I was walking down the street in an area frequented by foreigners when his waving hand caught my eye. Sitting there on the park bench was a thin man, lesions all over his body, smiling and motioning to me, asking for five yuan to buy some lunch. I was a bit caught off guard, and I just looked awkwardly at him and hurried past. I thought about how I wished I’d been prepared. I thought about how I wished I knew what to do. I thought about how odd it was that a Chinese man with superb English, a very marketable asset in a place like this, was begging me for money. I thought about how I was going to go home and write about the encounter and how I lament the complexity – or maybe I create the complexity myself – of situations like that. I thought about how I wished I had just given him the money – or better yet, something of more value. And then, I went into the import store and bought two cartons of milk.
After making my purchase, I took a different route to the bus stop. Your suspicions about my motive are correct. And if your intuition is telling you that once I arrived at the bus stop, I was greeted by the same man, and he once again asked me for five yuan, you’re on a roll. This time, I smiled, gave him the money that he may or may not have needed, and told him thank you after he said “God bless you!” as he scurried into a storefront.
I knew the bus wouldn’t be there for a while, so I decided to go further down the street to the corner where I could get some great shots of the skyline. I had taken several photos when I realized the time was getting away from me. I hurried back to the bus stop only to find the bus pulling out into traffic, the driver unwilling to stop for me.
So there I was with my backpack and two cartons of milk, looking a bit pathetic I’m sure. I’d have to wait another half-hour for the next bus to arrive. And that’s when I noticed that my new acquaintance had returned to the bench at the bus stop after having apparently finished his lunch. And it became clear to me that I was not going to escape until I got it right!
I stood there for a while, periodically looking over at him, my heart beating faster and faster, until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I walked over to him and asked his name. He seemed delighted that I came over to chat, and even more so that I could speak Mandarin. We introduced ourselves, and as we were talking, his lesions seemed to fade away and the person underneath them came to the surface. As our conversation flowed effortlessly in and out of English and Chinese, I learned that he was an English major in college, that some of the hard truths about China have made it difficult for him to find employment, and that he is a freelance tour guide who hangs out in foreigner hot spots hoping to land clients. He even gave me his business card!
Oh how I wish you could have heard the more glorious details of our conversation. We discussed several things, some trivial, some serious, and some of monumental importance – of eternal importance. We had an audience too, as we were quite the spectacle: a leprous local and a Chinese-speaking lao wai discussing things that no one thinks about, at least not out loud. I must say, aside from being a little self-conscious of my language skills, I was enthusiastically welcoming of the eavesdroppers!
After having been intensely engaged in conversation for quite some time, the man suddenly refocused his eyes and began peering just beyond my shoulder. “Isn’t that your bus?” It was. And it left me. The man lamented for me and declared what a bad guy the driver was for refusing to wait for me, as he clearly saw me running to the bus, waving my hand. But I didn’t care. I can’t express to you how much I didn’t care about missing the bus. I said my goodbyes to the man, made sure I had his contact information, and hailed a cab. And that may very well have been the best 20 yuan I’ve ever spent – 25, if you count his lunch money!