There’s Poverty, and There’s Poverty

Shaghai pudong - There's Poverty, and There's Poverty

My friends didn’t believe in giving money to homeless people. But I couldn’t escape the notion that I should be doing something.

It was Shanghai in maybe 2009 or 10. Wealth was everywhere, crazy wealth. In Hong Kong, we had walked through an indoor mall for three hours. It seemed endless. Commerce was alive and well. People had money, no recession apparent in that place. The Chinese had money to spend. In Shanghai, we’d wandered around another mall near the Bund. Money everywhere.

It wasn’t that year that our conference was in Shanghai, but later we would go to the conference center near the middle of town that was like an island of peace in the chaotic ocean of Chinese commerce. An idyll, a little slice of paradise—for those who could afford it. The government built it as a community center—for the right segment of the community. The cost of the land alone must have been astronomical in a place where land prices are whimsically high.
In Shanghai, rich foreigners live in luxury. The housing market caters mostly to this segment, providing luxury lodgings. Land prices and housing prices reflect the spending capacity of rich Westerners whose wealth is amplified by the exchange rate. The local poor are shut out of housing by escalating prices.

We knew all this. We tried to stay in more modest accommodations, sometimes comically modest by our standards. Places with broken windows, oil slicks on the rugs, birds living in the bathrooms. The Chinese didn’t always let us do this, as face requires some level of luxury for Western visitors, but we tried not to contribute to the problem when we had control of our own lodgings.

In Shanghai, the beggars are so poor that just ordinary poor doesn’t get attention any longer. People pass by beggars as commonplace, because they are, and there are so many that one cannot possibly think to help them all. What is needed is some systematic change, a fundamental shift in values away from the luxury market and towards the subsistence wage earner. That will never happen, even in China.

One woman had only a left hand. Her right hand and both feet were missing. I suspected she had maimed herself or been maimed as a child to be more effective at begging. There were some coins in her cap. Helplessly, I left her a note. I’m not rich at all. It was a small note.

“Don’t do that, you’ll just encourage them, make it worse. If they can make money by maiming themselves…”

Maybe I made things worse. On the other hand, if you are so desperate as to maim yourself for a few notes, can I walk by you? Our beggars are not yet so desperate at home, and I am largely insulated from such people. But is this where we are going?

Our business at the Bund was done, and we were heading back to our accommodations. An old man, nondescript in beige, rooted around in the trash can. He didn’t come up with anything good. My friends didn’t notice. I couldn’t go by. I slipped him a note too, tried to ignore his gratitude. I hoped my friends would not notice and disapprove, but my small note was not so small for him in the face of so much poverty. They noticed. They said only, “How did you know?”

Because poverty is the same everywhere. That’s how I knew. I’d never met the fellow before only I’d met him a thousand times in a hundred places. The Bund, viewed from just the right angle, was the world’s wealthiest slum.

— Jason Dias

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