I took my first Mandarin class at the WAL back when it was still in Pioneer Square. There were a lot of homeless people there, which my teacher called “meijia ren,” which is pretty close to English “homeless people.”
So when I came to China this summer, and encountered people asking for money, I called them “meijia ren,” which confused X. He thought for a moment, and then said, “oh, beggars!”
Whoops. Back home in Seattle, I really stopped saying words like “bums, beggars, winos, vagrants, hobos…” because nowadays I like to save my hate speech for conservatives. When we took students to homles shelters and soup kitchens, we called them “clients,” which in my mind upholds the dignity of the people we were there to serve, without pitying them.
So when X called them “beggars” I was a little resistant. But then it finally occured to me that homelessness is an American concept. Everybody in China has a home. It’s the law. Maybe their homes are small, cold, cramped, but they are homes nonetheless. The people of China do not turn their poor onto the street.
So what am I left with? “Beggars.” Qiong ren.
Now, there are definitely beggars in China, that is people that ask you for money. There are old people, disabled people, even young women who don’ t seem to be that destitute. Some people squat on the pavement and bow deeply as you walk by. The young women try to stop you and tell you their story. The old people tend to shake their cup at you and repeat themselves.
Now, the standard Chinese response to beggars is to ignore them as if they were invisible. They don’t spend too much time going after Chinese people. However, with Westerners, they tend to be more insistent, even (especially!) if there’s an obvious language barrier. They’ll follow you, they’ll move with you if you turn away, they’ll gently tap your arm or tug your sleeve if you’ve already gotten past them.
Now for the younger women with a story, I just blow past them, and they usually can’t keep up with me because they have terrible shoes. The older folks will usually approach me when I’m trying to get a taxi, or waiting in line somewhere; in other words, when I’m a stationary target.
When I don’t want to give them money, which is most of the time, I have a secret tactic. I look them straight in the eye, give them a warm smile, and after a few seconds shake my head “no.” That’s usually enough. Sometimes, I have to say, “I have no money to give you.” I’ve found this charm-tactic to be pretty efficient, as they tend to be taken off guard by the few seconds of direct eye contact.
When you ignore a Chinese beggar, you’re telling them you have no time to acknowledge them. I think when I take the time to acknowledge the Chinese beggars, they realize that I have more time than they do, and they don’t want to waste their time on some smiley idiot when they could be begging from people who will pay them just to hurry up and go away. Don’t underestimate the Chinese desire to be in a hurry. Make it work for you.
That’s my armchair socialpsychology for the day. Just in case you think I’ve gone all Mother Teresa, my answer to the dudes at Yuyuan and Nanjing Dong Lu who want to sell me a faux-lex is still a firm, no-time-for-you “bu yao.”