Beggars Without Borders

This week, we want to share with you a story by our friend Justin Mitchell, from his newly-published book Shenzhen Zen: an accidental anthropologist’s decade of life, love, and misadventure in the Middle Kingdom.

Justin Mitchell, a former newspaper reporter from Boulder, Colorado, is in his early 50s when, in 2003, he decides to teach English to kids in China. A six-week assignment in the burgeoning metropolis of Shenzhen morphs into a year-long contract at a daily newspaper, and suddenly the twice-married father of one is thrust into a life-changing experience in the most transformative time in the country’s history. Shenzhen Zen follows Mitchell over the ensuing decade as he lurches from job to job, bar to bar, bedroom to bedroom, and then finds love with an enigmatic woman who is the embodiment of a confident new China. This is an unflinchingly honest and touching story of insight and anguish, surrealism and tenderness, as the author undergoes a second coming of age against a backdrop of rapid globalization. Encounters with beggars, whom Mitchell has a soft spot, were not uncommon though occasionally those in need could also pursue with all due speed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


“It seems that you have a good track record for your charity work.”


The comment came from a Chinese friend who lives in the Lucky Number apartment, where I’d repaired for a short reunion visit last weekend. The old neighborhood was changing fast. A combination of luxury apartment and complex-multi-story shopping mall is nearing completion across the street and there were dozens of Chinese yupster couples and families lining up to don paper booties to tour the model units. Another apartment complex was going up catty-corner from that one and I noticed a new 7-Eleven, a small liquor store specializing in western spirits and a faux-western style “Mojo Coffee-Shoppe” next to it. The red-light massage parlor had undergone a makeover and management change and—judging from a few couples I saw going in for the foot massage special advertised on a standing placard outside— was now apparently legit.


But some things remained the same, including the elderly, half-paralyzed beggar who had once silently thanked me with an English addendum to his Chinese tale of woe chalked on the sidewalk. I’d dropped three 1-yuan coins in his bowl while my friend and I were walking to a nearby park.


“Why do you say that?” I asked in response to the “good track record” comment.


“Some co-workers who also live here say they’ve seen you always giving to the beggars.”


“I didn’t know I was being monitored. I suppose they think I’m foolish?”


“No, they said it was good of you.”


I was grateful that I was leaving a favorable impression, but also wondered how many times I’d been seen perhaps weaving a little unsteadily back to the Lucky Number clutching my strumpet o’ the moment with whom I’d begun charity work at a nightspot, or if the time I projectile vomited some bad lunch dumplings into some bushes en route to the Shenzhen Daily had also become part of the oral neighborhood history.


But I am a sucker for beggars, most of them anyway. Hong Kong probably has more folks in need than Shenzhen—indeed tens of thousands of Hong Kong’s poor live in what amount to wire cages crammed into run-down tenement rooms originally designed for one or two people. But begging is actively discouraged in the former crown colony, and poverty is more visible in Shenzhen where the beggars come in three basic categories.


There are the disabled and disfigured, the needy buskers who play anything from traditional Chinese string instruments to cheap electric guitars, and the ones I try my best to avoid and to whom I rarely donate—the two-legged pleading leeches. Instead of inspiring charity through stoic public suffering or putting their musical talent on the line, they zero in on a target and glom on to it while thrusting the begging bowl and keening a repetitive whine that never stops until the sound of a coin hitting the metal bowl shuts them up and sends them off bouncing off to secure themselves to another host vessel.


It becomes a contest of will in some cases. One old, bent woman attached herself to my wake in downtown Shenzhen for a full eight minutes and uncounted blocks before finally admitting defeat. It would have cost me virtually nothing to get rid of her, but my initial pity was smothered when I noticed that she appeared well-fed, her clothing was clean and unwrinkled, and she was able to duck and weave more nimbly than I through the stream of speeding cars as I tried vainly to shake her.


I finally lost her by doing the logical thing and ducking into a department store where I knew she’d fear to tread. She peeled off as I hit the doors, and though I was relieved I also had perverse admiration for her tenacity.


“Boogie on, beggar woman,” I said to myself.



Monday, December 5, 2005

My girlfriend C and I had finished a sumptuous picnic lunch of KFC, stinky tofu, oranges and a beer for me and were lounging among 142,312 others in Shenzhen’s Lotus Park. An elderly beggar lady approached and doggedly stood in front of me clanking her tin bowl and keening. I’d just previously donated to two others of her ilk and word had obviously spread that there was a foreign barbarian easy mark in the park, so I pretended to ignore her.


Foolish me. After about two or three minutes she still hadn’t stopped. I was feeling a little sleepy anyway, so I flopped down and closed my eyes, lulled by the sound of her whining and the gentle murmuring of 142,310 other Chinese.


She still didn’t stop.


I feigned snoring. C pretended to be absorbed in a novel and the crone left but not before turning and snarling at me as she waddled off. C laughed.


“What did she say?”


“She said to stop pretending that you’re sleeping.”


About 30 minutes later the beggar returned and began the whole routine again. I finally pulled out one of the three phrases I know, something like “Boo-yao,” which supposedly means “None for me”; kind of a polite “Fuck off.”


I kept repeating it and she finally left, only to turn around and bark my phrase back at me, only more clearly.


She was correcting your pronunciation,” C said. A beggar Chinese tutor! A new growth industry...



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