Friday, June 1, 2012

Beggars and Rain

It should come as no surprise that beggars abound in just about every city of every country around the world. Wuhan is no exception.

According to reports and rumors worldwide, beggars earn a decent, if not a handsome living by dressing shabbily and appearing unkempt and unfortunate. They shuffle amongst affluent people in high end shopping areas and tourist hotspots, demanding spare change with varying degrees of aggression. I have to admit that here beggars are pushy, but also rather subtle. They shamble along until they see a likely prospect whom they will then approach and nudge with their tin cup or plastic bucket or whatever they are using to collect their bounty, all while mumbling blessings or… maybe a begging catechism. I’ve not been able to understand them well enough to make out what they are saying. More specifically, I don’t care what they are saying. I make it a point to not be assailed by beggars.

That is surprisingly easy to do in spite of the fact that I am a foreigner. In their eyes I must be rich, a tourist, a bleeding heart and, most of all, unknowing of the customs of the land. Imagine their surprise when I do what Chinese people do: I turn away. Even when they nudge my arm I turn my back to them and if that does not discourage them, I walk away. Sometimes they pursue me and sometimes they don’t.

I have to admit that being foreign, I am a specific target rather than just a possible prospect. Most often those craven creatures spot me and make a beeline in my direction. I am not hard to spot, being taller and bigger than everyone else around. In truth, they’re not hard to spot either. Their path is marked by people parting like the Red Sea when Moses raised his arms.  

Let me tell you of two separate encounters that did not follow the script. The first one was last year, while I was sitting at an outdoor café in a prime shopping area. There I was, sipping tea and calculating my grades for the end of the semester. The weather was particularly fine that day and the mall was thronging with shoppers. Along comes a beggar. I did not see him approach because I was focused on my task. He rattled his tin cup on my table. I ignored him. He then nudged my arm with it. I turned away. He nudged me harder, turning up the volume on his mumbles. I turned fully toward him and told him, in Chinese: “I don’t have any money. I am a foreigner. I need money to get back to my country. You give me money, OK?”

That earned me some curses.

The next incident happened just a few weeks ago. Again I had chosen a fine day to go out. This café was in another premier shopping district in another part of town. I was not sitting outside this time, but I was sitting by the establishment’s plate glass wall. A woman, hobbling along on a crutch entered the establishment to beg from me specifically. I ignored her, figuring store personnel would drive her out. They didn’t. She positioned herself in front of me and shoved her begging bowl directly under my nose, between my face and my book. I picked up my purse, got up and walked toward the counter. She left.

Just as I was returning to my seat my phone rang. I stepped outside to take the call. Again this woman fell on me like a beast of prey on a helpless creature. I turned away. This one was really persistent: she hobbled around and nudged me again. I turned again, and walked away. She started following me. Just then another woman saw her and yelled at her. I’m not sure what all she said but I distinctly made out the sentence: “Just because she’s a foreigner you cannot chase her and annoy her. You must leave!” She continued yelling for a few minutes. I shot her a grateful look while finishing my phone call.     

You see? That is why I like rain. Beggars do not come out on rainy days. Most people do not go shopping on rainy days, either. Hence, if I go out on rainy days I am neither panhandled, nor do I have to deal with crowds who stare or people who want to practice their English skills.

Well, I can’t say people never want to speak English on rainy days but I can tell you it doesn’t happen as often. Mostly, if people go out on rainy days it is for a specific purpose. They keep their head down, their umbrella up and their mind on their task. They really don’t care if there is a whole legion of foreigners dressed in feather boas doing the Can-Can while playing Dixieland jazz.

Well… they MIGHT care, if we foreigners were foolish enough to undertake such a scene, especially in the rain. Some foreigners might be but I’m not.

Ever since a few weeks ago, when I got in over my head socially I’ve been finding ways to lay low. I guess I must be in a frame of mind that calls for long stretches of solitude lately. Even running the gauntlet of the Over the Wall Community is taxing, especially now that I know there is an English speaker there who might pounce and detain me when all I really want is to dispense the minimum social graces to earn a quick shortcut to the main road (see last entry to read more about my recent frame of mind).

Here too the rain is helpful. Most of the OtWC people linger indoors rather than along the road. For those looking out their window, my umbrella makes me incognito: just another passerby. In the rain I am not expected to make small talk. I do like everyone else does: look for the next place to step so I don’t get my shoes soaked. As long as I don’t physically run into anyone, everyone is happy to let me go without the requisite pleasantries.

Today we had a nice rainfall. It was so nice it deterred nearly everyone from going out. This rain fell in sheets gusting so hard that anything not protected by the angle of their umbrella was immediately soaked.

I grabbed my bus card and my shopping cart, anticipating a day unhampered by prying eyes, curious stares and the allegedly downtrodden. I was out of yogurt and a few other things anyway. Actually, I timed it perfectly so that I would run out of things just when our rainy day was due.

Strangely enough, the weatherman’s predictions seem correct here. When called for rain, it does in fact rain. I’ve grown to depend of these accurate predictions to plan my outings.

I did have a nice day out. No crowded buses, no crowded restaurants… I wasn’t just out of yogurt; I was out of pretty much everything. I had to get some breakfast from somewhere. And then I lounged at a nearly deserted café for a few hours, just me and my book and a nice cup of tea.

By this time the rain is no longer falling steadily but pelting down vengefully. It is a virulent downpour, reducing visibility and forming not just puddles but channels of water where gingerly mincing through is not an option. We are now at a ‘get soaked to the skin’ setting and the dial is stuck. I’m loving it.

Remorselessly I drag my impermeable, 4-wheel drive, fully laden shopping cart behind me along deserted sidewalks. My pants legs and my left arm, unprotected by my umbrella (from pulling the cart) are soaked. The temperature was just right to make such conditions enjoyable rather than miserable. I decided to prolong my walk a few bus stops regardless of wet clothing.

Until I realized that I was wearing my size 16 jeans. I have such a large size for the length but they have come in quite handy lately because my recalcitrant stomach’s tendency to bloat later in the day. My stomach has been behaving these last few days, so…

My jeans, water-logged on this rainy day, started slipping down my hips. I had gotten out of the habit of wearing a belt because of my gastro-discomfort. I probably should have worn one, today. The heavier my pants got at the cuffs the lower they slid down my hips. Soon I had to stop every few steps to pull them up.

Close to home and anticipating puddles, I stopped under a bridge to cuff my jeans up to mid-calf. While doing so one of the OtWC residents warned me they weren’t merely puddles anymore; the alleys were under water. I believed her, after seeing flooded streets on my bus ride back home. Thanking her for the tip I carefully made my way along.

Let me tell you: she wasn’t kidding. Fortunately, some of the residents along the worst stretches helped me. They waded through in their rain boots to pull my shopping cart while I minced along on strategically located stones and bricks.

Maybe my fears of the OtWC’s stifling need to connect are out of proportion. They are most likely being nice to me. I certainly appreciated their help today.

And I thoroughly enjoyed my rainy day, beggar-free outing.        

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