Monday, January 28, 2008

Spare Change

He checked his watch as he walked down the familiar strip to the ATM. He already knew what time it was but fidgety and uncomfortable, he insisted on pulling out his phone to glance at the screen as if he were expecting a call. Nevertheless, what did it matter right? Nothing that he was doing had a purpose, rather his collective acts were a series of rehearsed, intentional distractions that gave the young man a reason to avoid any bit of eye contact with the lonely homeless man who regularly solicited outside of the bodega. Ordinarily he would bring his Ipod and a pissed off face along with him so that he could pretend that he didn't hear the disgusting beggar asking for spare change. This time though, he relied squarely on his demeanor, which fortunately enough for him worked like a charm.

To add to the routine which he had down to a science, the young man even insidiously held his breath until he finally passed the filthy pan handler as if such an action prevented an inhaling of certain diseases circulating in the air. As he left the corner store with cash in hand, he quickly stashed the $80 in his pocket to be organized later in his wallet. His primary objective at this point was to avoid contact with the grubby old man who had been bothering both tourists and locals alike for years.

On the way back the young man had a safe passage thanks to a group of teenagers who unknowingly took a path closer to the wretched fellow which allowed him to tip toe right by the stinky bum while staying as close to the street as possible. Better to inhale the fumes from traffic was his logic than to take his chances on smelling a despicable mix of body odor and liquor.

Little did he know, this particular solicitor was much more astute and aware of his surroundings than the young man gave him credit for. He knew that every Friday night at around 6:00pm he could count on the "snotty kid," as he referred to him under his breath to walk by as he took out denominations of $20 bills from the ATM before he went out with his buddies to spend it on drinks. The old man knew not to expect the snotty kid to throw any money his way or even acknowledge him for that matter. In fact, every once and a while the old man would look up from his lowly position in society to give a greeting just to see if he could get a response. But each Friday night, like clockwork while the young man did his usual stroll to take out money, he would come up with creative ways to ignore the old man.

Sometimes when the young man walked home in a drunken stumble, the old man would see him in a distance. He knew by the level of impairment that the young man would be back, not the following Friday but probably the next night to take out more money to spend away on booze. This fact troubled the old man who had considered his corner spot near the grocery store as his territory for the last decade of his life. Each night he would watch the intoxicated kid staggering home from a night out at the bars and would think to himself, "Fuck, I have to deal with that little shit walking past here again tomorrow!"

Sound familiar?

Those of us who live in and around cities can attest to these awkward encounters all too often and know this story all too vividly. Beggars never catch us off guard, especially those of us who are creatures of habit and frequent the same stores. Still, it never seizes to amaze me as to how inconsistent and downright rude we can all be at times.

I suppose like most things I over analyze things to the point that I forget where I originally started from. That's just me. Some of us I'm sure don't give it much thought either way, whether a $1 is thrown in the hat or not. For me though, after a night out on the town, I usually go home and try to backtrack all of the encounters that I had with either friends or strangers. I think, was I polite? Did I tip the waitress enough? And yes, even with every confrontation with a homeless man I must relive the experience like a broken record until the following night while the results weigh heavily on my conscience.

Several months ago I heard a well argued sermon from my Priest during Sunday mass regarding offerings to the church. He made the point that we give upwards of 20% tip to complete strangers (wait staff) for dinner but so much less to God each Sunday. He broke down checks and visits to restaurants all the while making a peace offering to any waiters or waitresses in the audience. My immediate reaction to his sermon was that he was right. I was being cheap and that my $5 each Sunday was the equivalent of one beer at the bars. Then I went beyond that. I asked myself why my giving didn't go beyond church.

And so back I go to the beggars that ask for our money but who do not pay us any service for our contributions. Rather then wonder whether or not our money that we give to churches or non-profit organizations goes to the ones in need, I think we should look at giving to the homeless as an opportunity that guarantees that our money goes directly to the less fortunate (and yes they are less fortunate if they are begging).

We can call them nuisances, bottom feeders, lazy, alcoholics, worthless, or whatever series of adjectives that justifies the inhumane manner by which he treat them. Still, I never question how or why certain people got where they are. One could even say that the reverse is true in my case and that I advocate for their plight in order to justify more reasons for why I should continue to give.

So how do we come to our decision making? Is it ever just random? I would argue not. Why is it that we are so inconsistent in our giving in that one day we might give .50 cents and the next we completely ignore these strangers? My opinion is that we question where our money is going. At that initial encounter we look at them as we make our approach and inspect their worthiness. A thorough glance at everything from their shoes to their signs and handwriting is made and in a split second we make our best value judgment. All of this of course leads to a bigger question, who are we to judge?

Quite frankly, I'd rather be wrong and have the money that I give go towards booze or whatever vice we speculate about than not give and be wrong about my assumptions.

Economists say we might be in the early stages of a recession (oops I said it). And I know that most of us work very hard for every dollar that we have rightfully earned. However, at the end of the day we can still make a difference no matter how small that contribution may be. After all, for those of us fortunate to be able to connect onto the Internet and read this, what's a little bit of spare change anyways? Or maybe, just maybe the more appropriate question we all should answer is..."Can we even spare to change?"

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Living without chopsticks

There was a slight pause from conversation at the Japanese steakhouse as I politely asked the waitress who was walking towards the kitchen "Could I get a fork please?"

As I looked up after taking in my first bite of fried rice, I saw several sets of eyes upon me. Undeterred and comfortable of the use of my eating utensil, I reached for a swig of my Budweiser and washed down the remaining food in my mouth. Only after looking the table once over did I realize that my friends were all using chopsticks and drinking sake.

It was the sort of awkwardness you feel when people around you notice some stray food that happens to be stuck in your teeth but are weary of publicly embarrassing you. Realizing the position that I was putting my friends around me in, I stood up and sarcastically stated, "I know I'm breaking stereotypes here." Everyone around the table laughed, even the couple that was not in our group. I had escaped an uneasy situation with a joke once more by taking the first jab at myself before anyone else spoke up. Crisis averted.

Growing up in an all white suburban town was never difficult for me. I had always felt at home with the company that I surrounded myself with. Ask any of my friends from my hometown and almost all of them will tell you that I was their first and perhaps only Asian friend.

But is that truly who I am? I never have thought of myself as the "token," or a symbolic representation of asians manifested into a microcosm of society. I was raised by white parents, had all white friends and lived in an all white community. I didn't speak Korean, I had never been to Korea, I never ate Korean food and thus never learned to use chopsticks. In fact, the only thing that ever distinguished me as Korean were my physical characteristics. Even my name was white.

Most of my life was spent separating myself from that culture which I was oblivous to. When I was adopted my father made sure that part of my Korean name was left before I made my citizenship official. In fact, his remarks in my high school yearbook as a senior were "never be too proud and forget who you are or where you came from." Nevertheless, I never told many people what that middle name was and for a while I too would sometimes forget it ever existed.

I used to carry my ethnicity as a chip on my shoulder. Being different was too risky for me as I didn't want to set myself too far apart. When my friends would mistakingly use words that they had overheard on tv or from their parents like "gook or chink," I never called them out on in. Instead, I pretended much like them that what had transpired never really happened at all. I carried that so-called chip with me through college as I would walk by the mostly Asian tables in the cafeteria or ignored the exchange students while passing by. It was my intent to let all of them know that I was "not" one of them.

I'd like to think that my choice to enter the Air Force was based entirely on patriotism. However, the more I truly think about my past, the more I know deep down somewhere in my subconscious an effort to prove to the world that I was just as American as everybody else also played heavily in my decision making.

I wish I could have a caveat after my nametag on my uniform that reads (*adopted). I can see the curiosity in people's faces as I introduce myself. They look at me, then my nametag, back at me and so forth. Usually after the 4th or 5th nod I'll finally step in and tell them my concise backstory that I have told countless times. To their credit, few people ever just assume anything. I've even lied a few times and told people I was part Irish. The majority of the time I get the "oh yea, I can definitely see that reply," to which I say to myself "you liar."

So playing to people's naivety might not be entirely fair. In truth I'd rather just leave people scratching their heads in curiosity as they try to put 2+2+2 together. It saves me from having to explain anything.

Yesterday I went to a Japanese restaurant with my girlfriend. Ordinarily I ask for the fork but this time I instead reached for two chopsticks and dove in. I'm coordinated enough to use chopsticks and to be honest my reasoning for not using them before had never been for lack of talent. (Hell, I can dribble 4 basketballs simultaneously...and do it well, chopsticks are the equivalent of dribbling one). My choice to ignore the chopsticks and go with the fork had always been because chopsticks represented a culture I was not familiar with. Forks meant America to me, forks are what my friends from back home used and forks were what I was going to use. This time was different though. I was surrounded by complete strangers who probably assumed I had been using chopsticks for my entire life and my girlfriend who had seen me do much more embarassing things.

So was my stray from flatware this time a tacit acceptance of my culture or out of amusement? To be fair, probably a little bit of both. I guess like most people I've spent entirely too much of my life wondering what other people thought of me and have never accepted my background for what it truly is...diverse, unique and amazing. To that end, don't expect me to preface my nationality with a hyphen. No, I think Theodore Roosevelt would be turning in his grave. Instead, understand that I will never be "fully Asian, or Irish." I consider myself first and foremost an American; period. However, this does not mean that I can't have an appreciation for other cultures or my ethnicity. In conclusion, I suppose the best lesson that I could learn from all of this is that sometimes it's important for all of us to get out of our comfort zones and for lack of a good explanation, just try something different.

Perhaps I have over analyzed the fork/chopstick use but probably no more so than my 5 friends that witnessed me pick up the fork on that memorable night. As I looked around, I saw 5 white men who were very comfortable with who they were and what they were eating with. They used a utensil not to fit in or because of the company they were in, but because sometimes its simply "ok" to use chopsticks. Today more than ever, I am beginning to make strides to accept my ethnicity instead of shying away from it. Maybe living in the middle of the Pacific makes it easier for me. Now when I have the choice to use a fork or a chopstick, I go with the latter to make up for lost time. But if I'm really hungry I just find it more practical to use my fork :)

Joshua Joseph 'Do In' Carroll