On Friday, Kyle and I went to Kaifaqu for a little Starbucks and dinner. The place was so packed out you had to fight for a table. It is truly a testament to Starbucks branding that the Chinese middle class have climbed on board the latte train. Coffee and milk? Totally not compatible with the Chinese palette until it became a status symbol (and perhaps a regulated drug) of the masses.
We didn't linger our usual hour; partly because as we were packed elbow to knee with students, and also because the -20 degree weather had robed us in long underwear, which Starbucks +25 degree ambiance had made suffocating. As we walked up the stairs and onto the main street a little girl, perhaps 4 or 5 was holding out a plastic container for money.I had never before seen children begging here before and looked around to see who she was with. Sure enough, a woman (her mother?) sat at the top of the stairs a little out of view. We gave the little one money of course - isn't that easy? - and continued on our way. I felt someone tugging on my shirt and there was another girl of about 6 asking for money. Now that affected me.... I mean this child actually grabbed me and wouldn't let go of my shirt. I gave her money too, but was very troubled... it was so cold and she had no gloves on. We continued to walk, looking back into the wind, my mind trying to come up with a reason why there were suddenly children on the streets of this small city where there had been none before. Suddenly we saw a child no older than John running from person to person with his cup out. A woman sat off to the side on the ground while this child ran up to us. This one was pretty scruffy looking, cheeks were so red from the cold. I gave the last couple of coins I had. We walked on and I started to cry.
It was such a pathetic, panicky kind of crying. A quiet mewling of obscurity and uselessness. We talked about it all through supper and decided to go back and buy them some food. Whether these kids were being exploited, or whether their mother's had been forced take them on the streets because their fathers were away working to death for pennies, it was supper time. We bought some Chinese style burritos and meat skewers from some local vendors. We found two out of three of the kids and their mothers and gave them food. They didn't reject it. We couldn't find the third girl and so went on a search across the street. I wanted to give her something so badly... she was the one who had hung onto my shirt... she literally grabbed a hold of me. We found one more child in the underground passageway between streets, and one more woman hugging a child of perhaps 2, maybe younger, keeping it warm. All told, we spent 25 kuai... about $4.75.
Are we suckers? Are these ladies and their kids making hundreds of kuai a day off foreigners? Are the kids part of some ring of beggars and thieves, working for some criminal element? Who cares? We are governed by a higher authority that says "Give". He says "When you give to the least of these, you give to Me". He says "Give to those who ask of you, and he that wants to borrow, don't hold back". We have been lectured by well intended people that believe that we don't possibly know what we are doing... that we are enabling the problem.
Kyle just called me from Kaifaqu. He went out to find the kids again and give them something to eat. He said "I've stood out in that cold and wind. You can't tell me that anyone is doing this because they want to".