If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few weeks, you probably already know that I enjoy looking at cultural differences, and like to highlight just how vast a subject culture can be.
Let me start my describing a fairly typical scene here in China, which I experienced yet again just two days ago. I was walking to a restaurant with my wife when an old woman in grubby clothes came up and asked me for money, when I didn’t reach into my pocket right away, she started pulling on my sleeve and pleading that she wanted to eat. When I shook my head ‘no’ she stepped in front of me to block my path and continued begging from my wife who also shook her head ‘no’ and tried to keep walking.
If you are from the States (or Europe or Australia) I’m guessing you wouldn’t be very inclined to give this type of beggar any money, but yet in China this is how a beggar is supposed to act.
I will never forget a story one of my university professors told me of the time his Asian wife first arrived in America and saw a homeless man sitting with a sign that simply asked for change. She asked him “How does that man expect to get any money when he doesn’t try to get anyone’s attention?”
I was still surprised when I got here to find just how pro-active the beggars can be.
Note to any Chinese beggars who might be reading this: I will almost always give passive beggars money just because they aren’t harassing me.
There are also lots of child beggars in China, especially in the more touristy areas. I encourage you to never give money to these children. As much as it may break your heart, there have been dozens of cases where children have been kidnapped or taken away from their families under false pretenses to “work” as beggars for the benefit of morally disgusting individuals.
I was more surprised though by the attitude of Chinese people toward most beggars. I have lost count of how many times a student or co-worker has told me that these beggars are secretly rich, and that the whole thing is just a scam. Given the importance of “face” in China, I find this hard to believe.
I don’t know if this is just a part of Western culture or from my upbringing in a Christian family, but bragging about making a donation rubs me the wrong way.
In China after any major disaster schools and offices will set up an event to publicly donate money to the relief efforts. At these events people file past cameras and display the amount of money they are giving before sliding it into the box. These donations are also carefully recorded in a book next to the giver’s name.
After the Sichuan Earthquake every foreign teacher I know was called to attend one of these events, and most of them had no idea what exactly was going to happen. They were mortified when it was finally their turn to give.
This kind of activity though seems to have the potential to increase giving, since there is so much public attention on the givers. You would think that this might make a person reconsider their stingy donation, but at the same time a person might scale back their donation so as not to appear too rich in front of their neighbors.
I don’t mean to say that either of these practices are wrong, but if you are getting ready to come to China, you might want to be prepared.
If you have an interesting story relating to these thoughts I hope you will add your experience in the comments below