Monday, June 04, 2007

The Child in Me

I've been thinking about how to construct this post for a few days. In thinking about it, I had a memory from my childhood that has some relevance to what I'm currently experiencing in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. It's funny how early moments like this shape us and give a rather practical reflection of who we might be when we grow up if we manage to stay true to the children we are inside.

When I was eight years old, my grandparents decided to take me to Mexico. I'll never forget flying on an airplane all by myself for the first time to meet my worldly, well-traveled grandparents in San Antonio, Texas, the ones who went to China and brought me back a big, stuffed Panda Bear that I slept with until I went to college. I loved looking out over the expanse of clouds beneath me and thinking that off in the distance was the edge of the world and beyond that was outer space. From San Antonio, we went to some Mexican vacation destination with a swim up pool, where my grandfather rented a luxury Cadillac with all-leather seats. I had never seen a car with all-leather seats before, and he kept impressing on me how cheap it was to afford these luxuries in Mexico versus the US. I remember sitting alone in the backseat in my little pink and blue dresses and white folded ankle socks with the lacey edges that my mother bought for me at Kmart. I loved those socks. But even more, I loved the "My Little Pony" pink velcro sneakers that were also purchased especially for my trip. Always a sucker for pretty pink things, I suppose some things never change.

From the backseat, I had a whole entertainment station, complete with two pillows and a little blanket for lounging. While this was the age long before television sets were put into cars to brainwash our children, I still had a little Tiffany-inspired backpack (yes, pink) filled with crayons and coloring books. I even had a little walkman with my one and only favorite cassette tape of all time from "New Kids on the Block".

While I loved spending time with my grandparents in Mexico, it also deeply bothered me that there was so much poverty. There were children on the street with no shoes, begging for money at every stoplight. They came right up to the car and pounded on the window, staring in at me on my leather seats with all of my luxury. When I first saw this, I shrieked and asked why those children looked so hungry. My grandfather explained that this is what life outside of the US looked like. He gave me a fistful of loose change from his pocket and encouraged me to hand out pennies to the children at my window.

I'm sure that my grandfather thought that he was encouraging some sort of compassion in me while giving me a lesson in what poverty really means. I'm sure he thought that I would tire of giving out pennies to all of the kids and eventually roll up the window when I ran out of money to give. But, as the days passed, I would ask for more and more change. Then, at meals, I started saving all of my fruit and deserts to give out to the children at the stoplights by hiding it all in my little Tiffany backpack. I even went around the hotel, scrounging for cans of soda to give out. It was pretty ridiculous. One day towards the end of the week, my grandfather said that enough was enough. No more giving pennies to the children. No more giving them fruit. And stealing from the hotel rich to give to the local poor was still stealing, and stealing was wrong, even if Robin Hood did the same.

I cried for a little while, and told my grandfather that it was unfair that the children outside our hotel community had to live in such filth. He explained that the world was like this, in places where there was no democracy. (Remember: My grandfather was a high-ranking Army officer and we were still fighting the Communists and this was still the Cold War.)

At the end of our time in Mexico, we were on our way back to the airport. Once again, we came to a stoplight and the local children flooded our car, holding out their empty hands. This time, since I had to fruit or pennies to give, I took off my shoes and handed them out of the window. Then came my socks. Then came my necklace and little bracelet. Then the crayons from my backpack, yes, the whole 64-pack with the sharpener. Then the coloring books. Then the walk man. And then, yes, my beloved New Kids on the Block tape. Then the backpack itself. My grandparents refused to let their pillows fly out of the window, but if they hadn't stopped me at that point, I probably would have been naked by the time we got to the airport.

The one thing I learned about the experience is that giving felt good. It's not about changing the world. It's about being the change we wish to see in the world.

I must run to work.

More soon.


Anonymous said...

Hi Namaste,
I've been reading your blog for some time, and I really enjoy when you write about travelling. This is coming from someone who grew up within two different cultures, and now lives in a third country - with a boyfriend who grew up within two totally different cultures. I have travelled a decent amount in my life I think (I've been to 16 countries so far) and for me that's not enough by a long shot. Your middle-east posts resonate with me - I am half Irani-and I have always been fascinated with Palestine and Israel. I have never commented but this post struck a chord with me ... I lived in Pakistan for some time and I know what you mean about the poverty and children. Recently too I spent some time in Cambodia and it was heartbreaking ... We tried to buy lunch/snacks for the street kids more than giving them money because you could see their "handlers" waiting in the corner .. Nontheless, it felt good to do SOMETHING even if the effort may have been negligable. Anyway - Sorry for the tangent-like comment - just wanted to say, I enjoy your writing. Peace. Issa.

Anonymous said...

The My Little Pony thing really took me back.

You have a special heart, Namaste.

The only comment I'll add is that it's very sad when children grow up on the streets (not just poor but alone) and turn adult too quickly and don't know how to be kids. In Kathmandu I saw these street kids all the time -- about 8-12 years old, living in alleys, sniffing glue, panhandling, fighting, sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk. We could give them money but it was sad to see them high. I know a woman to took them to a shelter, but they ran away. I had a friend attacked by a 10-year-old with a piece of glass and a bottle in broad daylight. I never knew what to do. They had not had a proper chance at a childhood, didn't have anyone to love them, to teach them how to grow into responsible adults. They scared me, and I was horrified by my reaction to them. Just when they needed help, I wasn't sure how to react. Was it too late? I realize this situation is not exactly what you describe, but it's the situation with poor children that broke my heart the most. And I did nothing.

Kudos to you and your pretty socks. Someone was warmer that night.

El Guapo in DC said...

Tienes un corazon muy bonito.

Namaste said...

I have to say, comments make me feel like I'm not completely out of my mind over here. Thanks, all.

Anonymous said...

giving - funny set of questions that fall into each other there.
Altruism is a beautiful thing.
As is not setting out to recieve acknowledgement.
But, the complications that arise from people's intentions and self-interest, and relationships (that you may or may not be privy to), thwart any straight lines of bi-lateral humanitarian stuff.
It's challenging - and rewarding, if that's how you thrive :).
Staying clearheaded about the various uses for gifts that are understood in different places, lets the attitudes to 'detached transactions', and 'bribes', and 'future obligations', and 'benefactor/ward relationships', and 'manipulation', become obvious.
Just a question - are those in a position, able to refuse any so called 'gifts'?

skatecat said...

I seriously was not being cynical. I consider these issues a lot in my own life and work (from my upbringing to today).

hay sangria! said...

you rock my world.

bob_vinyl said...

This made me cry, because it's a reminder that I'm not always that person that I was as a child, but I need to be. I wish I could live up to who I wanted to be when I was little. I'll try.