Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dissecting Flowers: Rainy Day Musings

It's pouring today. This is a good thing in that we need rain thanks to the legislators tasked with keeping water management infrastructure up to date have done such a shitty job of it, but also a bad thing in that it's my only day off this week.

On the way to a cafe, I passed a familiar face - the woman on the corner who sells those fragrant flower blossoms wired onto little hooks that you hang around the house to give it a fresh, natural scent. I know her - she's a Taroko aborigine, a wife and mother, in her early 60s, a devout Christian (she gives me Christian literature sometimes that I don't read, not because it's in Chinese but because as an atheist it's just not my bag). A few health problems that you'd expect a 60-year-old woman who stands outside all day to have. Obviously she doesn't have a lot of money, if she did she wouldn't sell flowers on the sidewalk.

Today (or tomorrow?) is Mother's Day, by the way. It makes no difference to the story, except to highlight how crappy it must be to be 60, a mother on Mother's Day, when it's pouring out, selling flowers on the sidewalk.

So, I often buy flowers, but not always, as I am not always headed home when I pass her. Today I pass her and honestly, I didn't really want flowers. I already had some hanging up around the house that I bought from another guy who sells them on the sidewalk near one of my workplaces. I was heading to a cafe with a cat that is likely to try to eat the flowers (I'm pretty sure they're non-toxic but the owners don't really like it when he does that). I felt like as a consumer it's my right to decide if I want to buy something or not, I shouldn't be forced into it by a guilt trip, a sob story or a hard sell. My money, my choice (for my private money, obviously when it comes to taxes and contributing to the running of a society that's different).

But, I did get the hard sell: it's Mother's Day, it's raining, I want to go home, maybe buy some on your way back?

I don't have the heart to tell her that I already have flowers hanging up, and I don't know when I'm coming back.

I still don't really want the flowers.

Yet, reader, here I am in the cafe with a little plastic bag full of flowers on wire hooks.

On one hand, I'm not wrong about feeling I have the right to spend my money as I choose. On the other, what a privilege it is for me to not have to sell flowers on the street just to make ends meet. Even if it's raining. Even if I'm tired. Even if it's Mother's Day (if I were a mother - I don't think being a Cat Lady counts). Even if it's raining, I'm tired, and it's Mother's Day. What a privilege to have enough money to not have to, to have enough, even, to go to a pricey cafe and get a Bailey's latte and sandwich. What a privilege to have the discretionary income that I could drop NT$100 on some flowers I don't need and hadn't intended to buy and not have to worry about it. I haven't always had that luxury (see: Jenna ages 23-25, and briefly after first arriving in Taiwan). As a foreigner here I am relatively well-paid, though I lack a lot of the securities enjoyed by citizens despite their lower salaries - jobs with paid leave, bonuses, pension plans, access to credit in Taiwan. Does that status of being paid well above the average for a teacher - more like the average for someone of my age and experience in finance - confer a responsibility? If so, a responsibility to do what?

Put in a situation where I could say "no", keep my NT100 (about $3 US), meaning she'd have to stand in the rain that much longer until someone else bought them, leaving my right to only buy things I want intact, or spend the $3 for something I really don't want or need so she could go home that much earlier, I chose to spend the money. (I would have just given her the money and turned down the flowers, but that probably - and rightly - would have offended her. She wasn't a beggar).

This brings with it all sorts of tough questions of privilege and right - exercise my right not to buy an unnecessary item and feel like (and, honestly, be) kind of a jerk? Or be a nice person - a softie even - but give up my ability to resist a hard sell? What would you think of the sort of person who said no? The sort who said yesWould it have been better if she'd not given me the hard sell and I'd chosen, without any push, to buy the flowers? Then it would be me owning the fact that I didn't really want them.

What is to be done about the fact that there are people who need to make money to survive, or need money to accomplish certain worthy things (like feeding their children or going to school), and people with the money to make sure everyone is fed and can get a level of education that suits them, but that we can't force that money to be more equitably distributed? (While I'm in favor of using tax dollars to redistribute wealth - make sure everyone has access to the necessities of life, health care and an appropriate level of schooling - not even I would agree that it's okay to force people to spend their non-tax dollars in this way).

I thought about this especially as Stephen Colbert made headlines recently by funding every single teacher grant request in his home state. He chose to do this - nobody asked him, nobody told him he should, nobody gave him the hard sell. He got to own that decision. I do think it's a shame that our children's education is now in part funded not by communal tax dollars, which are inadequately allocated ([s]I guess we gotta feed the military industrial complex somehow because that's soooo important[/s]) but at the whims of the wealthy, but what he did was fundamentally good.

Would it still have been so good if he'd been pressured by teachers to do so, and relented?

I can only dream of having the kind of money that would allow me to do something like that. I like to think that I would. But even then, would it be the same if I'd been pressured into it?

People calling on a random rich person to fund something - however important - when that person would not have been inclined to fund it otherwise - has the whiff of "moocher" to it, and would probably be whipped to death by the media, especially in the USA (I can't say for Taiwan).  A flower seller calling on a random relatively-rich person to buy some flowers out of pure empathy, not so much. Then the person who does so feels like she had her agency taken away, but the person who doesn't comes away feeling like a bit of a selfish prat.

And how is it that the intertwining narratives of consumer discretion and relative (lack of) privilege turned a fairly simple exchange into something so complex?

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