I strolled along the dock in Istanbul. Fishermen lined the railings, their buckets full of thrashing, wild-eyed fish. As I approached the ferry, the unmistakable sound of the oud (Middle Eastern lute) filled the briny air. A little boy sat on the cobblestones playing the stringed instrument, a collection pan in front of him. I deposited a coin, and turned to my tour guide.
“It’s nearly midnight. That child should be sleeping. He doesn’t look older than five,” I exclaimed.
“Yes. And he’s not the only one.” Following the guide’s outstretched finger, I saw an even younger child sitting several feet away, echoing his brother on an identical oud.
“That’s child labor.” I protested. “These children should be sleeping.”
The guide shrugged his shoulders.
We walked further, and soon I heard loud, harsh voices. A group of women sat on the floor of a bus stop shelter, some holding crying infants and toddlers. To my utter shock, as soon as they realized that I had noticed them, some of the women pinched their babies so that their wails would arouse the sympathy of passing strangers. Then they held out their pans to me, mutely panhandling. The little boy with the oud whom I had nearly stumbled over before, was being castigated by his mother. Apparently, she was displeased with his meager earnings. Enraged, she cursed and hit the boy. I was appalled.
“Why doesn’t she work, instead of abusing her children?” I queried, with all the self-righteousness of an entitled American tourist.
About a year later, I saw a woman in Phnom Penh, point a child in my direction, so that his cleft palate would compel me to give him money out of sheer pity.
In Siem Reap, after arising at four, taking a tuk tuk through the pre-dawn gloom, hiking and then witnessing a magnificent sunrise over Angkor Wat, I was sitting near the lotus covered pond, finally eating breakfast. A little girl approached me with some postcards, souvenirs and trinkets.
“You buy from me? Only for one dollar. One dollar,” she pleaded, her arm outstretched, repeating the only English words she had been taught.
As this was my last day in Cambodia, I already understood the ethical dilemma I faced: If I gave the child some money, then she might actually eat that day, but my decision would encourage her parents to keep using her to extract money from tourists. Conversely, if I did not give her money, her parents might beat her and she would probably go hungry that day.
I chose to give the child a few dollars.