Interview with a Farang Beggar
One of the stranger sights in Thailand is the Westerner reduced to begging on the streets. For example, many expatriates in Thailand are aware of the Dutchman who's been sitting at various BTS stations for years, always apparently a few thousand Baht short of a ticket home. Like most young men in his situation, there is little doubt that they're too bone idle to go home and get a job and so embarrass themselves and their fellow countrymen by begging.
However, what becomes of those who really are down on their luck in Thailand? I was told about an older guy who's been sitting outside Asoke BTS station for quite some time, holding a sign that states he needs work. For some reason, I was curious about this particular guy and I thought his story would make an interesting article. Recently, I finally made it down to Asoke to ask him a few questions. Sure enough, he was right outside the station sitting on the pavement. I wasn't sure what to expect but he appeared reasonably well dressed, clean shaven and it was a jarring sight to see him in such a position.
I introduced myself and explained that I would like to interview him. Initially, he seemed a little suspicious of me and it was clear he felt uncomfortable in the circumstances he'd found himself in. I was keen to get him in a situation where he would be on a level field with me, so I invited him to go and get something to eat, or have a few drinks with me. He seemed reluctant, perhaps understandably... I could have been some kind of weirdo and I'm sure he's seen some of the worst examples of mankind while on the street. However, after a few sentences, I think he figured I was genuine and agreed to accompany me, so we went over to the Ship Inn, a little English Pub nearby.
En route, he already started telling me his story. It wasn't to be a formal interview as I wanted him to relax, it was more of a friendly chat than anything. I just let him speak for a while without interrupting. He's a 62 year old American named Bob (probably not his real name) who first came to Thailand 39 years ago. He's a veteran of the American war in Vietnam and he's had a long and varied career, much of which was spent in the merchant navy. When we arrived at the bar and we had a couple of beers lined up, I started digging a little to find out how he came to be on the streets. I turned out to be the classic 'my wife sold the house and didn't tell me' story that you hear so often in Thailand. I don't doubt for one moment that he was telling the truth about that.
A few years back, his ship was laid up due to the end of a government contract and he found himself out of work. At the time, he wasn't too concerned as he still had the equity in his Don Muang property, or so he thought. After a while, the funds started getting low, so he started selling his possessions, such as his much loved collection of Leica cameras but of course, this money eventually ran out. The details are patchy but he eventually let himself get so low, he was unable to bounce back. In spite of his efforts to find work in his field, he was unable to secure employment. Inevitably, without a home and without an income, it was the streets.
Frankly, I didn't know whether to believe his story or not. There were details he seemed to avoid discussing, such as my questions about his visa status. He claims to be sleeping in places like MacDonalds or similar. When you consider the fact that it's possible to get a cheap fan apartment for a thousand Baht per month, you have to ask how an apparently intelligent man could wind up homeless in Thailand... but there is something about him that rings true somehow. He is not actually begging i.e. asking for money. He goes to great lengths to keep himself clean and presentable, even though his circumstances are bad. His hair is well groomed, his shirt is clean and all he wants is a job, as stated on the sign he has.
He will not qualify for his pension for another three years. However, he claims he is owed over 5000 $US in social security payments from his government. This is what he is banking on to get him out of this mess. It will be enough for a flight to anywhere in the World and a fresh start. However, he claims that no address, combined with the fact he can't produce his birth certificate, means his embassy are unable or unwilling to assist him to receive his payment.
It's really difficult to know what to think about his situation. I think it very likely he could have done more to catch himself before getting so low. However, I'm sure it could happen to any one of us if you drop your guard, or let despair get the better of you. His age makes it hard for him to find work and when you've dropped below the amount you need for a flight home, there isn't much you can do. If you've burned your bridges at home, or if it's been so long since you left your home country that all your friends have either moved on or forgotten about you, what more is there to do? His old reliable source of income in the middle east is no longer open to him as he is now over the age of 60. This also closes many doors in Thailand.
He told me that food is low on his list of priorities. He claims to spend what little money he scrapes together on laundry and using the internet to find work, which he is willing to do anywhere in the World.
One of the last things he said to me before I left him was
Patrick, I'm totally fu###d, I know that. I just need my cameras, a home, some money and I think I'll be OK. I had to leave him at this point as I was late for a meeting. As I left him where I found him, I noticed that in spite of his efforts to keep himself presentable, his shoes were getting tatty and I'm pretty sure he's in the early stages of malnourishment.
In my own country, the United Kingdom, it is not unusual to see beggars, often with filthy dreadlocked hair and having descended into despair and alcohol abuse. I know for a fact that many of these desperate people were once decent, respectable types with good jobs and professions... but somehow life just broke them. It could happen to any one of us, don't be in any doubt about that.
Bob, the guy at Asoke, is an intelligent, well read, interesting man with a keen interest in physics and photography and he's had a long and varied life but for whatever reason, he's found himself on the edge and is trying to clamber back up before it's too late. I sure wouldn't want to be in his position, certainly not in Bangkok.
As of March 2008, Bob can be found around the Asoke BTS, or he can be contacted via the administrator of this website.
Mbk, one of our forum members, decided to interview Bob for a University project he is working on and he has kindly allowed me to reproduce the interview here...
Date: April 24, 2008
Time: 9:00 p.m.-11:30 p.m.
Location: McDonald's restaurant (Robinsons), Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok, Thailand
Subject: Older Workers Dealing with a Changing Corporate Landscape
Profession: journalism, radio communications (Merchant Marine), IT, photography
Q: Firstly, how long have you been here in Thailand?
A: A total of about 18 years. I've been here full time the last 11 years. The years before that were working on and off.
Q: Can you give me a brief account of how you have become unemployed and homeless here in Thailand?
A: Well, first of all, I'm not homeless. I stay in a room when I have the funds, but it is sporadic. Anyway, in 1994 I was working on a US Merchant Marine ship. When we docked in Guam, 75 of us lost our jobs because the ship was due to be decommissioned. I quickly found a new job on a ship that paid $US 80,000 for 6 months. That ended after six months, and then I went to Thailand to see the country and check out the potential for retirement, but had no real intentions to stay. I met my then wife through relatives of mine. She was a divorcee with two children. I then sent her money regularly. Later on, I found another job in shipping, but while I was gone, my wife claimed to be having money problems. She ended up selling our house and land that we had bought together outside Bangkok. I later found out that she had had a secret boyfriend, and had given the money from our house and land to him to prop up his failing business.
Q: Were you legally married to her?
A: No, I wasn't, and that's the trick question. I was foolish.
Q: So, you are not sure if she was actually divorced or not?
A: Correct. At the time Thai law forbid a Thai woman from legally holding a title deed to land if she was married to a foreigner. This is why we never married.
Q: How long have you been looking for work?
A: About 8 months. (Note: I had seen Bob about a year before this interview on Silom road with his sign and his CV states that he has been unemployed since 2006)
Q: What type of work are you looking for, and if you cannot find a job in your field, would consider another field of work?
A: Journalism, writing, shipping, communications. I would consider other work, but teaching English is something I can't get myself to do. I would teach writing, physics or mathematics though. I don't have a degree, so this is a problem for me to teach. Many of my generation never bothered to get degrees; we just went into a field, gained experience and went up the ladder. It's different now. The paper is important.
Q: Do you have any potential leads for work?
A: An American I met recently is leaving a job in Afghanistan, and he took my CV. It's not a sure thing though, so I'll have to wait and see.
Q: What sorts of reactions from people do you get when they see you with your sign?
A: They are pretty mixed, but most people are sympathetic. Many Thai people, especially women, seem worried about my welfare. Some Thais wonder why the US Embassy can't help me. They just don't understand. A German guy said I should be shot like a dog. The English and Australians seem to be the most interested and sympathetic and have given me money on occasions. An Arab guy once gave me $US 200.00 and a bought me a new mobile phone.
Q: What about the cops?
A: Ah..they don't care. I'm not doing anything illegal. They actually want to get revenge on my wife (laughs).
Q: Is your visa status up-to-date?
A: Yes, it is, but it will run out soon, about 2 months.
Q: What will you do?
A: It's not a problem. (This is one area where Bob was very vague, and not willing to go into detail about the type of visa he has or what will happen when it runs out.)
Q: I have noticed you're not begging; only asking for a job. How have you managed to survive and how long can you continue before it becomes critical?
A: After my wife left me, I sold my Leica camera collection and got about a million baht for that. When that money ran out, I started using the sign. I'm not asking for money, but I will accept it if people offer it. I have to eat, pay for laundry (one thing about Bob is that he tries to stay clean and well groomed), cigarettes and the occasional room when I have the money. I also helped a Thai woman get a US tax return and she paid me a bit for that. Right now I am day to day with whatever money I can get.
Q: Where do you sleep?
A: Wherever I can. I often go to McDonald's because it's open 24 hours.
Q: Have you considered returning home? If not, why?
A: If I was offered a job, sure. The problem is that it is so difficult to find the money to fly out, and then get established with a residence. Even if I could get there, no one would give me a job without an address. But look, if it means working in a f####ng McDonald's, forget it; I'd rather just stay here and die. I have no family there. I'd love to live in France, Australia or Vietnam, but it is what it is.
Q: How and where do you see yourself in five years?
A: I'm 62 now and I'm waiting for my social security to come through. If I get it before I'm 65, it'll be 20% less, but that's ok. It should be around $US 1,200. If have that money and could teach a bit on the side, I could make it. I've been having a lot of trouble the last two years trying to get that money. That's a big problem right now.
Q: Alright, thank you Bob, and I sincerely hope things turn around for you.
Bob's 'Sign' (CV)...
I NEED WORK
Middle East, China, ect. Expat wages only.
1991-2006 Chief Radio Electronics Officer - US Merchant Marine
1968-75 Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia
1978-80 Journalist - Washington DC
1980-82 Refugee Resettlement Officer, US Embassy, Bangkok
1975-78 Special Assistant to Minority Leader, US Senate
1965-68 US Army
I am on the street because: My ship was placed in reserve fleet, job prospects in industry are bleak
My Thai wife sold my property without my knowledge, leaving me without assets.
Bob's situation here in Thailand appears unusual to many of us; after all, he is a westerner. He is an oddity to the throngs of people who pass by him everyday under the Asoke BTS platform on Sukhumvit Road. Passersby stop and stare at his crude sign that is taped to his tattered suitcase. Some of them mock him. Some are silent, and then walk away. Some sit down to talk with him about his predicament, and others offer him leads to work. One thing we must realize is that if he were sitting on the sidewalk in a US or a European city, no one would even take a second look, or wonder what has happened to him. Why is that? Western society is more diverse than Asia with its mixture of different races. A Caucasian male sitting on the sidewalk in Bangkok looks much more out of place than he would in North America or Europe. We wonder how he has managed to find himself in this situation so far away from home.
I will admit there are some holes in Bob's tale, and I am not completely convinced of all he has told me. I do know from speaking to him that he is a capable and intelligent man who could contribute to society. I am, however, uncertain of his methods, and think that he may even being doing himself a disservice by sitting there day after day with his message. It is difficult to fully understand what Bob is trying to communicate, but after looking at statistics, and researching the plight of workers over 40 in the US, I am certain of one thing: His chances back home of landing a job are very slim indeed. It is easy for us to say to ourselves that this could never happen to us, but it could happen to any of us. The lesson to learn from Bob is that nothing in life is ever certain, and we must prepare wisely for the future and the hardships that can come along with it. Being ahead in edu- cation is the key for the older worker; always learning and staying as current as possible because old age creeps up on us before we know it. Having current, usable skills will keep us marketable during the twilight years.
Thanks very much to mbk for providing this update.
See also Whatever happened to Bob the Farang Beggar? on the forum.