Gap Year "Begpackers": The Problem Isn't Your Busking

When you come crashing in with your ukuleles and harem pants, you take away locals' business.
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Recently, the news has been a wreck. From the slipshod reporting covering David Dao’s supposed heinous past to the horrifying content of Dina Ali and Chechnya stories, there’s been very little to celebrate. One of the smaller stories making its rounds is that of “gap year buskers.” Initially, I paid it very little attention. I like busking. I mean, I don’t busk, but I think it’s cool. I couldn’t see why, against the more dramatic news stories circulating the web, I should pay any attention to a couple of white kids who want to raise money for their Southeast Asia travels.

But you know how Facebook works. One minute you’re “just taking a five minute break,” the next thing you know, you’re reading about the most efficient way to eat xiao long bao. So it’s mid-morning and I’m finally scrolling through a Telegraph article detailing the horrible wrongs of these Western high school graduates. Initially, I’m annoyed. Why are we getting angry about a bunch of teenagers raising funds for their travels? How much do we hate music and art? My sentiments are echoed in the comments section. ”Busking isn’t begging,” Thomas remarks. Someone called Tine Rost agrees, saying, “a guy trying to go around the globe depending solely on his talent playing violin, how is that something to get upset about?”

I read on, and it strikes me that the issue isn’t the art of busking. Let’s get that out there first, before anyone starts whining about how I don’t understand entertainment or art or performance. Busking is great. It’s an exciting experience, and it takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, to hold your music or your art or your reputation out there for public appraisal and scrutiny. It takes humility to get out on the streets and enter an industry that’s as gruelling and under-represented as this one. And if this is all you see when you see a bunch of British teenagers crooning on the streets of Thailand, then of course an article that calls them out for it is going to grind on your patience. At surface level, of course it’s going to look like we’re all a bunch of uptight Southeast Asians who don’t know art and effort when we see it.

And if busking was the only issue here, I wouldn’t be writing this. If we were all just angry that Becky wasn’t hitting all the notes of Stand By Me, or that Bill’s photograph of Angkor Wat wasn’t in focus, then I’d be just as angry as Thomas and Tine Rost.

Come on guys. It’s about context. It’s one thing to bang out an enthusiastic rendition of Shape of You on Oxford Street. It’s another thing entirely to sit by the road of a third-world country and push local beggars and buskers out of a space that they desperately need. The issue isn’t the distinction between busking and begging, or that we find busking annoying, or that we don’t want middle-class kids to figure out ways to make some cash when they’re living on their own for the first time.

The issue is that the locals who busk and beg on the same street as you aren’t broke because they under-budgeted and blew too much on beer the night before. They’re not there because they want a cool cultural experience and a fun story to tell their friends over brunch. They’re there because, surprise, this is a third-world country! Most people are there because their other jobs aren’t enough to support their families, or because this is the only way they can support themselves. Some people are there because of clandestine ties to gangs and traffickers. Whatever it is, this is their space. This is where they make a living. When you come crashing in with your ukuleles and harem pants, you take away their business.

Telegraph writer Radhika Sanghani puts it very well: “People who fail to recognize this are the epitome of white privilege. They think that selling postcards for a few pounds is ‘hilarious’ and a great traveling story, when they’re potentially taking away customers from a local who needs those pounds more than they can ever imagine.”

Some angry commenters ask why this article had to be about race. “Non-white people busk too!” a couple protest. “It’s not a white issue.” And yes, agreed, not all gap year tourists are white. Western countries are growing increasingly cosmopolitan, and so are their students. There must be non-white buskers too, and they are every bit responsible for their thoughtless behavior as their white peers. They, too, come from a place of privilege, and asking residents of a developing country to fund their gap year demonstrates just as much of a lack of cultural intelligence.

“It takes an entitled attitude to waltz into a country that isn’t yours, to crash into an industry that isn’t yours, and then make money that could have gone to the locals who depend on the income.”

Having said that, it is a racial issue. Seeing white teens barge into a foreign, “less fortunate” space with no thought whatsoever for the people already inhabiting it is eerily reminiscent of colonial times. India was colonized by Great Britain. Peru was colonized by Spain. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were all colonized by France. Thailand was never colonized, but that’s mainly because it served as a buffer state between France’s Indochina and Britain’s Malay Peninsula/Burma. Western countries felt comfortable turning already-thriving economies into part of their own colonies due to an unbridled sense of privilege at being - sorry, folks - white.

Whether or not you want to examine the extent to which race played a part, it’s hard to deny that you could uproot indigenous people from their land on the grounds that you want it without a colossal sense of entitlement. You see that kind of behavior in very young children who don’t yet have a clear concept of what other people and their feelings are. Every toy belongs to a two-year-old. If William sees Lucy playing with a toy that he wants to play with, he isn’t going to care that she’s already holding it. He thinks it belongs to him, so he takes it. That happens because William doesn’t understand that other people are, like him, agents who have wants and desires and rights. You can see how an entire army of Westerners snatching an entire peninsula from the locals obviously stems from a lack of recognition that maybe the locals have rights too, stems from an obsession with me, what I want, what I’m entitled to.

Sure, busking isn’t quite the same as colonizing. But you have to see that it takes an entitled attitude for you to waltz into a country that isn’t yours, to crash into an industry that isn’t yours, and then make off with money that could have gone to the locals who depend on this income. And it takes a similarly tactless attitude to, when people start getting angry at you for taking their money, think they’re yelling at you for your God-given right to sing.