The Beggar

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! (Beggars in Beijing are often scammers.) 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.

The Discussion: 22 Comments

That was so great of you to share this story. Its those things that happen to us everyday day in a small way that hopefully make us better people.

June 22, 2009 @ 12:38 am | Comment

FYI so glad you are back up saw your post on twitter.

June 22, 2009 @ 12:39 am | Comment

You are a beautiful soul, Richard. It is my great pleasure to know you.

June 22, 2009 @ 12:59 am | Comment

Diane, Ellen – thanks a lot for reading my overwrought posts. This one had been building inside me for a few days and I suddenly knew I had to get it down, it was tearing such a hole in my soul. Blogs are therapy sometimes.

June 22, 2009 @ 1:30 am | Comment

I can completely understand your feelings. Sometimes, these people just touch us deep inside – in China as anywhere else. Thanks for sharing this with us!

June 22, 2009 @ 1:44 am | Comment

Beautiful post, Richard. Keep on writing.

June 22, 2009 @ 4:15 am | Comment

Richard, what a story…… Best wishes from Taipei, Jennifer

June 22, 2009 @ 10:46 am | Comment


The philosophical twist you took is so true too; we all ought to feel more grateful than we do.

June 22, 2009 @ 11:02 am | Comment

Beautiful story, Richard.

June 22, 2009 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

Thanks everyone.

June 22, 2009 @ 4:15 pm | Comment

Regarding people giving seats to elders, Beijing is better than Shanghai. It is even better than Washington DC. In the US if you give your seat to a woman, you may have insulted her for suggesting that she is old. If you give your seat to a pregnant looking woman who turns out to be not pregnant, then you have insulted her for suggesting that she is fat. You will be totally embarrassed when they rudely turn down your offer.

In Hong Kong, offering seats is mostly unnecessary. Buses are usually empty enough so everyone has a seat. Metro trains have no seats at all, so everyone stands.

June 22, 2009 @ 5:36 pm | Comment

Serve, in HK I was thinking of the MRT, where parents have the annoying habit of rushing onto the train to find seats – for their spoiled kids. Often they themselves will stand, along with lots of people who are much more in need of a seat, while their little princelings get to sit. At least that’s what I often saw when I was there. And you’re right, Beijingers are excellent about giving up their seat to someone more in need. Shanghai – well, what do you expect? (Joking, mostly.)

June 22, 2009 @ 6:04 pm | Comment

You mean MTR? But those trains have no seats. You have nothing to fight for. Or you mean KCR, the train that runs to the Shenzhen border? That one has seats and yes people don’t offer seats as often as they do in Beijing.

By the way the name KCR is no longer used.

June 22, 2009 @ 6:43 pm | Comment

Yes, MTR (it’s MRT in Singapore). The MTR trains in HK certainly did have seats, at least back in 2001.

June 23, 2009 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

My parents did the same thing for my brother for 20 years. It was hard at the beginning, but at the end of the day its just life, they got on with it. They found it quite amusing when people effusively praised them for what they did. Nothing ended the conversation faster, however, than when peoples used words like ‘spastic’ and ‘severely retarded’ to describe people with learning difficulties. This wasn’t out of political correctness, its because at the end of the day they didn’t see my brother as someone who was any different from other people.

June 23, 2009 @ 3:11 pm | Comment

Neil, this young man had much worse than a learning disability – it was about physical control of his arms. Sorry if the wording offended you in any way. If you had seen his face and watched him struggling you would know this was not quite your typical learning disability, this affected his every step and gesture, to the point of helplessness. The word “spastic” is in no way derogatory, and is part of the medical vocabulary, even if it’s been abused by high school pranksters.

As I said in the post, I realize that to the woman this was nothing exceptional, it was just something she does as part of her daily life. But I admire her anyway, because I actually know of some people who, when faced with such responsibility, have chosen instead to look away and not do what this woman did. So whether you think it inappropriate or not, I still feel admiration for her.

June 23, 2009 @ 4:04 pm | Comment

It is a good story, which, together with your story of the Chinese New Year Jiaozi party, could be adopted as teaching materials in the English test book for the students in China, because it shows how laowei are awfully impressed by the good virtues that the people in China have. It would be good for the Chinese people self-esteem if this site were unblocked and accessed by all the people in China

June 24, 2009 @ 10:28 am | Comment


“In Hong Kong, offering seats is mostly unnecessary. Buses are usually empty enough so everyone has a seat. Metro trains have no seats at all, so everyone stands”

MTR trains certainly have seats. The trains on the former KCR lines (now merged into MTR) have carriages with seats removed but thats only certain carriages. Seats are still available for other carriages though fewer than those on other MTR lines.

Contrary to your claim, buses not usually NOT empty enough for everyone to have a seat. Seats are mostly occupied after 3-4 stops away from where it first departed. During rush hours, you may find that buses skip stops entirely with the sign “Full 满” on its windscreen.

June 24, 2009 @ 5:15 pm | Comment

Thank you for sharing this great story!

June 27, 2009 @ 10:51 pm | Comment

This is a sensitive, thoughtful story/post Richard. Thank you!

June 28, 2009 @ 12:09 pm | Comment

[…] Here’s an excerpt to a particularly good post he wrote in the last week titled “The Begger“: All of these thoughts of disgust and distaste took place in a fraction of a second. I heard […]

June 29, 2009 @ 1:23 pm | Pingback

Beijing does not represent whole China. It is better than Shanghai in terms of helping the aged or alike but it tends to get worse in suburban areas. Please note there are plenty of places in China which are even worse than Shanghai (quite fierce), depending on the how educated that place is in general.

As female I’d say, London is better.

July 4, 2009 @ 6:00 pm | Comment

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