The first-generation college experience

When I knew I had gotten into Yale, one of my first and most exciting duties was to put in an International Student Financial Aid Application as well as a supplement that the university called its “Biographic Questionnaire.” It was exciting because I knew that with ten or so pages of administrative burden I’d be claiming a scholarship worth a good US$50,000 or so a year; without those forms I wouldn’t have had an ice cube’s chance in hell paying for college.

In that “Biographic Questionnaire,” I came across a funny question, which ran along the lines of “are you the first person in your family to attend college?” Why did this matter? Neither of my parents had. But my stepbrother–whom I barely knew and had never grown up with–was now a psychology professor at a small college in Washington state. How about him? I shrugged it off: Americans have nuclear families, right? Stepsiblings probably don’t count. Unlike me, my mother fretted about the forms. If it was Singapore we’d probably have had to submit supporting documentation for the last ten years of income and expenditure, along with birth certificates and tax forms. (No, I’m only half joking: they would already have the information.)

Thankfully, the money came through. And naturally, I continued checking that box throughout college, and claimed for myself the identity of a First-Generation College Student. If anything, I thought, surely it was an advantage, since it reduced the miniscule possibility that my financial aid would ever be cut. Otherwise, I argued over dining-hall tables and across seminar rooms with the kids of doctors, academics, lawyers, researchers, thinking little about my own patrimony, the son of an administrative assistant and a middling businessman with a late-career turn to property management. Other than that box on a form I had to fill out once a year, that first-generation status was not something I ever noticed.


Alternate readings; alternate realities: reflections on begging

On Tuesday I was approached by an old man at City Hall MRT for cash, as I was waiting for the northbound Jurong East train.

This happens so infrequently in Singapore that I was immediately thrown. And what made it even more surprising was that it happened in the station. I don’t mean to say that begging or panhandling doesn’t happen in Singapore—it does—but never, ever, have I been approached for money inside a train station.

He walked up to me, making eye contact as he came.

What was immediately surprising was the rapidity at which this guy approached me. I was waiting at one of the narrower parts of the platform, where you have the escalators behind you and maybe five arm-lengths of space between the railing and the platform. I was also waiting behind a pillar. So he had to turn a corner, eyeball the crowd—it was mid-afternoon and all the schools and universities are on break, so there were plenty of people around—make a snap decision as to which person would be the most sympathetic, and home in on me. Which he did.

“Boy,” he began, pressing a finger on my arm so there could be no mistake, no evasion, “listen to me.”

“I’m Singaporean,” he mumbled. (But why should that matter? Did he have a greater claim to my attention just because he was a fellow countryman?)

“I been in prison for ten years, I just got out. I don’t have money,” he opened up the fingers of his right hand, revealing $1.65 in coins—just as I stepped back, wary of panhandlers with clenched fists near my person.

“Can you give me some money…?” I lost the rest of his indistinct mumbling.

“No, sorry—go and ask somebody else.” I said firmly, and pursed my lips. “Please?” “No, please go.” “Boy, please.” “No.” I joined the line for the train and looked intently at the information display. Three whole minutes more.

To my relief, he got the message, and walked off.


It puzzled me why I felt unaccountably harsh and unsympathetic towards him. I write felt advisedly. I didn’t say anything particularly nasty, nor did I waste his time. I communicated unequivocally that he wasn’t getting anything from me—which, if you’re asking for money, is perhaps the median response. Yet in the few moments our interaction lasted, I felt weirdly outraged by him, maybe disproportionately so. I’m trying now to trace the source of this feeling.


Reading 1: I felt cornered

With beggars, the protocol I’ve developed is to refuse, apologise, and then walk briskly away.

But this time, it wasn’t possible to walk away, since I was waiting for the train. Maybe I felt physically cornered; my usual tact wouldn’t work in this novel situation.


Reading 2: I felt targeted

I’ve been living in Cape Town for four months now, and many aspects of life there have taken some getting used to. One of these is the aggressive panhandling. I’ve sometimes joked that I’m the homeless people’s walking ATM: as an obvious outsider, they seem to associate me with money. (I guess they hit up foreigners preferentially, and even white people could be locals in Cape Town, so I’m pretty much the most foreign-looking foreigner.) Like a guided missile, they scan the horizon and close in on their target. “Hey China! Chai-nah! Ching-chong-ching-chong!” For the life of me I can’t figure out why they think casual racism would make me more inclined to sympathise with them, but roughly half of these encounters have started out something like that.

The City Hall panhandler, of course, did not begin with a racial slur. But he likewise scanned the crowd, made his choice and swooped in on me, of all people, so quickly that it made me doubt something about myself: do I just look like a patsy, a sucker, a cross-cultural walking ATM, the Maestro of the marginalised? Neither did it help that he addressed me as Boy. What good would it do him to engage me, a youngster? Indeed, why not the Suit standing right next to me? These intrusive thoughts were naturally unpleasant.


Reading 3: I felt conflicted

I’ve always been slightly impressed by the way some of my American friends—particularly some quite liberal and even left-leaning friends—handle being approached for money. On my part, I feel uneasy about how I should react to beggars. They, on the other hand, seem to have no qualms telling beggars to look elsewhere, combining just the right levels of empathy and reserve. Obviously, they’ve had more practice, because it’s a more familiar social interaction to them than it is to me. Yet my unease (which I imagine I am not very good at hiding) feels wildly incongruous to their indifference, aloofness, even a touch of disdain.

I myself am conflicted about beggars. Does some sort of communitarian solidarity require us to alleviate their suffering? Perhaps so. On the other hand, isn’t that the state’s job? Then again, we know that state-run and charitable welfare systems are full of cracks, through which many people fall through—and those are the ones who need our help the most. Yet it’s impossible to tell simply by looking who really needs help—indeed, the category of need is itself heavily dependent on personal circumstances. Still, bureaucracy is notoriously poor at attaching the appropriate weight to these factors. So perhaps, given the reality of a deeply flawed state apparatus, ‘rewarding’ panhandling is a necessary second-best course of action.

But the City Hall panhandler claimed that he’d gone through the prison system. Like the welfare bureaucracy, I have no doubt that the correctional services have their own cracks. Yet to my mind the key difference is that while not every potential welfare recipient has interactions with the welfare system, every inmate is intensively monitored the moment they enter a prison. In that sense, the support system is opt-out (rather than opt-in). This 2010 document describes the prison service’s rehabilitation efforts. All else equal, the level of attention given to an ex-offender probably surpasses that available to a non-offender, which makes the turn to begging more inexplicable.


Reading 4: I felt threatened

In any case, when he mentioned prison the first thing that came into my mind was actually the last time I met a panhandler who mentioned a prison past.

This was in Cape Town, and the guy was asking for twenty rand. “I did time for murder,” he said, “I just got out. Don’t make me do something we’ll both regret,” his right hand tucked in the front pocket of his hoodie, visibly clenching something outlined ominously against the fabric. Not wanting to find out how long his knife would be, I coughed up the money. Ever since then, I haven’t been entirely comfortable with strangers with clenched fists or hands in pockets asking me for stuff, and perhaps that sense of threat re-emerged.


Reading 5: I felt affronted

In the US, I was once approached by a woman with a baby in a stroller. Could we spare some money for food for her child? It was awkward: I was with a friend and we were quite visibly carrying a couple of large cartons of beer. I swear it wasn’t all for our personal use. We couldn’t spare the money, we said. She swore at us loudly as we walked away. Fuck, you had the money to buy that beer and you say you don’t have money to spare? I guess in a manner of speaking she pushed us into an unpleasant quandary there—I felt morally cornered. Her having the baby and us having the alcohol really didn’t help.

But the point—I rationalised furiously to myself then—was that it was our money to spend. No panhandler has a prior claim on that dollar in my wallet. If I honoured that claim, I would have to disclaim my own plans for that dollar, whatever they might be. And given that money is fungible (no single dollar is distinguishable from any other), to disclaim my plans for that one dollar would be to partially disclaim my plans on any other dollar—to compromise a dollar’s worth of my plans. If we were hypothetically obligated to honour every panhandlers’ claims on our money, resources, time, and sympathy, this obligation would be toxic for our own security, our ability to run our own lives as we see fit. In turn, this insecurity would possibly reduce life satisfaction for the vast majority of us who are targets for panhandlers.

One could even say that the panhandlers instrumentalise his targets, subordinating their goals to his own.


Reading 6: I felt confused

But this argument is vulnerable in several ways. First, panhandlers typically claim small amounts. This makes it unconvincing to argue that our lives would be radically altered if we recognised a limited duty to be charitable. The most immediate trouble with such a “limited duty” is, of course, where (at which dollar) this duty stops. If I am obligated to give away the tenth dollar, why is the hundredth or the thousandth any different? Nevertheless, just because a duty could involve a line-drawing exercise doesn’t necessarily mean we should disregard it—perhaps there is some defensible qualitative standard by which we could decide who to give to. (I don’t have a proposal for this.)

Next, it is a bit of a stretch to claim that just because one dollar (or ten) is demanded, my plans will be thrown into disarray. While for some people every dollar really does count, there is some slack in my budget. Giving a few dollars away really does not amount to throwing away one’s security. Besides, I could actually budget charity into my plans, perhaps by setting aside ten or twenty bucks each month (really not that much). And if it isn’t all used up, I could add the unspent amount to a year-end pot that’ll go to my favourite charity, which all things considered might make me feel quite good about myself. The planning objection doesn’t really work.

Last, diminishing marginal utility implies that after a point, every additional dollar of consumption gives us less happiness. It is probably fair to say that those ten dollars were more needed by that mother with a child than two college students carrying a stash of beer. Even though utility is not strictly speaking comparable between different people (aka the problem of interpersonal comparisons of utility), to argue otherwise would seem crass and arrogant.


What all this adds up to is an after-the-event, ultimately open-ended ratiocination about the guy who said he needed money, which doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t give him any. Having let my mind roam over all the associations I could reasonably make, I am quite sure that the two main contributors to the emotions I had were my experiences of Cape Town, on top of my general confusion about how to handle begging.

I can’t deal with the former, but the best solution I have come up with for the latter is perhaps the following: there are two ways of categorising actions, whether they are praiseworthy or not, and whether they are blameworthy or not. Though praiseworthy actions are good, and blameworthy ones bad, neither category is a perfect converse of the other. There are some actions, like breathing, which are neither. And omissions may not necessarily fall into the opposite category from their corresponding actions. For instance, stealing is blameworthy, but avoiding stealing isn’t particularly praiseworthy. We “do the right thing” most of the time, and can’t expect to be patted on the back about it. Likewise, I think we can agree: giving money to panhandlers is praiseworthy. The proper converse of that is that not giving money to panhandlers is un-praiseworthy. But since praiseworthy and blameworthy are not collectively exhaustive, un-praiseworthy does not imply blameworthy, which means that not giving money to panhandlers is not necessarily blameworthy.

It just isn’t good, but un-good isn’t bad, and morally speaking, I guess I’m fine with being just middling.

On graduating

In the days and weeks ahead people will be expecting me to reflect on my four years at Yale. Four years is a long time, and it’s rather surprising that I don’t have more thoughts on it. But then again, four years is a period that’s long enough to be difficult to sum up in a bunch of catch-all observations. It wasn’t one unitary experience, but a series of them, and I can hardly offer up my thoughts on such a diverse set of of experiences in any condensed, compact sort of way that does them justice. This piece serves as my first stab at doing something like that. It shouldn’t be my last.