A culture of mendicancy

When I was growing up, the gift giving of Christmas Eve usually extended to Christmas Day, but without the expected exchange.

Almost as soon as the fireworks and lights settled from the night before, people would start knocking on our door for “Christmas greetings”. I thought this was rather thoughtful in the beginning until I realized that these visits came with an expectation of money or Aguinaldo for the kids as some visitors would bring their entire family. Sometimes even the adults expected a gift for themselves.

On one particularly busy Christmas, after the incessant chiming of the doorbell was beginning to sound like a musical melody of sorts, my mother raised her arms in surrender, scoped all of us kids and dragged my father to drive us to the mall.

We had wanted a nice quiet Christmas Day, but it soon became evident that going away to the mall would be the only escape from this mild form of extortion.

Another year saw a distant relative of my father wandering from the living room to the kitchen to look at our appliances.  Our new refrigerator caught her eye. The shiny gleaming icebox was a necessary purchase after the old one simply gave out after years of use. I remember my parents grudgingly digging into their funds for this unexpected expense.

She asked what we did with the old ref. My father replied that he had given it to another one of their distant cousins “kasi kawawa naman sya” [because I felt sorry for him]. To which, this women without shame or hesitation replied, “Dapat binigay mo na lang sa ‘kin, mas kakawawa naman ako [You should have given it to me. I’m in a much more sorry state],” she said in a sugary sweet tone.

Her statement about her destitution was attached to another question: Was there anything else we could give her? Like an old stove, old pots and pans?

I was filled with both pity and disdain. Didn’t she have any pride? Any dignity? I asked my mother.

In my eyes, she may not have been on the streets in tattered clothing, but she was no different from the street urchins who begged for scraps.

Eventually, I moved out of my parents’ home, into my own escape. But it didn’t keep the mendicancy away.

It continued to be everywhere.

During the months before school opening, colleagues would borrow money from me for tuition because as a single person, I was sure to have some to spare. (How could the ever pay me back when tuition was yearly expense? Where would they get tuition money next year?)

I would catch noontime TV and see people spilling out their guts on national television, openly crying and declaring how poor they were. It was the only way to win the game show, it seemed; the more sympathy, the more forlorn you appeared, the more money you got.

Sometimes the plea for pity came at the most unexpected places, from the most unexpected people, which I only found to be more infuriating.

Once, landing at the airport from a trip to Europe, I decided to make a stop at the Duty Free Shop to finish off the last 10 Euros I had in my wallet. I couldn’t very well exchange it for pesos, I thought.

When I left, one of the porters, came up to me from nowhere, lightly touched my arm and in a gentle, singsong manner asked me something if he could have some of my Euros as pasalubong.

I didn’t understand at first, his tone of voice betrayed his purpose for approaching me. “Kapatid, pahingi naman ng konting Euro, pasalubong.”

I jerked my arm away from him, and stormed away. What made him think he could so blatantly ask me for money? How had he known I had Euros? It made me feel like I was being stalked by a vulture.

On another occasion after giving a talk at a leading university on financial literacy and wellness, a number of students asked me if I could also speak at their school and asked from my contact information.

The next day, a very long text came in from one of the attendees. It started off with the usual platitudes that quickly turned into her mini-bio of how sad she was that her mother could no longer support them, how her father deserted them and how she didn’t know if she could continue going back to school.

I wondered if she was one of the students who had their picture taken with me using their Blackberry or iPhone. I resisted the urge to suggest pawning her phone and not wasting her money sending out text message solicitations to raise money for school.

Everywhere, there were pleas, there were solicitations, there were favors, there were loaded greetings of  “Merry Christmas”. And it was not limited to the beggars on the streets. There were mendicants who were dressed as office employees asking for spare change to go home or students who wanted tuition money. It only made it harder to distinguish them from their street alley counterparts.

Someone once told me that being poor was not a financial status, it was a state of mind. I didn’t understand at first. Now, I think I do.

It is not about being stripped of money. It is about being stripped of hope and having it replaced with desperation.   It is being devoid of the pride and dignity that would otherwise prohibit you from begging and from exploiting someone’s compassion and turning it into pity.

It is a delusional sense of entitlement that those who seemingly have more owe it to—are obliged to–help anyone who asks them for help, just because they seemingly have more.

No what makes us poor is not our lack of money. What makes us poor is our deeply rooted culture of mendicancy.


Courtesy,  oh snap,  Some rights reserved.

Chris de la Cruz