Two tales, three children and a canned soda

21 Jan

My recent trip to Cambodia led to an interesting observation about needs versus neediness.

I had just spent a long day visiting the Angkor National museum (expensive place it was), and took a tuk-tuk back to the Old Market to have a bite and figure out where to go next. On arrival, I bought two cans of drinks at a corner stall, one to quench my thirst and the other, an exotic-looking energy drink I’d never seen before and wanted to bring back home to try. I crossed the busy dirt road towards the Siem Reap river, and settled at a bench near the so-called Old Market Bridge.

Not long after I sat down, a boy and a girl, both appearing to be of age seven or eight, came up to me. The boy led the approach, the girl trailing behind.

I thought they looked like child beggars.

Prior to my trip to Siem Reap, I had read some travel guides advising visitors not to entertain children who ask for money. They’re often under the control of syndicates, and the money doesn’t really go into these kids’ pockets. It’s a better idea to make contributions to known organisations, or simply to shop at fair trade shops. I had already turned many kids who’s run up to me in the past few days, and this time would be no different.

It turned out the boy was not after money.

He pointed at my freshly opened soda can, and made a drinking gesture with his hand. With the non-help of the few fragments of English he knew, he explained that he wanted a drink for himself and his little girlfriend (or sister, I have no idea.)

So,  it was just a drink and not money that he wanted. Fine, I thought. I handed him the drink, reminding him to share it with the girl. He nodded. He took it and happily walked down the river bank with the girl.

I settled back down into the bench, and looked down the evening sun-lit river at residents and other tourists walked by. I was slowly getting lost in my thoughts.

Suddenly someone came near to my blind side, and tugged at my sleeve. The encounter was not over yet.

I turned. It was the girl from earlier.

She wanted a drink.

I asked where the boy was.

She pointed across the river, on the opposite end of the bridge. There he was, the boy, holding the canned drink in both hands. He was just standing there, looking at us.

The girl explained that her friend was now across the river, and cannot share the drink with her.

I looked at her. I turned her down.

I told her that the drink I gave was meant to be shared by the two of them. For a moment, it wasn’t clear whether she understood that I was rejecting her request, or if I had merely not comprehended her request. After a few more minutes of exchanging gestures, there was no progress but the situation was clear. She wasn’t getting another drink from me.


A few days after I returned to Singapore, I visited a friend’s place for her housewarming. She and a number of mutual friends were sitting or standing in the living room, catching up on life over the past few months.

My friend’s kid, a boy about five years of age, ran over to me.

“Can you give me some money? I want to go out and buy a drink. I’m thirsty.”

Even though I’m a regular visitor, he doesn’t remember my name. That brat. I thought for a moment.

“Why don’t you get a drink from the kitchen?”

“I want a soda. There isn’t any in the kitchen.”

I looked for my host. She was chatting with another guest.

I thought it was unusual for a kid to ask visitors for money. In his mother’s presence.

“You’ll have to ask your mom. She’ll give you the money to buy a drink, if she agrees.”

“She doesn’t want to,” torso-twisted Peter.

I began to reckon that his mother might have some rule in place to curb his sweet tooth, which I wasn’t aware of.

“You should to ask your mom.”

Peter pouted, and walked off.

Moments later, he was whizzing around the living room on his mini skateboard, oblivious to the guests and his thirst from five minutes earlier.


I thought there’s an interesting contrast between the ways these children asked for drinks.

For the kids in Cambodia, they went through a relatively roundabout way to ask for what they wanted. They put on their best pitiable face to ask a stranger for a favour. I assumed the best of them when they first asked a drink, but the second request felt slightly manipulative , and I turned them down. In any case, I doubt I’m the first stranger the children has asked for a treat, (I’m probably not the first guest Peter has asked for a drink either,) so I assume their behaviour is learned and practised.

Peter, on the other hand, simply asked. It was obviously an “unreasonable” request. (Asking for money from visitors, in his own home!) But he did so directly, without embarrassment. He didn’t get his drink, but neither did I think him poorly for his asking.

(Yesterday, by the way, he asked me for super-glue. His excuse? His dad didn’t want to give it to him.)

Some might argue that the comparison is unfair. The kids in Cambodia had grown up in relative poverty, and their pity act was probably part of their livelihood. (I honestly don’t know. They asked me for canned soda, not money.) Perhaps they were forced to “grow up” quicker than the affluent kids of Singapore.

In any case, I think there’s a lesson to be learnt here. About needs and neediness.

Some writers make a contrast of “needs” vs “neediness”, A “need” is legitimate, whereas its dark cousin, “neediness,” is something that must be eliminated. As the argument goes, because people are put off by “desperate” behaviour, the only way to get what you want is by not letting the other party know how badly you need it.

In my mind, too much ink has already been spilt describing the arcane art of getting what you want without asking, and asking for what you want without actually naming it.

A need is a need. There’s no inherent good or evil in a need. Even for so-called “neediness”, its root lies in legitimate, basic human needs–the need for human society, the need for basic courtesy, etc. Sure, you’d give off a “needy” vibe if you assign inordinate importance to one single thing–getting that one specific girl to fall in love with you on the first date 15 minutes before the New Year, for example. But that underlying need for love and acceptance is legit. It’s all a matter of keeping things in perspective.

Pretending you’re above normal human needs is counter-productive. Some guys think the way to make friends with women is to sidle up to her and ask, “Hey, I just wanted to find out if you’re friendly.” (I feel my hair standing just by writing this.)

Taking a cynical view of human nature is not helpful either. It’s one thing to respect the social distance between new acquaintances, or to create a little sense of mystery. It’s quite another thing to assume people lose interest or respect for you when you’re anything less than rude, indifferent or aggressive.

There’s a big difference between the two underlying assumptions.Did those Cambodian kids fail to get a second drink because of their lack of sophistication? “The boy should have just run and hid. The girl should have cried and begged for her soda!” No, I rejected the girl because I didn’t think she should be drinking dodgy energy drinks!


If you have trouble asking for what you want, all you need to do is practice. Start asking for small favours. Don’t believe that people will like you less if you trouble them, or if you demonstrate a need or vulnerability of any kind. People are not out to get you. If you’re upfront and cool about your request, they’ll comply most of the time.

Guys really need to get over their fear of rejection. What matters in life is getting what you want every time to ask. What does matter, is getting what you want–period. It may take time getting comfortable with asking girls for dates–most people never get comfortable asking for dates in their lifetime–but that’s okay. People get by with trial and error. Your happiness and satisfaction doesn’t begin and end in getting that number, that date, that kiss. It lies in spending lots of time doing what you want, with people whom you enjoy their company.

Ignore the rubbish advice that showing your interest and asking for a date kills a woman’s interest in you. It’s only true if you’re heavily invested in that date, and you’re trying hard to hide it. If you honestly think the lady’s cool and you want to find out more about her, you just have to ask.


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