About a month ago, Stella received her very first hong bao, a tiny red envelope stuffed with 40 000 rupiah in celebration of the year of the snake. Forty thousand rupiah sounds like a pretty sum. And actually, it is here.
Forty thousand could be a day's wages. It could feed a family. It could transport a weary traveler halfway across Java.
But in the US, it might only buy a medium sized frappuchccino.
Stella's red envelope sits half forgotten on top of her bookshelf. She doesn't know it's there. She doesn't know she has money waiting for her. I haven't gotten her a piggy bank, I haven't told her about the spend, save, give system, I haven't really mentioned it. And that is mostly because I don't know how to talk to her about money.
On Sunday morning, we took Stella out for a swim. We kicked and twirled and splashed and dove, fresh in the face of the equatorial sun. As we swam, young men were toiling at transforming the modernist pool-side event hall into a classical European palace. A new facade was installed, complete with a two-story-high picture frame ready for the professional photographer to snap images of happy guests in too-short dresses and false eyelashes. There were spheres made from roses hanging from every tree. Lights ready for glittering. A walk way created. Everything perfectly sparkly pink ready for an evening celebration.
As we put our girl to bed Sunday night, the booming base was broken occasionally by the MC who presided over the party getting underway one story below us. A birthday party for a 17 year-old girl.
A birthday part that, no doubt, cost much more than my husband and I could earn in a month.
On Saturday afternoon I took Stella to the grocery store. Blue skies turned pea-soup dark and opened to tropical downpour. Traffic was terrible, as it always is when it rains. Stopped as the line of cars snaked around a traffic circle, a group of children approached the car, pressing up against the glass with their hands shielding their eyes for a better view inside. They were gesturing, making the universal sign for money money, food, please, eat, money, food, miss, please, eat, miss, food.
I searched for a box of raisins that I usually have stashed at the bottom of my bag, but found nothing. I said, sorry, I don't have anything to give you. My personal rule is to give only food to children, never money. They gestured harder, waved at Stella, smiled, waved, money, money, please, miss, food, money.
Stella turned to me and said, "Dese are mine fwiends."
I nodded, and told her "That's right," because I still haven't figured out the right words for this type of moment. I still haven't figured out how to tell her that these kids maybe don't have a mummy and a papi, a home, toys, dinner. These kids are just like you, kind and good and worthy, but they want your money.
I got a text from my ojek driver today asking for help. On Sunday while we were splashing in the pool, he wrecked his motorcycle. A car made a careless turn and swerved into him, throwing him into the air, before speeding away. His phone and his bike were both broken, both his lifelines to income. His shoulder was injured and he hadn't been to the doctor yet.
People like my ojek driver, people who are good and kind humans, well they can be ruined in an instant. You can tell them, you should have saved money, you should have a safety net. But the truth is they don't have access to fat ofshore bonds, QROPS pensions, or international health care, let alone bank accounts or a simple doctor's visit. People like my ojek driver and his family might eat everything they earn in a day.
The driver asked me to borrow some money, just a little over twice the amount my daughter was given as a gift for Chinese New Year. I felt uncomfortable and uncertain about this transaction, because I'm not accustomed to people I don't know very well asking to borrow money, because I feel guilty about how much I have, and how little he does, because I didn't want a loan to stomp on our relationship, because I resented him asking, because I knew I should give.
I felt uncomfortable also because I don't know how to talk about money. I don't know how to explain to my child why a 17 year-old gets a birthday party that could feed an entire village and another and another while the man who drives me to the gym can't afford to pay a doctor to examine his shoulder. I don't know how to tell her what the right thing to do is. I don't know what the right thing to do is. An act like this won't bring someone out of poverty. It won't solve his problems. But maybe it will show him that we're kind?
The only thing I could do was take my girl with me when I went to bring him the money. One crisp red bill changed hands. He tickled my girl's cheek, then looked me in the eyes and said thank you. The next few rides will be free.
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