Just for a while

By Father Joe Maier
Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday Edition, Spectrum, July 6, 2004


Miss Tang: she’s one of the happiest girls I have ever met. And you can just close your eyes and visualise her — a super kid at the top of her game of life. Hasn’t lost a battle yet, although she’s been battered and bruised much too often for any teenager.

Maybe she should be a bit taller, as she didn’t eat very well during those early years — and her skin is a mess coz of a mass of scars — keloids from bug bites and mosquito bites which she has picked up from rough living. Her face is unblemished.

She’s that kind of slum girl. Ask her if she’s hungry and she says "it’s not supper time yet" even though her tummy might be rumbling. Her hair is ponytail length and luxurious like you see on the telly. She’s so proud of her hair. Says her grandma once told her, "You have your mother’s hair." Our mae ban (housemaid) gently suggested a "trim" and she welled up in tears. "My hair makes me beautiful."

One slum cat and three puppies have "adopted her". Folks here at the Mercy Centre said, "No way." She says it’s "payback time" in memory of another slum dog who would help her find food in the garbage in the difficult times.


She simply gives them her own lunch. Says she’s been hungry lots of times before and being hungry ain’t that big of a deal.

Only her angels know how she will grow up, and she’s working hard at 15 and two months on her reading and writing, but whatever she grows up to be, she will be beautiful and breathtaking.

The slum trash talk was that her mother ran away from the charity ward of a children’s hospital, carrying newborn baby Tang. She got drug drunk as usual, shouting some crazy-talk about how she didn’t like girl babies. She sold her 18-month-old baby to some charcoal vendors. So the slum trash talk went.

The "selling" part — that’s only partially true. Times were tough for a mum with a liking for drugs who tried to pay her bills by cheating at cards. The problem was that mum mostly played cards with folks who knew how to cheat better than she did. Her promises to pay her gambling debts was the joke of the week. No one cared about her offer of "midnight favours".

Pay your debts. Move some product. That was a disaster. "Sticky fingers" mum "dipped into the product". This wasn't a smart move. She knew a police urine test would turn purple. Plus the mafia wanted money for their missing product.

She tried to pawn baby Tang’s birth certificate plus her own ID card. No one wanted them.

Mum had no milk of her own and no money for the expensive stuff in the shops. But somehow she managed, raising her baby. Tang was about 18 months old when mum got the "red syrup" idea. She was desperate.

She pilfered bottles of the red drink from the religious shrines in the area to feed her daughter. Pious folks offer sweet drinks, whether red Hale's sala syrup or red fizzy drinks or cola, to the spirits. Mum figured the spirits wouldn’t mind. Baby Tang grew up drinking red syrup.

This went on for a couple months; word got around and the pious elderly ladies who offer the drinks were outraged.

Some charcoal vendors with grown children of their own heard the story. At 18 months, Tang was beautiful — a bit skinny — but why not raise her as one of their own? Mum agreed to "leave her daughter with them for a while". Just until things got better.

Then there were mum’s gambling debts. Did the charcoal vendors pay? Well, kind of. These good charcoal folks with one son wearing a uniform. He spread the word around: Hands off mum this time. Next time is "open season".

They loved Tang and raised her for about two years. That made her almost four years old.

Then it turned smelly.

Grandma — mum’s mother — never did like the charcoal people. She wanted Miss Tang back. With a four-year-old helping you beg on the streets, you can do quite well. She wanted the girl to help beg. Pure and simple.

She went to see Tang’s mum, who by now was in prison for drug offences and sick with HIV/Aids. She got written permission for guardianship and demanded her grandchild be returned to her. Didn’t like that they were Catholics.

Sadly, the charcoal vendors gave the now healthy child back to grandma, her legal guardian. So sad, they had already enrolled her into kindergarten.

Tang lived for five years with her grandmother in an abandoned and derelict building. Slept in a third-floor closet by the back stairs at night and stayed out of sight in the daytime, lest the owner charge rent. At six years old, she did go to the local school for first grade. She was voted the happiest girl in her class. Away from grandma she could learn and play with her friends. Plus, there was food for the poorer children. She attended school for three years. She couldn’t read that well and couldn’t answer all the teachers’ questions, but she was the most popular girl in her class.

But third grade was a difficult year. She was in third grade when she went to live with the Crazy Beggar Lady, who was fine when she took her medicine. They would sit at the bus stop and do homework because of the lights there. There was no electricity in their building. But just because the Crazy Beggar Lady is crazy doesn’t mean she’s dumb — she’s quite well educated. With her helping, Miss Tang shot up to near top of her class.

But her dad was murdered that year, a couple months after mum and grandma died. That’s why she moved in with Crazy Beggar Lady, who really loved her and whom Tang loved dearly. Crazy Beggar Lady really became her whole family. What a glorious pair they were together, walking down the street “looking for collectables”. In fact, the neighbourhood saved anything that could be sold for them.

Tang's dad? A nice man, but not an outstanding citizen, even in the slums. One night, there was betting on a football game on TV. It involved some drinking, and a ruckus. He tried to stop the fight but, as the old expression goes, brought a knife to a gunfight. Got in the way of a 12-gauge shotgun blast.

He crawled, dragging himself while crying out for Miss Tang. It was late in the evening. Tang was sleeping — Crazy Beggar Lady was there with her. They found dad down by the street. He kept crying Tang's name — blood all over — and he said, "My daughter I love you," and died.

The neighbours shooed them away lest the police see blood on her hands and dress and ask questions she couldn’t answer.

Crazy Beggar Lady was a street-wise woman. She grabbed Miss Tang, ran and got a clean dress, ditched the bloody one and jumped on the first bus that came by.
They rode to the end of the line and stayed there. They begged for food and slept at a bus stop for a few days.

That’s when Tang got her first job — and that was six years ago now. Up at 4am, she washed dishes at a noodle shop for 15 baht a day. She saved any leftover noodles from the customers that didn't have cigarette butts in them. That was food for her and Crazy Beggar Lady.

They were a pair.

You see, Crazy Beggar Lady had no home. Tang had invited her to sleep in that closet near the back stairs on the third floor. The noodle vendors continued to let her wash dishes, but sometimes they teased her and would only give her 10 baht.

Crazy Beggar Lady told the noodle shop owners she would put a hex on their store if they didn’t give Tang 20 baht a day and let her keep the leftover noodles.

Tang and Crazy Beggar Lady lived together for four years. They spent their nights sleeping in the closet, while in the day Tang went to school. Crazy Beggar Lady was out on the street, but was there every afternoon to pick up her "daughter" from school. Sometimes people laughed, but they didn't care.

A few months ago, Tang finished washing dishes. One of the charcoal vendors from years gone by was passing the noodle shop. She spotted Tang walking "home" to share the collected leftover noodles with Crazy Beggar Lady. The charcoal vendor woman hugged and hugged her. "Why don’t both of you come home with me, just for a while?"

They got Tang and Crazy Beggar Lady to a local hospital where they had a free TB check-up. Crazy Beggar Lady checked out totally healthy. Tang has the beginnings of tuberculosis of the lungs.

Then a while ago, the charcoal vendors brought Crazy Beggar Lady and Miss Tang to us at the Mercy Centre. They thought we could look after them better in the long term.
Miss Tang, now she’s 15 years and two months. She’s been here six months and put on 6kg. Also, she’s pretty much cut down on the TB coughing and is taking her medicine. She’s happy as can be.

There's no lice in her hair and her fingernails are cut short — schoolgirl style.
She goes to school every day. Sits in the front row. Eager to learn everything. And three slum puppies have "found" her, following wherever she goes.

Crazy Beggar Lady. We give her a pinto (lunch box) each day at noon and 20 baht for betel nut and such accessories. She loves the street, so she sleeps in a lean-to next to a pillar under the expressway. She calls it her own home, the first she has ever owned. Sometimes Miss Tang goes to sleep with her, lest she get lonely. Of course, the three puppies sleep there to protect them.