Good Laowai: An Entreaty To Move From Apathy To Empathy

An email has been going around among Shanghai expats, and it’s worth a look for those who aren’t already too cynical. The full thing is over at Shanghaiist, but here’s the money graf:

I am sharing this story in detail hoping that you will take the same route from apathy to empathy. We are all hardened and busy in this crazy city, and isolated in a bubble of expat privileges, that rarely cracks open for a brief moment to make us aware of the misery still present in the backyards of boomland, where we all seek our fortunes. When that happens, we usually close it again quickly, saying to ourselves that we cant make a difference anyway, and wouldn’t know where to start in the face of the omnipresence of hardship once you open your eyes to it.

I’ll excerpt two more paragraphs after jump, but if you want the full story, do check out the reprinted email on Shanghaiist.

I would like to share the following story with you. Two weeks ago I went for alone for quick Hunan dinner to strengthen myself for an all nighter in front of the laptop. In front of the restaurant was a beggar of maybe 20 years, who had only one leg and a touching aura of fragile innocence about him. It later turned out he wasn’t from cynical Shanghai, but from a village in frosty Heilongjiang near Harbin.

Maybe this kept me from doing the usual, that is, tossing him a coin (or not) and going about my business. My business in this case being the sampling of another of the many recommended eateries I had not yet gotten around to and crossing it off my to do list. But this Instead of a coin, I pulled out a banknote, together with a pack of cigarettes, and I had a casual smoke with him outside, sort of pretending he was a normal human being. A mixed group of expat and Chinese businessmen bypassed us in in the widest possible perimeter, impatient to sample the restaurant’s famous Ziran Paigu while getting each other drunk to soften up negotiations. This did not prevent them from giving me looks as if I was french kissing a leprous sewer rat. When I then entered the restaurant after the cigarette, I was stopped by the manager, and, expecting to be reprimanded for encouraging beggars at his doorsteps, mustered up my defenses. I was baffled that instead of attacking me he extended his sympathy, and explained to me, that this man (let’s call him Chen) of all the poor bastards on the streets of Shanghai, was probably the poorest of them all. Far from wanting to drive him away from the restaurant, the manager and the staff regularly fed him with leftovers from the kitchen after business hours, which was the reason for him begging in front of the location in the first place. I was impressed, as this is not something I have seen often in China. It both speaks well of the staff as well as it does document the severity of the case. The boy never had so much as the whiff of a chance. He was run over by a tram cutting his leg off when he was six.

(There was a time, 15 years ago or so, that such a thing would be rewritten and resent as chain letter, i.e. spam; let’s hope we’ve evolved beyond that.)

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