I’ve spent about a week back in Sydney now, finishing off my research project over at USyd on open-ended science investigations for the ASELL schools program. I’ll get around to writing a project update, or two, or four…I promise. It’s actually been a lot of fun, and I’ve learnt a lot – not in the least thanks to my superb supervisor, Prof. Manjula Sharma, who supervised Derek Muller’s PhD. You might recognize Derek from the [Veritasium Youtube channel](https://www.youtube.com/user/1veritasium)…one of the biggest on the internet for science and physics education.
Anyway, there’s quite a number of things that have come up and been on my mind this week. Having been reading Tim Ferriss’s book, *Tools for Titans*, I’ve successfully validated my endeavour in writing these blog posts, and will certainly continue to shoot my intellectual jargon-filled posts into the digital void indefinitely. It’s really therapeutic, and entertaining. No, really.
Right, so onto homelessness. Aside from the somewhat imminent threat of my own shelter-less-ness existence (damn you, Canberra housing market), I also had lunch with a homeless guy yesterday.
I was walking around Martin Place, trying to find where the damn State library is (I’m now sitting in one of its public computer labs, writing this. It’s actually really damn nice!), and I came across a homeless guy asking for $10. This ended up being one of the most interesting, and insightful encounters I’ve had with another human being to date.
So imagine me standing in the middle of Martin Place, looking like a confused Latin-American tourist as this south-east Asian looking guy came up to me and asked, “Excuse me, but do you have \$10?”. I was a bit confused at first, but then explained I didn’t have any cash on me just a card. Oops, why did I mention that?
He proceeded to urgently request I go to an ATM and withdraw some cash, but I politely refused since the one he pointed me to was NAB and I’m with ANZ. Man screw those ATM fees right? Well, I was thinking to myself he’s probably just another desperate homeless dude…but for one reason or another I replied “No sorry, but I’m going to get some food now, I’ll buy you some if you’d like?”. After a similar ordeal several years ago in Boston, my parents taught me the important litmus test for charitable endeavours with homeless people: offering anything other than money to check whether the respondent is indeed a truly needy homeless person, or simply someone itching to satisfy a crippling addiction.
>Sidenote: We really shouldn’t look down from our moral high-ground, even on those homeless who have succumbed to terrible addictive tendencies. Yes, they smell, and look a bit feral, but they’re human too. Something something, [Insert Peter Singer quote here]
He was overjoyed and proceeded to accompany me to the nearest burger joint. We passed a Maccas on the way, and discussed how Maccas is neither of our favourites. “Less than once a week!” the little man advised. He had in his hand a half-eaten baked croissant, which I asked about, and he explained another man had given to him just before. He was pretty thin and feeble, so I didn’t doubt he could do with a good wholesome lunch. By the time we got to the food court, he’d already finished the tiny croissant piece anyway.
Being a Saturday, everywhere was pretty much closed except this one burger place right outside the main food court in Martin Place.. I told him to just let me know whatever it is he wants from the menu, and I’ll buy it for him. I was thinking to myself at the time that my parents, who had just bailed me out of a zeroed bank account for the n’th time would be shrieking in horror at the thought. Regardless, I proceeded to order a “Double” (double angus beef patty burger of pure deliciousness), whilst the little man asked for a “Magic Mushroom”, a vegetarian burger with a mushroom patty. I mean, I wasn’t salivating at the thought, but to each his own right?
We sat down to eat, and introduced ourselves. I told him I’m a student, currently studying physics and mathematics, to which he was somewhat impressed. His name, (I think I heard correctly), was Wu, and he was originally from Vietnam, but moved and actually finished his high school here in Sydney – at Canterbury boys, of all places!.
“That was a long time ago,” he explained.
“So what are your plans now?” I asked, subtly trying to figure out what his current situation was.
“I…”, he stammered a bit at this, “I feel like my life is [searches for the right word] over. I have no job, no house, no car, no wife or girlfriend…” he trailed off.
“Ah right. That’s pretty rough man.”
I mean, it’s the usual story of most homeless people (a generalization perhaps, but you know what I mean). But hearing it coming from this guy made it so much more real; knowing that this is something a lot of people around us, on the streets, *every day* are struggling with. Truly rock bottom. This inspires no emotional response when one thinks of numbers, stats or a group of people; “ah yes, the *homeless*, oh how we have an ethical duty to help them!” – but man, looking into this guys eyes as he hunched over and politely ate his mushroom burger…well I’m glad to know empathy is still a thing I can experience. I noticed his fingers were twitching a bit (I guessed probably malnutrition), and he was missing some teeth. At least he didn’t smell bad.
“So what happened, why are you in this position now?”
“I used to work in a factory, just near here, making clothes. They had too many workers, [the boss] had to let them go.”
We had a bit of a discussion about that, and it turns out that he’d been working in that factory for over a decade since he finished high school. A lot of his friends, which he no longer keeps in contact with, also got let off and were likely in similar position. I empathized in that myself (along with most uni students) struggle with making ends meet too.
Interestingly, I couldn’t get him to talk about his personal life very much before he began to talk about Vietnam, his family and other homeless in Sydney. Turns out that he can’t stay with other homeless groups because the food they give him makes him throw up (not terribly surprising). He also told me about how there are a lot of homeless people in Vietnam, but there appears to be more even in Sydney, and many of them are white people which he found odd. Exclaiming at the difference in our burgers, he told me how many in Vietnam love mushrooms (which I thought was a nice little remark), but then he proceeded to note how many (kids especially) go out and pick wild mushrooms, cook it, and proceed to quickly perish due to their toxicity. Not so great.
“So what about your family?”
“My sister still lives in Sydney, she’s retired. I still talk to her on the [pay]phones sometimes.”
I didn’t ask why he didn’t stay with her. His tone suggested he probably wasn’t on good terms with her.
“My brother died recently, from cancer. His wife and 3 kids had to move…but he told them beforehand.”
We talked a bit about that, but he didn’t seem particularly sorrowful. I was honestly kind of amazed at Wu’s quiet resolve, he’d been through a lot.
“So do you ever think about going to university..?”
“No, I finished high school a long time ago. I don’t know much…but it would be good to learn a trade, you know, like fixing pipes, or roofs, or wires.”
Wu and I talked for maybe, about 20 minutes, before he promptly left to go ask more people for money. I really wanted to sit down with him for a bit longer, and figure out if there’s anything I could suggest to help him help himself. I mean, people hate homeless going up and asking them for money, but this guy obviously didn’t have the demeanour nor self-efficacy to just sit and leave a hat out for people on a sidewalk. At the same time, his physical state made him an unlikely worker. Despite that, he noted he can speak three languages (Cantonese, English and Vietnamese), and it struck me later as I made my way to the library that he could teach English to Vietnamese immigrants. With a shower, a GP visit (probably several), combover, maybe a new set of clothes;he could easily have a good chance at landing a job like that. If I see him around Martin Place again, I’ll be sure to chat with him about that.
This brings me back to education actually, and several recent conversations I had. One, with an Uber driver a week ago, noted how the Government seems to prefer funding private schools over public. I’m unsure about the extent of this, but it’s something I’ll be following up on. Another, with Manju and several others at ASELL, is the recurring theme that *education is the greatest common denominator* of society. If we can get that right, and I mean *really, honestly* in the sense that *everyone*, after finishing secondary education, is on a level playing field to pursue absolutely whatever they desire and have ambitions for – then we have the beginnings of a truly great, or “Just” society, as Plato might remark. I had a very (very) recent conversation with a close friend who led me to an article on “Why Private Schools are Better”, published in The Australian recently. I won’t do it service to link here, since it’s a pretty terribly researched article (yeah, LGBTI awareness in schools is Marxist inspired, *sure*), but it was probably the straw that broke my cognitive camel’s back and made me realize:
**god-fucking damn, Australia has an education problem**
I mean Wu finished high school in Australia, and went straight to manual labour in a clothes factory? Sure, that was 30 years ago, but now we’ve upgraded from factories to landscaping, salt packaging (as a few friends of mine recently got into, no seriously), and car-washing. As someone who experiences first-hand, every day the benefits of a well-rounded and scholastically motivated life, I feel deeply unsettled with the understanding of unskilled, uneducated and nigh-meaningless experience many in Australia (and around the world) still have.
I’m going to be looking more into what I can do about this. You know, aside from making cool little science investigations less than 1% of high school students in Australia will ever experience. Suggestions, aside from knocking down the door of [Simon Burmingham’s](http://www.senatorbirmingham.com.au/) office, are welcome.
I did ask Wu one other thing however.
“I mean, that’s not a great place to be in man but…at least you still have hope right?”
“Yeah, I still have hope.”