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Generosity. On your terms or mine?

Being comparably wealthy in a poor country draws attention.  People notice how much you tip, or give, or gift.  Your generosity, or lack thereof, is constantly on display.  Probably like most people, I consider myself a generous person, but in the two short months we’ve been here, that generosity has been poked and examined in a way that I’m not used to. And it’s uncomfortable.

In the States, I can be generous on my own terms.  My husband and I can map out what we want to give, which charity we want to support, even designate the project, cause or person.  Then we can spontaneously give to the latest flood/earthquake/hurricane.  Sure, we’re being asked to support these things. But if we don’t, no one really knows. Rarely do you say ‘no’ to any person’s face.

Here, people gently tap at your car window. Holding up their finger to ask for one Cordoba (one twenty-first of a dollar).  It’s easier to shake your head when they are trying to sell you something you clearly don’t need, like a purple marker pen with a little light on the end.  They know you don’t need the pen, but they need a profit.  When I hand over the 20 Cordobas, it feels less like buying than receiving a little gift in return for my donation. Like giving to NPR and getting a free nylon reusable grocery bag.

And then there is the issue of tipping.  I know tipping is not charity.  But it almost feels like it when you are tipping for a service you were forced to get, like carrying groceries out to the car, or pumping gas, or guarding my car in the hardware store parking lot and helping me back out.  I’ve managed for many years to do these things on my own, but you can’t avoid them here. You aren’t allowed to pump your own gas or bring your grocery cart to the car, and apparently I’m unable to back out of a parking space unassisted.

So how much do you give or tip? I haven’t figured it all out yet.  Sometimes it becomes a combination of how good the service was, how generous I feel, what I think is ‘normal’, if the stoplight is about to change, and what combination of bills and coins I have in my wallet.

And what about the misunderstanding this week when I showed our maid how my cosmetics bag had already sprouted little mold spores from being in a damp drawer. I meant for her to wash it, but instead she said, “Oh, this is beautiful, thank you.” Um…  Should I have just given it to her and bought a new one? Instead, I clarified that, No, I’m still using it, please scrub it and hang it out in the sun.

Generosity on your own terms feels nice.  Generosity on others’ terms can be awkward and can feel like you’re being taken advantage of, nickeled and dimed (centavo-ed?).

My initial thought was, maybe generosity on one’s own terms isn’t real generosity because it’s self-serving? But I think that’s too simplistic.  Generosity doesn’t have to be completely selfless, just not selfish.  You can give to things that are important to you, receiving satisfaction and even benefits, and still be generous.  The dictionary defines generosity as liberal in giving or sharing, free from meanness or smallness of mind or character.  People like Bill and Melinda Gates have given on their own terms through foundations they have created, but certainly have been generous.

I want to be generous on this country’s terms, not just my own.  It’s taking some getting used to.  And ultimately, it is on my terms. I could just not give, or tip very little for services I didn’t ask for.  But you can choose to be generous, or at least fair, on terms that you didn’t set.  Here, more than ever, it’s clear that much has been given to me. And much is expected from me.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good, well-reasoned post. I agree that perception of generosity is, by definition, subjective. It can make you feel good about what you are doing, as well as make other people feel good that you are doing it, or doing enough. Tipping based on your perception of the value, whether for services/goods received, or for the intrinsic value in giving, should be base on your perception alone. Maybe that is selfish, but it is just the way I think about it.

    October 12, 2010
    • stmemory #

      I think you’re right that tipping should be a reflection of perceived value. It’s just strange because my perception of value is being reshuffled in a new country, with a new currency, and having to tip for things that I didn’t have to tip for in the past (like pumping my gas). So I’m having to more consciously think through value of each transaction. In the States it took less mental effort since I already had developed habits in assessing value: 15-18% tip for a meal, more or less if the service was outstanding or horrible, etc.

      October 13, 2010
  2. Wow — that situation with your maid sounds awkward! But you write about really interesting stuff here.

    A friend of mine was complaining the other day about how his grocery store asks him to make a charitable donation each time he checks out. He says yes a few times a month, but he obviously can’t say yes every time, and so he feels like a jerk those many other times when he says no. I’d imagine it’s a similar experience in developing countries. Even when you *are* being pretty generous, you still end up having to say no all the time. That must be hard.

    October 12, 2010
    • stmemory #

      It’s funny how even though we probably won’t see a given person/cashier ever again, you still want to justify yourself and explain that, actually, despite what it looks like, I’m not a jerk!

      October 13, 2010
  3. Wow — that situation with your maid sounds awkward! But you write about really interesting stuff here.

    A friend of mine was complaining the other day about how his grocery store asks him to make a charitable donation each time he checks out. He says yes a few times a month, but he obviously can’t say yes every time, and so he feels like a jerk those many other times when he says no. I’d imagine it’s a similar experience in developing countries. Even when you *are* being pretty generous, you still end up having to say no all the time. And unlike at the grocery store, you have to look into the eyes of the person you’re telling me. That must be hard.

    October 12, 2010
  4. Rebecca #

    Fantastic post, MA. It synthesizes a lot of the thoughts I have when I travel – and how much more so when you live in a place, and know that this, for whatever length of time, is now your home. Thanks for sharing!

    October 14, 2010

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