Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"...like 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 clothes...so 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?"

1 comment:

Amiga J said...

Bravo, amigo. Nicely done - building up positive karma is always a good idea.