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The Favor Economy

Just tell people what you want.

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ASTORIA, NYC- A few years ago I was doing some preliminary shooting for a documentary that I was pitching about the new city of Songdo in South Korea. I found the story fascinating — a new city build in a place that was once a bay that has attracted over 100,000 people who created a new culture for themselves completely from scratch. The media networks, however, did not find new cities with people living in them very interesting. They wanted a ghost town, and I wasn’t the guy to give it to them (not in this case, anyway).

The project wasn’t a complete wash though. I edited some of the footage for a short doc that brought in over 45,000 YouTube views, had fun, and made some friends.

One of those friends was named Donovan. Our friendship was sparked because of one reason: I asked him for an absolutely — almost offensively — ridiculous favor … and he obliged.

I met Donovan because he ran a girl’s soccer team with one of my project’s main protagonists. We chatted a little and I put my camera on him and he lit it up. He answered my questions in spectacular fashion, and as he did so it came out that he during his time in Korea he had learned to speak Korean.

I happened to be in need of a Korean speaker…

There were these defacto urban farmers who were growing food in pretty much all of the abandoned construction lots around Songo and I wanted to interview them. The problem was that they tended to be older and didn’t speak English. So I asked Donovan if he would help.

That’s not the ridiculous part.

The ridiculous part was that I asked Donovan if he would help at 5 am. For aesthetic reasons, I wanted to do the interview at sunrise, which was when the farmers began working anyway.

What kind of person asks someone that they don’t even know if they would get up before sunrise to do them a favor that’s rather awkward even in the best of times for no pay?

I remembered Donovan laughing at my audacity but he said yes. He met me the following morning, we met some farmers, and I got the interview and shots that I was after.

But this stretch of filming also gave me a little more time with Donovan. We were able to chat and get to know each other a little. He told me about his dream to open up a bacon restaurant …

Throughout the years, Donovan and I kept in touch — we let each other know what we’re up to, I give him some advice on his podcast and writing — and I have to say that we are friend friends.

This probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the balls to ask for that favor.

One of the biggest mistakes that I often see travelers make is they try to think for other people — somehow imagining that they know what they want more than they do; that asking someone for a favor is imposing on them or somehow rude. They travel the world feeling un-rude and they never meet anyone.

I ask people for stupid shit all day long and I make friends nearly everywhere I go. The worst think that can happen is they shyly shake their head and say no.

After traveling for 20 years getting favors and giving favors I have to conclude that people like doing things for each other — especially complete strangers from Elsewhere.

I remember watching a guy in Haiti unload a boat full of bags of concrete. The day was hot and he had no help. It felt awkward just sitting on my ass, drinking a beer while I watched him. So I got up and helped. He appreciated it and offered to take me in his boat to my next destination.

The favor is the real world currency. It’s something that every culture understands; it’s an exchange that all connected communities practice. Someone does someone a favor and they unspokenly owe them one at some point down the line. The more favors you do the more social currency you collect.

In China, they call it guanxi. While often interpreted as a network of relationships, what guanxi really is is a network of favors. And you can watch people in China build this type of capital on a daily basis, giving people gifts and helping out where they can. Those who give less than they receive become poorer in the end …

When you have the opportunity to connect with someone, connect with them. Communicate — tell people what you want. Friendships need more than a passing chat to be consummated. People want to connect, they just need to be given a reason. The ebb and flow of culture runs through favors.

More on Donovan coming later this week.

Filed under: Travel Philosophy, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3619 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

8 comments… add one

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  • Georgiy Romanov September 17, 2020, 12:26 am

    Great article! Thank you! I watched your movie about Songdo. That kind of deep is what I want to pursuit in my work.

    Favor – is what we, Russian citizens in big cities try to avoid because we think that our decisions doing something for free can affect on our freedom of choice and made us more dependent.

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    • VBJ September 17, 2020, 9:28 am

      Thanks Georgiy! Yes, very true, the favors economy does affect freedom of choice and increase dependency — but isn’t this part of the glue that holds societies together?

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  • Jeffrey September 17, 2020, 5:14 am

    Great theme.

    Also worth adding is that when asking people for help in another country, you’re often asking them, at the beginning, with very shaky language skills. You just have to plow through the mistakes and focus on brute communication — using whatever it takes. Some days it’s humorous, other days it’s something like torture. In my experience, the locals usually appreciate the effort.

    One funny mangled language story. My first time living in Germany, I was at the local supermarket in a small southern German town and said to the cashier, “Eine Tote, bitte.” The cashier and everyone behind me in line began laughing. Huh? How did I screw up? The verb tote in English means carry, so this got mixed up in my German. Should be okay, right?

    At home, over my dictionary, I realized why everyone had laughed. Smiling at the cashier, I had asked for a dead woman. Haha. Damn. What I should have asked for was eine Tüte, the correct word for a plastic bag.

    Yep, I never made that mistake again.

    I always tell this story when I teach English to beginning students. Mistakes are necessary to learn another language. Teachers and students learn by making mistakes.

    But back to favor exchanges. Here in China, as Wade says, your network of guanxi is an indicator of your power. And most of those exchanges are done face to face. That may be why the Chinese dropped the social distancing pretty quickly. Yeah, they locked down for a month or two, but then everyone was back out in force, pressing and expanding, just like before.

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    • VBJ September 17, 2020, 9:36 am

      Haha, yes, excellent story. You asked for a dead woman at the supermarket. That’s incredible!

      Very true about China’s need for face to face exchanges. Without that the entire society crumbles. Yes, the obligation network that guanxi creates may have been one of the reasons why social distancing couldn’t be maintained for as long as it was in the West.

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  • Lawrence September 19, 2020, 6:37 am

    I actually started writing for your website cause of this philosophy. Shit, I like this website, I should just ask if I can write for it…nice

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    • VBJ September 19, 2020, 9:40 am

      Excellent, man! If you have any more writings to share just send them over!

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  • Jack September 22, 2020, 10:57 pm

    I think it’s awesome to involve people in what you are doing. I think most people like to help others and actually look for that opportunity to help.

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    • VBJ September 23, 2020, 9:20 am

      Thank you Jack, Yes, it does often end up fun for everyone. It’s kind of like some outsider coming in and being like, “Yo, I have this little adventure, want to come?” If someone asked me that I’d be like, “fuck yeah!” I’ve found that people like being told what you want from them. I like it when people tell me what they want from me. Most people are also open to disruption … in fact, most of us crave it. It’s one of the reasons why I travel.

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