Begging and Busking around the World

Just last week, I was spending the weekend in Kuala Lumpur with my significant one. One night, exhausted of too much Indian food, we ordered a Grab and cruised down the famous Alor Street to get some Chinese delicacies for a change. The food changed the color of our mood rings, but this is not a food review or a travel story at all.As we browsed the stalls in Alor Street, we saw a young white woman playing an accordion with people throwing some Ringgit coins and notes into the hat she had left lying on the wet street just like that. A few steps away, a white male with a guitar was singing some 80s rock song I can’t quite recall belongs to which artist. Not too far down the street, we stumbled upon a young Caucasian woman sketching for pay amidst the hungry crowd.

We travel the world, you pay for it m’kay?

On our last night in the Malaysian capital, we decided we wanted Alor Chinese food again and so we drove there. As we were walking over to the packed rows of Alor restaurants from where we got off the car, a bearded white male, seemingly in his late 40s, surprised us. “Just take one,” he said; extending his arms to offer us a single cut rose. “That was weird,” I mumbled to myself as we ignored him. The man — looking very unassuming and friendly, offered again. So to my partner’s stare of disapproval, I grabbed the rose and asked, “You want me to have this?” and he said yes. Assured I was not being candidly filmed for a TV show, I asked him again, “You want me to have this? Just like that?” and then his true color came to life. “Yes. You decide how much you want to pay for it.” And I let out a sigh. I smiled back, said “Nah, never mind then,” and gave him his rose back as we walked away. “What was I thinking?” I asked myself in silence. I shouldn’t have been too naïve to think that some stranger was just paying it forward trying to spread love to strangers. This is real life, not some romantic comedy.

After a while, it hit me. Since January this year, I’ve visited Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. At some point in my most recent visit to each of these countries, I encountered white tourists doing the same thing. Sometimes they play music, sometimes they paint for pay, sometimes they sell postcards, and sometimes they’re just sitting on the hard pavement begging passers-by to have some ‘pity’ and help fund their trips. While I personally think that it is actually exciting to see how people are willing to take risks traveling the world without sufficient funds prepared beforehand, there is something very bothersome about this.

The problem is that this entire phenomenon indicates that the view of white people being far superior than locals, particularly in Southeast Asia — where European nations used to rule almost the entire region, is all alive and well. We condemn our fellow citizens who resort to begging and busking in the streets for ‘not trying hard enough’ or simply ‘lazy’, but when white tourists do it, for some twisted reasons, people suddenly feel excited and flattered that these visitors are willing to do such things just to visit their countries; completely failing to acknowledge that these white tourists have enough money to travel half the globe in the first place but the everyday beggars and buskers are struggling to simply make ends meet. Still, knowing the bitter truth, many choose to spare their money for the begging and busking tourists but not for the actual beggars and buskers because, probably, these people are just an inconvenience to the public order.

There are exceptions — just for us

I remember when I applied for the Schengen visa at the German embassy just last year―probably the most complicated part of planning my visit to Europe. Not only that I had to fill in pages of visa application document, I also had to provide full itinerary of my visit, paid return flight tickets to make sure that I won’t overstay, paid hotel room confirmation to make sure that I’m not going to be living in the streets, written confirmation of the purpose of my visit to make sure that I’m not up to no good, a copy of my bank account with certain amount of money to make sure that I have enough savings to fund my trip, all the security clearance, and, to top it off, a 60 Euro application fee (equivalent to approximately 900 thousand Indonesian Rupiah or 1.6 million Vietnamese Dong). Don’t forget that even after meeting all these requirements, there’s no guarantee that I was going to get my visa. Well, I did. But it could’ve gone the other way.

And don’t even get me started on how rude and condescending the counter lady at the embassy was to me. At one point, for no reason, she low-key shouted “Anda ini siapa sih mas? Mau ngapain ke Jerman?” (lit. “Who are you, really? What is the purpose of your visit to Germany”) using the loud speaker in a very patronizing tone; attracting everyone’s attention and causing some giggles. I was too embarrassed and afraid of not being granted my visa if I reacted aggressively, so I swallowed my pride, smiled, and talked to her nicely.

While I do think that all the procedure makes sense to some extent, because you don’t want just anyone to be able to enter your homeland not knowing what they’re up to and without any insurance for potential ‘damages’ caused by their visit. As much as I believe that the world and the people shouldn’t be segregated into nations, groups, categories, and so on which only make us feel disconnected from one another.

But why do the rules apply to me — to us, but not to you?

I see white people with certain passports being able to travel pretty much anywhere, including Southeast Asia, without having to go through the hassles that I have to. They get to enter any country they want without purchasing return flight tickets and hotel rooms in advance — which likely explains why some of them end up begging and busking in the streets to survive their insufficient plan.

And too often, we are told that letting foreign tourists to enter our countries freely plays to our advantage because the money they spend generates our tourism industry — which isn’t so true after all. These tourists come here in backpack, tight budget, and spend money they make in their destinations anyway. And since they never apply for visa, the government generates no revenue from foreign citizens the way European nations make money off foreign visitors as well. So to whose benefits does this entire scheme really play out? I, for once, would love for everyone to ease up on their entry policy, but the reality is the game is rigged. The relationship isn’t mutually satisfying — one keeps on taking the other for granted and it’s not fine.

And so I beg to differ. This all-too-common view leads to one realization: we are all still comfortably colonized by the construction of how we’re less than some. Western supremacy is alive and well in Southeast Asia. Why Western supremacy? Because if it was some people of color begging or busking in the streets, even though they travel with some ‘Western’ nation passports, people wouldn’t be so nice to them too. Colonialism has ended, but the remnants of it can be seen — sometimes very subtle but more often than not it’s quite explicit in many corners of our lives.

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