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When is it Okay to Give?

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a young woman working in a bar. She, like most of the women in her situation, has a family she supports, and aspirations beyond drinking with foreigners for money. This particular young lady, was one year shy of earning her bachelor’s degree in business, but didn’t have the money to pay tuition. Her friend, a veteran of the bar scene, convinced her coming to Chiang Mai and working in a bar would provide her with the money she needed. She made a little, but nowhere close to the $400 needed for tuition.

While I was talking to her, she got a call and I could see tears forming in her eyes. She walked away, talking on the phone for a few minutes, then came back, telling me she had to go back to her village right away. She packed her things, and took a 10-hour bus ride that night.

She was raised by her grandmother, who had just been taken to the hospital after having a heart attack. She gave me her Line handle and was off. A few days later, I received a photo of her and her grandmother leaving the hospital. Everything seemed fine. She was ecstatic to have her grandmother home. Unfortunately, a few days later, grandmother was back in the hospital due to a second heart attack, and not long after, passed away. The young lady didn’t know how she was going to pay for a funeral, so I sent her money. I normally wouldn’t be so trusting, but my bullshit meter is fairly accurate, and I wanted to help. She sent pictures of the funeral and receipts, knowing I might be skeptical.

Not long after the funeral, she started working at a dentist’s office, doing billing. She said this is what she did before her friend talked her into trying out the bar scene. It only pays about 10,000 baht per month ($300), but she would rather do that than work at the bar, drinking every night. She said she had decided to wait until she could save some money before going back to the university. I can’t imagine how long it would take to save $400, when all you make is $300 a month, and still have to eat and pay bills. So, I decided to help her pay the tuition (not wanting to see her go back to the bar). She was thrilled. She started going to school on weekday mornings, and working at the dentist’s office in the evenings and on weekends, making for some long days. This is what she’s doing now; going to school, while earning a little money at her job. It doesn’t allow for much of a social life, but she only has to do it for a year. Once she has her degree, many doors will open for her in Thailand.

The “sugar daddy” situation is common here (among Thais in general), and she, feeling like she owes me something, sends sweet messages, and talks about spending time together, etc. Considering she’s only 22-years old (the same age as my son), I wouldn’t even consider having any kind of relationship with her. I just felt she had some potential, and if given a break, could do something for herself. So, today, I explained to her she was on her own now, and I didn’t expect anything from her, but also wouldn’t be sending her any more money. I don’t want this to become complicated, making either of us feel obligated to each other. She seemed a little hurt, but thanked me for what I had done. Now, I’m feeling a little sad … sort of like sending a kid off to college.

So, here are some questions. Am I a sucker for a helping this young lady? Most Thailand expats would say, “Definitely yes!” There are a million scams going on, with young bar girls trying to separate older foreigners from their money. Many of the expats here are very jaded and suspicious of everyone's intentions. Could she have been scamming me? It’s possible, but doubtful. If she was, it was the most intricate, and well-thought-out scam I’ve ever heard about. She never asked me for money, I either offered, or just sent it to her. In a way, it reminds me of giving a panhandler money in the States. You have to make a judgement call, whether the person really needs the money, or are they going to walk around the corner and drive home in their Lexus? I must admit, I never gave money to street beggars in the U.S., except on very rare occasions.

In Thailand, I try to help people I know. I’ve helped fix a car (or two), buy a kid school clothes, and have given a donation toward more than one funeral. Most of these people live on much less than you or me, and what may seem an insignificant amount of money to us, might be a huge obstacle for them.

I guess when it boils down to it, I think we have an obligation to help others if we can. How we choose to do that is up to us. I would prefer to help those I know for a fact are in need. On occasion, I’ve been directly asked for money, and in that situation I often say no. So, what do you think?