Beijing Beggars

A funny-sad essay on a phenomenon most of us are familar with. Just a small sample:

There was another beggar working the same strip of sidewalk as the kid. A middle-aged woman in the standard beggar’s outfit: blue cotton coat, white towel wrapped around her head, shoulder bag, stick and white enamel cup. She had perfected the beggar’s misery-ridden shuffle but once, as she crossed the street, an approaching taxi forced her to break character and she hustled energetically out of the way. The begging woman didn’t compete with the kid. She was a practitioner of the “persistence” approach, shadowing a mark for fifty or a hundred meters tugging at the sleeve and shaking the few coins in the enamel cup. She would return to the space of sidewalk between the restaurant and store for a minute, but often follow marks to the end of the block or cross the street to work people in front of the hotel. The kid would stay put and focus on his small patch.

Which reminds me… I remember once in Kunming I made the mistake of giving a few coins to this sweet-faced young girl who’d been pulling at my arm as i walked down the sidewalk. Within half a second, I was literally surrounded by a swarm of children, all pulling at me, holding their hands out for their own piece of the pie. Any attempt to wave them away was futile. It got so bad, I had to dart into some retail shop and wait until the crowd dissipated.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Here in Shenzhen you also have women holding babies who put a container of clean rice into a trash can and then eat the rice out of the container. I was suckered the first two times or so.

Anyhow, when I see a person maimed from 3rd degree burns, I usually give money. Even if he were a millionaire a couple times over I would not want to switch with that person.

August 22, 2006 @ 4:14 am | Comment

While traveling through the underdeveloped rustbelt northeast, I noticed very few beggars compared to east coast cities. I surmised that there are few beggars because there are few donors, and a colleague from that region agreed.

A month ago in a midwestern college town, I noticed an amputee on crutches holding a sign while standing on the median at a very busy intersection during a very hot spell of temps in the 30s. A few days later, I happened to stop right next to him and read the sign: Bone cancer, please help. The man appeared to be in his thirties and was definitely missing a leg. I rolled down my window and handed him a few dollars. “Thank you and God bless you, ” he replied, blowing a strong stench of alcohol in my face. At first I felt like a fool, giving money to a drunk. Then I thought, “If my leg were amputated for whatever reason, maybe I’d get drunk in the middle of the day, and besides, never in my life was I so desperate for money that I stood in traffic begging for money in weather hot enough to fry eggs.

August 22, 2006 @ 8:40 am | Comment

In Qingdao, there was a preteen boy who regularly lurked around this open-air snack vendor, finishing the half-empty bowls left by departing patrons. Watching this boy devour the contents, I think he was really hungry. One day a young Chinese man bought him a bowl of noodles, and the boy looked really grateful.

August 22, 2006 @ 8:47 am | Comment

Many of the homeless in my hometown of San Francisco are mentally ill (their presence is the legacy of Reagan era policies that dismantled much what little mental health care available in the US). In China, I many more unfortunates who are visibly disfigured (especially those faces and/or bodies have been severely burned or those who exhibit horrible birth defects). I’ve wintessed these people being shunned or worse, ridculed. I do my best to help to with moeny and/or food in these cases because their is not social safety net in “communist” China.

In other cases, I’ve come up with a rule where I will exchange a few yuan with someone for whatever they have to offer (usually in the form of music or singing). It’s the otherwise reasonably healthy looking people who do nothing but beg all day in the same place, day after day, who do not usually receive my help.

A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.–Samuel Johnson

August 22, 2006 @ 2:02 pm | Comment

Good lord. I remember once, and only once, walking down a main road in Dongguan, I made the mistake of giving a kid a coin. All at once was swarmed by a bunch of street kids all pulling at my clothes wanting money. I had to fight my way out of that scrum, and really yell at the kids to back off. I felt like an ass, both for being stupid for putting myself in that position and for having to yell at a bunch of kids, whom I’m sure are just pawns for some scumbag street urchin pimp.

August 22, 2006 @ 3:49 pm | Comment

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