by Melody Tan  |  21 June 2019  |

“By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap,” the 2007 article from The Washington Post began.

The author, Gene Weingarten, was writing about a busker’s experience on a Friday morning at a train station. He was right in the middle of the morning rush hour, right in the middle of one of the busiest train stations in downtown Washington D.C.

Buskers.

Many of these street musicians—performers—take their art very seriously. Some of them draw large crowds, and rightly so. For my part, I’ve always loved going to places such as Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall and London’s Covent Garden. Growing up in Singapore at a time when street performances were pretty much illegal, enjoying quality entertainment in public spaces has always been a treat for me.

However, as Nicholas Wees, a Canadian graduate student noted in his research on buskers, “Increased regulations push buskers who do not hold permits into the category of beggar.”

Beggars.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the kind of negative perceptions associated with buskers. They’re called anything from “lazy” and “tax-dodgers” to being a “nuisance.” And to a certain extent, I’m not surprised.

Cornered and guilted

A few years ago, my husband and I were in New York City, playing the parts of naïve tourists perfectly. We were on the subway going somewhere—to where, I no longer remember; perhaps we were on it simply because it was the thing to do—when two men jumped into what was already a rather crowded carriage.

Immediately, they launched into a performance, one on percussion and the other singing. It was entertaining. My husband and I, sitting across each other, bopped along. I think I even took a video or a photo. I looked around and, curiously, everybody else was ignoring the performers.

Wow, New Yorkers really don’t have time for life’s simple pleasures, I thought.

My husband and I exchanged a puzzled look. Was everybody else deaf? Did they not have a musical bone in them? Then the music stopped and the hat came out.

Before the singer approached the other passengers (every single one), he came to us first with a meaningful look on his face. After all, we were the only ones who made eye contact. Trapped and embarrassed, we hastily scrambled for some spare cash. Nobody else in the carriage gave. Why should they? Everybody was behaving as if those guys didn’t even exist.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem giving to buskers (the good ones, at least). It was the fact that I was somehow cornered and guilted into giving that didn’t sit right with me.

But back to the busker at the Washington, D.C., train station. He didn’t corner or guilt anybody. For 45 minutes, he simply stood in a corner and played several pieces on his violin. More than 1,000 people rushed past him, barely giving him a glance. 27 people did pause (not stop), giving him a total of $32.17.

“Actually, that’s not so bad, considering. That’s 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent,” the busker later said.

This, coming from a man who can command $1,000 a minute, because this busker—beggar—was none other than Joshua Bell, who plays on a Stradivari worth at least $3.5 million and is widely considered to be one of the best musicians in the world. (Bell performed a do-over concert at Union Station in 2014 and drew a much bigger crowd that time.)

Judgments, perceptions and discriminations.

We see a simply-dressed young man playing a violin in a public place and at best, presume he’s just someone trying to eke out a living. At worst, we see a beggar, being a nuisance on society, refusing to get a “proper job.”

No one should ever judge

A 2017 study found that it takes us as little as 33 milliseconds (that’s 0.03 seconds) to form a first impression—pass a judgment—on someone. We determine their character, their motivations, their background in less time than we take to blink.

Two years ago, I took on a job editing a magazine and website targeted at mums, with the sole purpose of creating a community and support network for women, who can feel especially isolated in their motherhood journey. So I read and hear a lot of stories from mums, not only in what I do for a living but because of who I now am. Three years ago, I became a mum.

There’s a phrase that gets bandied around regularly in the motherhood community: “No one should ever judge a mum for what she does.”

And to a certain extent, I agree with the sentiment.

Take these mums’ stories, for example:

“For five months, I had to feed my daughter my breast milk out of a bottle and so, I would hide away to bottle-feed her because of the judgment around formula. I wasn’t using formula, but the assumption was there.”

“I breastfed my child exclusively, but by the time she was six months old, people started asking me when I was going to put a bottle in her mouth.”

“One mum said to me, ‘I’m not even sure why you put them into day care. It’s not like you actually need to; you’re just a stay-at-home mum, you don’t even work.’”

Just less than three years ago, I was deep in the throes of despair, bordering on postnatal depression. My two-month-old son was deemed not to be growing. In fact, he was losing weight and losing it fast. From being of average weight when he was born, he had dropped to the second percentile, which meant that 98 percent of babies his age weighed more than he did.

The reason for his weight loss was simple: my body was not producing enough milk for him. He was not getting enough food and hence, he wasn’t growing. In fact, I was pretty much starving him. He cried day and night, and was a very sad—no, hungry—baby, which in turn made me a very sad, sleep-deprived and anxious mother.

And yet, instead of encouraging me to turn to formula, some people simply told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. The most hurtful messages I received made references to my slight frame. I was one of those lucky ones who never gained much pregnancy weight and whatever I did gain pretty much disappeared the day I gave birth. So when it was revealed I couldn’t breastfeed my baby, people would take one look at me and tell me to stop worrying about my own weight and to start eating, as that would help my body to produce milk.

I was judged even before I had a chance. Nobody knew how behind closed doors, the extent to which I was trying to convince my body to do what it was meant to do. I hardly had time to sleep, what made them think I had time to hit the gym for exercise? I was simply judged as a mum who didn’t try hard enough, who chose her own vanity over her son’s well-being.

No one should ever judge. Ever?

It takes us 0.03 seconds to pass a judgment on others.

For some, judgment comes in the form of a silent scurry, a sudden onset of deafness and blindness. If those commuters had known it was the world-famous Joshua Bell performing by the shadowy wall of the train station that morning, would they have paused, even stopped?

For others, judgment is expressed out loud, critically shared with someone, without any understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing, or even caring how they’ve arrived at the state that they have.

In that moment of judgment, we cross that invisible boundary of respect and personal space. We encroach our beliefs, our values and our viewpoints on another, whether it’s welcomed or not.

At this point, it’s easy for me to conclude by repeating the famous phrase that mums love to spout: “No one should ever judge a mum for what she does.” Or more broadly, “No one should ever judge someone for what they do.”

I can even give you a Bible quote to support my argument: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1–3).

But as a workmate loves to challenge me with: No one, ever? Really? For anything?

What about smoking in the car with children?

What about in the case of domestic violence, abuse or neglect?

What about taking advantage of the vulnerable?

Who’s going to do the judging here and who’s going to be critically condemned?

I don’t have any easy answers here. I wish I could give you a surefire method to ensure that your judgment of someone has taken everything into account. I can’t even tell you not to judge anybody because let’s face it, it’s what we all do as humans.

Have I ever looked at a mum disciplining (or not) her child and thought she ought to do better?

Have I ever looked at someone based on how they’re dressed and decided they could pose a threat to my wellbeing?

Have someone else’s life decisions made me feel superior about the ones I’ve made for myself?

All of us judge—and all of us will continue to judge.

But perhaps it’s what we do after we judge; it’s what our true motivations are when we judge; it’s how much of God that we’re reflecting as we pass judgment; and it’s whether we take the time to pause and consider our judgment and its impact on others that really matters.


Melody Tan is a magazine editor, features writer and television presenter. When she’s not at a computer typing her life away, she enjoys snowboarding, traveling, beach activities and the not-so-grandmotherly activity of knitting. She lives in Sydney with her husband and son.

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