Every workday I follow the same routine, waiting for bus #115 on Gongtibeilu near the Dongsishitiao subway station, heading east. The bus turns right onto Tuanjiehulu, where I used to live in 2002-3, and then zigzags a bit, letting me off on Jintaiixilu a block north of Guanghualu. Everyday the same. I’m usually able to get a seat when I first board the bus. Then, at Tuanjiehu, a lot of people get off but an even larger number of people get on, many of them older men and women. And I always get up and give my seat to one of them no matter how tired I am, and most of the other pre-arthritis passengers do the same; the Chinese people here are quite good about this (better than Hong Kong), and nearly always give their seat to someone who is obviously more in need of it.
One day last week – I forget exactly which day – it was pretty much the same as always. I hadn’t been able to find a seat this time, and I had to stand the whole way. (No big deal, it’s only about 25 minutes.) I was doing what I often did on the bus, clicking through flashcards on the Pleco dictionary on my mobile phone, kicking myself for not remembering characters I thought I’d learned months ago, and basically going into my own world for the length of the ride. I was standing by the exit, smack in the middle of the bus, and wasn’t even noticing where the bus was; by this time I instinctively know when it’s my stop.
Each trip is uneventful and so similar that there’s little to distinguish one commute from another. The same thing, day after day. But this time, as I grasped the handrail with one hand and clicked through the flashcards with the other, something different happened. Instead of enjoying my usual peace in my own little universe, I suddenly heard a woman’s voice from the back of the bus, shouting – almost shrieking – “Xiexie! Xiexie!” (“Thank you!”)
Shit, I thought; there are now actually beggars on the buses! I’d gotten used to the beggars on subways – some played guitar and sang, some with no arms or legs slid on a dolly while they lifted their head up and down to win sympathy and attention, some walked through the car with either an ancient relative or a tiny child whom they exploited to elicit sympathy and cash. But Christ, since when did they start letting beggars on the buses? Couldn’t the driver put his/her foot down? (About half the time my bus driver is a woman.)
All of these thoughts of disgust and distaste took place in a fraction of a second. I heard the voice screaming the single word, Xiexie! Xiexie! As the barker inched toward me. I vowed not to turn around. That’s what they want, especially if you’re a laowai – looking at them gives them that window to grab your heart and your wallet. I just listened in annoyance and kept focused on my dictionary.
But then the beggar was too close for me to ignore her. Soon she was right alongside of me, still crying out, “Xiexie! Xiexie!” And she then crossed the line, invading my personal space – she shook my arm, forcing me to turn around to tell her to her face to please back off.
It was in that instant that my heart stopped, my mind dissolved and I felt one of those deep shivers that went straight to my soul. For the beggar was not a beggar at all. The beggar was a woman, somewhere between 40 and 50 years old, and she was leading by the hand a severely retarded young man, maybe 17 years old, whose arms were flailing as he walked. The woman was shouting “Xiexie, xiexie!” to thank people for getting out of the way so that the boy could pass without his arms hitting anyone. She was not begging me for anything, she was thanking me for allowing her to pass and exit the bus with her boy. (I don’t know if this was her son or grandson, but I do know her devotion to him was total and unstoppable.)
I stepped back out of their way and let them pass. We had reached Tuanjiehulu. As I stood out of her way I looked into her face and thought I saw several qualities, dignity, determination, gentleness. She never stopped her shouting; it was obvious this was something she had to do wherever they went to keep people out of the boy’s way lest he accidentally hurt them. Yet she was smiling softly, with that “I’m so sorry to inconvenience you” look. She led him by the arm off of the crowded bus and onto the more-crowded street. Even as the bus pulled away to head toward its next stop, I could hear her on the street crying, “Xiexie! Xiexie” as she led him on his way.
I stood there crushed, emotionally exhausted, watching the two of them. The woman I thought was an annoying beggar was someone magnificent, someone whose entire life was dedicated to this young man. How many years had she been doing this, I wondered? How much heartache must each day – each step – bring to her? I had only seen a minute of their day, but how many minutes of every day, and how many days of every week and months and years must be like this one? And I kept seeing the Chinese woman’s face all day and all week, full of dignity and kindness, begging people to clear the way because the young man she was leading by the hand couldn’t control his muscles, and I thought…and I thought: How dare I or nearly anyone else ever think that we have problems? How dare we feel sorry for ourselves, for our disappointments, for life not going the way we wanted it to, for the promotion never obtained or the opportunity lost or the money wasted? How dare we?
Maybe it’s because I’m preparing to leave Beijing that this incident moved me so deeply. Maybe my own raw emotions made me a little more vulnerable to the grief of everyday life, so much of which is all around us wherever we go, but especially here in China where contrasts are so sharp. Whatever the reason, I can’t get the woman’s voice out of my head, and I wish I could somehow tell her how much I respect and admire her, and how sorry I feel for at first turning a cold and irritated shoulder. I wish too that I could thank her for reminding me of man’s essential goodness, and our ability to put the needs of a loved one above our own. Chances are that she got used to her situation, needing to cry out to others to step out of the way, long, long ago, and what must have been unbearable grief at first is now simply a matter of routine. Still, what she did and what she stands for touched me and reminded me of the noblest aspects of human nature, of how life goes on, and of our ability to absorb and live with unutterable pain. I wish I could tell the woman who I knew was a beggar that to me she was the most exquisite person in the entire universe. I wish I could tell her how much I love her.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.