Wednesday, October 15, 2008

" a beggar going door to door"

Sunday morning brunch in a north Beijing dumpling restaurant. "Road," my quirky Chinese pal who calls herself that because "life is a journey" has been helping me find a new charger for my cell phone in between badgering me to let her tutor me in Chinese lessons.

"Be the best person you can be, professor!" Road commands between bites. She knows nothing of the old US Army recruiting ad, but she's a natural and always on a self-improvement kick, mostly for herself but often for me whenever she gets the chance. "I hope you can understand China better from learning Chinese. And I can teach you because, because ... I am how-to-say? How-to-say? A genius!" She grins and laughs self consciously. No lack of self esteem there. "Yes. I think. Am I?"

I smile, nod and look outside, attention drawn to the sunny, autumn sidewalk where a tall, weathered, and solemn looking extremely weather-baked old man with a large high quality brown leather satchel and a nice black leather jacket met my eyes, then opened his mouth wide and pointed emphatically twice inside it. An elderly woman dressed in a tasteful modest embroidered black and white dress, with silver hair pulled back tight in a bun - obviously his wife - sits on the pavement beside him in a near-fetal position, rocking back and forth and wailing, though I can't hear through the glass.

"Road, look. Beggars? But their nice. Too nice."

Most Chinese beggars look the part, sometimes with a maimed baby or child or their own limb to emphasize their plight. These two look as if they'd come straight from CCTV central casting as a dignified country couple. A middle aged woman stops, drawn by the old man's plea, looks at his keening wife and gives him about 10 yuan.

That is rare too. I've given to beggars but rarely recalled seeing any Chinese do the same. Road's response explained why.

"They are maybe, how-to-say, not true? False. False beggars. I see TV and newspaper stories, many beggars have much money and are not poor."

I wonder, while trying to avoid the old man's gaze as he stops panhandling and comes to the restaurant door where a manager approaches him. I think he is going to be thrown out, but the manager listens to whatever the pitch is and heads for the kitchen while the man shoots me another pleading look and rejoins his wailing wife outside.

"Where are their children?" Road asks. "If they are not false beggars, maybe their children can help?" I wondertoo, thinking about another Chinese friend who'd recently confessed to me that she was frequently short of money because she was paying off her father's constant gambling debts. "Why?" I asked her at the time. "Just stop." "Because it is my duty," she told me. "I must."

Another passerby doles out a few yuan and then the manager comes with a plastic bag containing about eight dumplings for the old man who bows slightly in gratitude and takes it to his wife who has stood up and stopped her sobbing.

"If they are fake, it's a good act," I say. "You know Oscars, Road. Movie awards?" She nods. "They should get one."

The begging couple has apparently left, and Road and I exit heading for a pedestrian overpass when I hear sobbing on my left and see they'd only relocated out of my sightline. I can't bear it anymore. "Ask him what is wrong, please, Road."

A short exchange follows as the wife keeps moaning. "He says his son died in the (May 12) big Sichuan earthquake and these are almost only clothes," Road says soberly. "No home. It is gone too. No family."

I open my wallet and gave him 12 yuan, nod at the wife, turn with Road and leave. "You give too much money, I think, professor. Too much," she says scolding me a little. "Maybe not true."

"Yeah, probably, But if it is true ... who knows?"

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Safe as Milk

This one goes out to a reader in Iowa whose been bugging me to update. There've been a lot of problems with Blogspot and combined with my chronic slothdom, it's been a near-fatal combo.

So, I was drinking a cold refreshing glass of Chinese milk the other day as I watched continous reruns of China's first space walk and flag waving along with 24/7 flag waving repeats of the same Beijing Olympic highlights and I began to feel a little queasy.

"Can we change the channel?" I whined to C. "I'm not feeling so good and I don't know if it's the milk or what we're watching. Doesn't China know the Olympics are over and that space walks have been routine for decades? If I didn't know better I'd say this was a calculated government effort to divert attention from the bad milk deal. It hasn't been a great year here overall."

I was back in Shenzhen at our apartment for the country's week long October 1 National Day holiday.

"That milk is safe," she assured me. "I saw it on the Internet. The Chinese government and scientists say it is."

Or maybe one of the astronauts brought some back. One Internet comment I'd seen translated concerning the milk disaster wished them well and asked them to bring back some "moon milk."

"Oh, then it must be true," I replied trying desperately to quash any hint of sarcasm in an attempt to keep the love light flickering. "Especially if Chinese officials and scientists say so. Tell me again what Chinese scientists have done lately, or in the last 100 years?"

I'd noticed that since the tainted milk scandal that has killed at least 4 children and brought one major dairy manufacturer to the brink of bankruptcy and is threatening more than 20 other poison moo juice firms, that the once suddenly bare dairy shelves are slowly being refilled with brands I'd never seen before ("Pink Fun Milk Monkey!"). These strange brands were all presumably cleared by the same authorities who'd so expertly dealt with a similar bad milk problem that sickened more than 200 infants two years ago.

"This Pink Fun Milk Monkey stuff isn't bad, though, except for the 'funky flavor chunks'. What's up with these?"

"Tofu, all natural," she reassured me. Here try some of this Wild Jew's Ear fungus! It was on sale at Jusco! All natural!"