Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beggars belief

I can remember the first time I encountered a beggar; it was in Auckland. But the first time I really experienced them was in China the first time I went. The first time was the most traumatic too. Guangzhou in Southern China attracts people for work and for begging. Every time I went over the dusty overpasses there would be the deformed and the ill; the aged and the homeless; and the hungry and the exhausted. Some would just lie down with a dish to catch the coins while others would confront you with a question. Some would not leave you alone.

My education in Taiwan was an eye-opener of sorts. I was told that the gangs control the beggars, placing them around the city to gather revenue. They'd in turn look after the beggars in a basic way. This belief is prevalent in China too, as is the belief that many beggars are faking it. I choose to think this is an exaggerated theory; a reason that people give themselves to not feel any pity; a reason to tell their children to not give. Naturally, I cannot know if I, the naive foreigner, am right in this area. The Chinese would have more awareness of the real state of the people, but I have a developed cynicism of some of their justifications and arguments.

It is my inclination to give, but to do so with some judgement. I'd give a small amount (a Chinese dollar or two) if it was easily accessible to almost any beggar who approached me. I wouldn't give anything to any beggar who pursued or harassed me or was clearly putting on a show. To give would be to encourage the same sort of behaviour. It was my intention to spread the money as widely as I could to ensure that those in genuine need would get a proportion of the money, even if there was some falling into the wrong hands.

The stories are many. In Hangzhou, there was a most spectacular display. There was a whole bed with a boy's sick mother on the pavement. Along side the boy bowed non-stop in front of a bowl. I didn't give to them though.

In Huzhou, I was sitting in a restaurant when one came into the restaurant and thrust his bowl into my shoulder saying "Thank you boss" again and again. I refused. But he persisted for well over a minute. He didn't get anything.

Also in the same city, I seemed to bump into many elderly beggars whom I usually gave a dollar. But I did notice that they had the same or similar bowls and also I spotted them having a group chat or a meeting. That raises an eyebrow but shouldn't necessarily be a reason for scepticism.

In Nanjing, I was walking back from my wall-walk (more about that later). When a thin looking man, approached me and politely in Chinese explained his predicament. He had come into the city to work but hadn't found any and had run out of money. He hadn't eaten that day and was starving. I gave him some coins.

In Shanghai, I remember Xin and walking down a well-known book street when I spotted a mother and child were sitting on the side. She gave the child a push in my direction and he ran right into my path bursting into a fit of coughing, while also having the presence of mind to push a bowl into my belly. I tried to out-manoevre him but he was on me like glue for about 10 metres of walking, obstructing me all the way. He got nothing.

In Shanghai while I was with Xin's mum an elderly beggar approached me as I was about to cross the road. Luckily for her, I had money quite convenient and put it into her bowl as I was about to go across. What I didn't expect is that she'd pursue me across the road, but she got no more.

There were also a series of photos Xin took of beggars all of whom were rewarded for the usage of their image. One such one was a tremendous sight: A man slowly walking through the street in bare feet, his hair and clothes caked in grey clay and carrying a huge sack over one shoulder and a bowl in the other hand. This one was the most likely to be acting. He could have potentially been an artist. He was almost too perfect. But perhaps he was genuine... I don't know. He got a coin or two for the photo Xin took.

If ever I hesitated in giving I just had to think about how cold it was outside in China's winter.

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