I’m used to being asked for things on the streets of Philadelphia. In the central part of town, you can’t walk two blocks without being petitioned by someone — tourists asking for directions, canvassers asking for signatures, or bums asking for cash.
The latter are especially ubiquitous when the weather is nice and the out-of-town crowd is abundant, as has been the case of late. Most of the people with their hands out for cash are exactly the types you would expect — drunk old men and strung-out twenty-somethings. Demographically speaking, it is not a diverse population – mostly blacks but plenty of whites, mostly male but plenty of females, mostly middle-aged but plenty of youths.
I can tell you that until today, without exception, I have never in my life seen an Asian asking for money from strangers on the street in this city. And that’s not because we don’t have a significant Asian population; it’s because the Asians in this city are stereotypically Asian — the immigrants are running small businesses and forcing their children to excel; the established are successfully ensconced professionals who are forcing their children to excel.
The Tiger Mother would eat her own young before tolerating the thought that they would give up on self-made survival and beg in the streets. And Asian culture, uncorrupted by Western antipathy toward old age, does not allow for feeble-minded aging family to fight for their own survival. And Eastern pride, unlike Western ego, isn’t content to embrace hand-outs in hard times.
Two days ago I idly made a joke that while Mexicans snubbing the US was a bad sign, we’d know things were getting really bad in this country if we saw Asians start asking for spare change on the street. So today when I walked by the middle-aged Chinese man hitting up down-town passers-by for their cash, I stopped in my tracks and inadvertently gave him hope that I would contribute. But it was the shock of being confronted with the all-wrong juxtaposition of an Asian begging in a US city that gave me pause, and also panic.
If the hard-working but upwardly mobile immigrant underclass is beginning to feel that here there is no point in working hard, and no hope of being upwardly mobile, then it’s the death rattle of the American Dream we’re hearing. I’d like to say that inspires me to stand up and fight, but some days I just want to turn tail with the Mexicans and run, or give up like that Asian man — sit down by the wayside, hold out my hand, and wait for some mercy to fall.