes.  I am assuming that this community is poor, and because of that, they need their children to be engaged in the tourism industry to be able to afford to live in the area, giving up things like school and play (typical things an American child would be engaged in).  However, for all I know, these kids could really good at balancing the aspects of their lives.  For all I know, this community might not value school as much.

But, my main point is that development work is not easy.  As an actor in poverty alleviation, it is always a cross between what needs to happen now (meeting basic needs: food, water, sanitation, shelter), and addressing long-term issues (through policy and sustainable projects).

What would you do if you were in the moment?

Over and out.

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