I’m tired from being sorry to feel sorry. If you can relate to this, or if you can’t make sense out of this laborious syntax, let me introduce you to the world of absurdity, dismay and awkwardness, by reading the story starting right after these three dots…
17th of February 2019, Phong Nah, Vietnam, 3:30
I’m standing in the crowded lobby of a cheap hostel, my guitar in the back. I’m checking for any quiet spot but every corner of the place is busy. A few seconds later I’m next to my scooter on a cluttered car park. I’m checking my pant’s pockets and find 100 000 dong. It’s enough! I then jump on my beast and start the engine. At the first intersection, I kind of take a look at the traffic and just merge in without trying to yield priority to anyone, as it is to be done in Vietnam. I ride just a few seconds to almost touch the front door of a food shop with my front tire. The owner of the shop recognises me and gives me a bright smile. I now have 2 beers but still no plan. A few kilometres later and several hills covered with jungle left behind me, I finally reach an appealing spot. Although is it still close to the road, it fits my expectations. It is near a quiet green river running amongst the dense vegetation. I drive off road a decent distance away from the tar and set my scooter on the center stand to be using the saddle as a chair.
I grab my guitar to only have the time to play 4 chords.
It’s a child’s voice greeting me. I lift up my nose and spot 3 kids on the road, a 9 years old boy with two little girls even younger than him. "Hello! Hello!" The little girls are mimicking. I smile at them, surprised to see such a young committee on an off town road. I give them a warm hello back waving a hand joyfully. The 3 kids are motionless. The boy seems to be the leader, he has stopped the walk and remain standing at eyes reach. There’s around 20 m of grass land between us. I’m holding my guitar against my chest without playing it. 2 guys passe by on a scooter, just behind the children, for a few seconds I have 5 awkward pairs of eyes staring at me. I start doubting about my choice of spot.
"Money" The word comes loudly from the boy’s mouth along with his hand raised towards me, palm facing the sky.
"Money, money" Start repeating the 2 little girls with a big smile.
It feels like someone is punching me in the stomach. I stretch my legs and rest my feet on the ground.
"Money, money" They keep singing. My smile has disappeared, my lips are tensed, my gaze is running over the blades of grass around. My brain is trying to analyse the situation, meanwhile, my body starts reacting randomly, as if motivated independently by the awkwardness. Thus, my butt leaves the saddle, and my arms abandoned the guitar on the grass.
"Money, money, money!" Without interruption, the kids just keep on repeating it, palms stretched towards me, a big smile brightening their faces. Where did they learn to do that? I’m questioning myself while stuffing my hands in my pockets to find them empty this time. My move has motivated the 3 young beggars to dare a few steps forward in my direction. I’m shaking my head no and show my hands empty, in distraught. I might remain misunderstood because they start bagging louder and laughing. My brain is still out of order, puzzled by this brand new life situation. There is no automatism my brain can relate to, and no time to think properly, I’m cornered.
"Money, money, money!" The redundancy is rather unbearable, just like some kids songs based on 4 words and designed to drive you mad. I’m staring at them, they are staring at me, I have a closed expression on my face while theirs are radiant.
"Money, money, money!" It is starting to feel like a repetitive slap at the back of my head. I have been pointlessly standing on the same 2 square meters for the last 5 minutes.
"Money, money, money" One of the little girl is jumping around, the other one is inspecting her fingernails but the little boy is not taking his eyes off me. "I don’t have anything" I try and repeat more clearly, using an unconfident voice tone.
"Money, money, money!" This is starting to be ridiculous. The 3 of them are wearing their blue and white school uniform. A pair of pants for the young man, and a pleated skirt for the young ladies. There is no way they are being suggested at school that white people can give money around, there’s even less chance this could be taught at home. 4 months in Vietnam allowed me to experience a very generous culture. I spent time amongst families to discover that trying to afford things for them or simply paying for your meal would be taken as well as farting at the queen’s table. They surely learnt about the inequalities in the distribution of wealth in the world, but how do they came up with the idea of getting money from white tourists ? How was the trick elaborated and spread from little mouths to little mouths? From what I am seeing right now, the elders teach the youngest.
The little boy stops for a minute to have a sip from his drink. He is holding a large plastic cup containing some crushed ice with some red sirup and a big straw. He hardly takes the time to swallow before starting again his begging with a monotonous tone.
"Money, money, money, money!" The little girls are quiet now and seem bored. Their leader shows sign of weakness and swings his body from a leg to the other, without looking at me anymore.
"Money, money, money!" My body is frozen by the shame and my mind pictures its shape as being the one of an ATM machine, standing in a grass field. It’s a speaking ATM machine that has being saying "Out of order" for 15 minutes, but I’m set up in a language the kids don’t pick up. At this very precise moment, my brain is absolutely sure of just one thing, I’m ashamed of being white for severals reasons.
"Money, money, money!" The grey matter seems to start responding again, which leads me to try and find a way to bring this situation to an end. It’s like a baby crying, this can go on and on for hours. I take a glance at my scooter. Would it be possible that I have money in the box under the saddle? That’s what my brain first come up with, finding money at all price and ending this up.
"Money, money, money!" The little voices are cheered up by my move. I feel ashamed of being born on the good side of the world to their eyes, and impose the unfairness to their sight, just as they walk out of school. Yet, I didn’t come here to struts around, this is a ridiculous thought, I’m not a smoky piece of smothered sausage exhibited in a street crowded with starving dogs. Am I indecent to embody the wealth in a developing country? My brain is getting itself hurt with those absurd topics and fail to see clear in that fog of thoughts. I wish I could disappear.
"Money ! Money ! Money!" The voices are louder and louder to almost become creams. I lift the saddle up and start investigating in the box full of random items. It’s gonna take me a little while to go through the bottom of this mess. My agitated brain finds the time to bring back the memory of an Indonesian friend of mine.
I met this young guy years ago, in Bali. I first was his customer as I randomly chose to seat on one of his small plastic chair on the beach. I ordered a beer that he grabbed from a cool-box laid on the sand. He grabbed one for himself too and we started talking. He told me about the surfing lessons he gives, and the beers he sells on the beach when he is not teaching surf. A few hours later, he did not wish to charge me for the beers any longer and invited me for free surfing lessons. We had became friends, or I became a pray, both situations are likely, let’s face it.
We started talking more about personal things and that’s when he explained to me his wish to change his life. This good looking young man was proud of his curly sun bleached hair. He told me about his passion for surfing and the success he had with ladies, which I found particularly clumsy to say and therefore doubted it. Perhaps he had other passions he wished to living of. No, I was mistaking, he was satisfied with his surf teaching job and did not feel any frustration about this activity. I tried to dig more in and brought in the money issue. I was getting closer, but again, he had an honest house by the beach, could afford nights out with his friends and cover his life expenses. I was missing fingers and toes to be able to count how many friends of mine would love to swap their lives for his.
"I want to have your life and live in France."
"What a strange idea" I said to myself, ingenious.
I also love my country 3 months per year as I hate being cold. It is a great country and I will never complain to have received those beautiful lands and convenient passeport as a birth gift. However, over there, middle class people don’t spent 12 months a year on the beach, swimming suit on, drinking beers with customers. I tried to explain. He was 30, had no degree and didn’t speak a word of French. He then told me about the life success that living in France would mean for him and his family.
"Even If you had to suffer from it?"
I tried and explain the cold seasons in Europe, the employment centres, housing systems for low budget families, the struggle of owning walls, I mentioned the luxury of living in a house by the sea. Although I was being a bit pessimistic, I tried and gave him some information for him to have a better picture of the life he would have had to cope with if he had ever found a way to move to France.
He remained silent with a blank look on his face, while I was trampling his dreams. I was not finished.
"If you still wish to be teaching surf once in my country, you’ll need a certification. Also you can’t sell alcohol without a permit, and if you want to surf all year long, you’ll have to be able to cope physically and mentally with cold, because, most of the year, temperature won’t exceed 10 degree."
He was wide eyed "Really?".
"Did you search for information about France?" "No" Pretty much all he knew about was the prestige of moving there, and pride is a thing. Considering that happiness is a way more important thing, I thought it would have been a good thing to expose an unglamorous naked truth for him to evaluate better the positive aspects of his life and enjoying them with a full conscience. After a short silence, he gave me the same.
"You can travel while I am stuck on this island. Indonesian passports are not so good and plane tickets are really hard to afford with our average wages."
My sip of beer went down the wrong way, I started feeling ashamed without being able to point at the reasons why, but still, I wasn’t done.
"Actually, in France, lots of migrants have never seen the sea because they can’t afford for a simple train ticket to reach the seashores."
I didn’t know if he had listened to me, his stare was blank into space. He seemed lost in his memories. Eventually, he started talking again.
"I have an indonesian friends who met a french girl years ago. They fell in love for each others. They got married and are now living in Paris. They have kids and nothing bad can happen to his family. They are protected by the government, they have money, health care, insurances and good school for the kids."
Suddenly, I was able to point out the reason why I felt ashamed, I was the one not fully aware of all the bright aspects of my life, or the intentions of this guy that I believed selfless.
I quickly found something to reply to make up my disarray "Does he often come back here to visit his family?" He laughed before giving me an answer. "No! The plane tickets are too expensive."
From that day on, I have been growing a silly shame from being born with advantages.
There’s nothing in that stupid saddle, not even a single bank note, only ropes and parking tickets. I’m running out of patience. I exhale loudly before facing again the 3 children. "I have nothing at all, I’m sorry."
"Money, money, money!" I’m now realising that I feel ashamed to be mad after 3 Vietnamese children asking me for money. I have never been into kids and alway felt self conscious to have a very limited patience with them. As I’m staring at their purple lips, covered by the sweets rainbow shit they are eating, I suddenly recall this old disgusting man, who loved Indonesian kids.
I met this guy during a tour on an island, although I hate tours. Those group activities are always something I start regretting before I even put my name on the register, specially when, just like on this day, it is about visiting a small isolated floating village inhabited with guys surely hoping to be left alone. I went on this one by lack of choice, I was staying on one of the very small Togians Islands with no electricity, and didn’t wish to spend the day alone.
Just as anticipated, I immediately regretted my choice at the sight of the traditional sunburnt portly couple, camera around the neck, that joined in. An evenly dodgy looking guy was standing by their side, wrapped up in a short sleeves shirt, fanny pack on and full collection of schoolboy-ish jokes. Straight away, he made me think of this uncle everyone stopped inviting for family dinners, the one who always drinks one or too many glasses and spends dinner time embarrassing the crowd with either racist or pedophile jokes.
On our way to the floating village, we had to cross a suspicious looking bridge.
Uncle took the opportunity to make a poor joke about Indonesian people’s random building skills.
Pretty self satisfied, he tried to make an eye contact with anyone from the group, but ended up laughing alone. Then, he started waving his hand to catch up our guide’s attention. The guy was following us from his small boat, and oncle, as if he was speaking to a deaf and dumb five years old, started imposing himself on board while shaking bank notes under his nose.
Few minutes later, we met again the sweating uncle in the village. As soon as he reached the jetty, right after sponging his sweating forehead with a tissue, he started taking pictures of the village with his couple of pink friends. They took photos of the wooden houses suspended above the water, but also of the inhabitant doing their stuff such as cooking, gardening, fishing, without consulting them or even talking to them.
I stared at my feet and walked as far as could from them. I wondered if they would have enjoyed the reciprocity of their behaviour. I pictured a group of Chinese on holidays, wandering in their hometown, stopping in front of their house and taking picture of them siping a beer while flipping their steaks on the BBQ.
Few meters later, we came across some kids playing on the jetty. Uncle started taking pictures of them without being worried about their parents point of view. It seemed to be important for uncle to add the best photos of those beautiful tanned kids in his exotic album at home, since he dared touching them to position them the way he wanted. A little girl was not cooperating and showed signs of irritations. She placed her face behind her hands and started moaning. My stomach shrunk. When uncle grabbed her arms to force her into his shooting, I heard myself proposing out loud:
"Do you need us to undress them for the internet?".
He turned his head towards me to find my eyes on him, along with my best fake smile. He said nothing, and walked away. For a moment he remained quiet and seemed thoughtful. He was walking slowly ahead of us, without taking any pictures.
We reached a tiny village square on which was erected some sort of small shop selling a bit of everything. From where I was, I could see some rice bags, noodles and food in cans. Uncle stepped inside the shop with a very determined attitude. He came out a few seconds later holding a bag full of sweets. He then posted himself in the middle of the village square and started distributing candies to some hesitant kids.
"See?" He questioned his friend loud enough for me to hear as well. "They are happy, it doesn’t cost much!".
Again, I couldn’t help picturing the same scene taking place in France. A big old sweating man forcing kids into some photo shoot with candies. It doesn’t cost much here, while back in his country it is worth an arrestation for presumption of pedophilia.
I’m terrified by what people allow themselves to do abroad, they would never dare at home. I wonder if he can feel them as being humans just like him. What kind of superiority complex is pushing this kind of people to act with human beings just like they would with animals. If he had chosen bananas instead of candies, what would have been the difference with a monkeys encounter in a national park then ? I believe that for number of individuals, feeling superior or sorry happens way too easily in contact with some different cultures to which they don’t understand much. They easily forget what history taught them, just like the day a bunches of Vietnamese farmers in the jungle, with sandals as equipment, defeated the US army. Underestimating the value and strength of the people living more simply as we do, is a racist mistake.
I feel like waking up from a mind trip. Why have I been so sorry for the last 15 minutes? Should I really feel miserable and fight against the current to afford for 3 kids fantasy? I’m not in Darfur facing starvation embody by 3 naked children with flies in their eyes. I have been dealing for the last 15 minutes with 3 smart primary school pupils who found a trick to get their sweeten treats. I don’t want to hand them money, that’s the problem, I clearly feel it now. I don’t feel like encouraging 3 youngsters to begging after class, I don’t wish to suggest 3 students money comes from white people’s butts. Ideally, I would love to avoid spoiling those kids education after having seem them getting spanked for begging. I don’t want to act like pedo uncle who surely spent some holidays in Vietnam to teach the kids white people are treats and money distributors. I would have loved instead to grab their hands and take them to the first shop, to feed my sadistic soul out of their sad looks in front of a fruit basket. I feel frustrated, ashamed and pissed off to have spent the last 15 minutes negotiating with 3 intolerable brats to shut them up.
"Money, money, money!" They keep on going, tirelessly. "Please, stop ! Go home !" I try to be less friendly and a bit more persuasive this time. I wonder how long this will last for. I have the feeling to be the world inequalities in one body, and forced to face the responsibility on my own. There is some moments in life, one wish to disappear.
I decide to pack my things and leave. They don’t seem disturbed by this new move, because they keep on laughing and singing "Money". While packing up everything, I start wondering if I don’t feel ashamed for not fitting with the image they have from white people. I own this scooter, this guitar and a backpack. I also have the cheapest computer and an old smartphone someone gave me. On top of not having much, I also consume very little. I’m living a "low-cost" life allowing myself to discover the world as only eccentricity.
I don’t have the will to have more than I need. I had the occasion to read something about this state of mind on the internet written by some white people. It said this behaviour and the spread of the message is an insult to poor people whose simply don’t have another choice than having very little. It was described by more than one article as being either racist or indecent because minimalism is a choice that rich people can make as a trend while poor families are forced into it. Minimalist people are accused to mimic the poor people lifestyle out of a trend. This would mean, I believe, that not enjoying the privileges one can have is an offence to the people in need.
I somehow see where those people come from. It is well-intentioned and one can get the logic behind those compassionate thoughts, but, this kind of overthinking process ends up being pretty arming. For the sake of moral, do we have to keep on over consuming and gathering the money of the planet on our bank accounts because we can? As just one example out a the load one could give here, over consuming affects badly the planet, in what aspects rejecting minimalism help the people in need ?
I thought of printing those papers to offer it to the people in need of toilet paper.
"Money, money, money" They are screaming now. I don’t know if they learn english at school yet, or if "Money" and "Hello" are words learnt from tourists. Also, I don’t know how long I have been showing them my back.
I guess this is an answer to both questions. Their english is not from school, and I have been ignoring them for too long. The insulte is the fatal damage to my mistreated emotions.
"Sorry?" I’m asking with a severe look given to the guilty boy. The 3 of them are silent now, and seem to be waiting for my reaction with a big smile. Maybe they don’t know the meaning and are not really sending me to go and have a sexual intercourse. But again:
"FUCK YOU" No doubt, they are being voluntary rude to me now. The little cheeky boy takes 3 steps backwards, laughingly. This was enough for me to lose again the control of my body. As I’m charging the kids like an angry rhinoceros, I’m wondering what to do to them. I’m gonna execute the little boy and spare the 2 girls for them to tell the legend. At the sight of my mass, powered by anger, launched in their direction, the 3 children start creaming and running away. At this very precise moment, I’m aware of being a terrible person, but this thought can’t calm down my nerves too severely damaged. As I reach the tar, I try to hurry my thinking process. What am I going to do after catching them up, in about 5 seconds? Telling them off? I couldn’t express my discontent in their language because I only learnt some words about food and also a story about a dirty bat (Thank you duolingo) this won’t be of any help in this situation. Am I really going to grab the boy’s arm and watch him struggle to set himself free. Then, what am I gonna do to him?
At the age of 7, motivated by the group effect, I spit on my neighbour’s window. She had the time to see my face so she specifically grabbed my arms amongst my terrorised friends flying away like pigeons. I found myself alone, firmly maintained a few centimetres from the red face of an angry old lady. I don’t remember a word of what she told me, but I never spit on a window again. The words don’t matter, it’s about emotional trauma. That’s it, I’m gonna properly traumatise those kids. Realising this plan isn’t better, I give it up. I have to hurry up, the runaways are just 2 seconds ahead.
It was not smart to spit on my very neighbour's window. Off course, she recognised me and after being forced to clean up my mess, she took me to my nanny to explain the glorious act I had performed to amuse a group of now missing friends. My nanny was sad, and I was ashamed to make her feel that way. That’s it, I’m going to catch this little boy and find his house to bring sadness and shame to his family. I couldn’t tell which plan is the worst one. I don’t even know if his parents speak english. If they don’t, I’m not too sure that "An egg sandwich for my dirty bat, please" will allow them to comprehend clearly the situation.
I’m useless and feel the guilt taking over me again. Am I really going to confront 3 Vietnamese children, and denounce them to their parents because they pissed me off? Who am I to try and apply my French education rules in a reality I barely understand?
For a second, I almost stop running, which allow the kids to distance me a bit more.
Eventually, I start feeling angry again, I’m tired to feel guilty and sorry. If I don’t punish these 3 young impolite the same way I would have with any of the brats I have back home, it would be discriminative, unfortunately for them, I am not racist. I speed up to deliver my xenophilia to the 3 fugitives.
Suddenly, my struggle comes to an end in a very unexpected way. A Vietnamese guy, sitting on his scooter, was watching the scene from distance. As soon as the kids passe at his reach, he grabs the boy and shakes him a little while screaming something to him. He then turns to me : "Sorry, sorry!" he says. I stop running, relieved, I’m smiling to this man who is apologising without being guilty. Actually, I’m the one being sorry, sorry to feel sorry.