“Ay man, I’m tryin’a get upstate but my bus ticket got stolen. You gonna help me out, right? I just need thirty bucks man, shit’s rough right now and my daughter’s gettin’ married tomorrow. C’mon man, I’d do it for you.”
Anybody who’s lived in an American city knows exactly what I’m talking about, when some random guy slurring his speech tries to play on your sympathies and make some money. You know he’s not gonna be getting on a bus or walking a daughter down the aisle either; the optimist might hope that the cash he’s given will go towards outstanding bills or something else that’s positive, but nobody really believes that…
Very few people actually fall for these sob stories, the majority of them donating solely out of pity, and if you’d thought a bus ticket or a family matter were obvious lies, then how the hell would you react to a camel?!
You can imagine how dubious I’d been when I saw the beggar with a camel tied up behind him. I could list all sorts of facts for why this scene was absurd; how the nearest desert was almost 48 hours away by train, how Shenzhen is a coastal, sub-tropical city that a camel would never be found anywhere near, or how this guy and his camel would’ve had to have inconspicuously traveled more than 10 kilometers through the city to get to where they currently were, which just so happened to be right outside of the rich central business district and downtown heart of Shenzhen… but I don’t think any of that is going to be necessary.
Understanding his slurred Mandarin had been completely out of the question, but I’m sure he’d made a great case for himself as he rocked back and forth, periodically shouting and moaning. I like to imagine his sales pitch going somewhere along the lines of; “Ay man, I was coming from the desert and my camel broke his damn toe on Shennan avenue. Can you spare some Mao’s so I can fix him up? His healthy so bad, I’ll give you many thanks.” Scattered along the streets of any city in China are beggars of every shade of dirt and manner of handicap, and while I’ve seen more than I’d cared to in my year and a half here, I’ve never seen this. Burn victims, people with multiple missing limbs, hobo nudity and lude actions, toothless would-be alley prostitutes, men with shrunken bodies and arms shorter than their heads, armless guys on random sidewalks painting for customers with their feet, the occasional drunkard that got his hands on a megaphone, and even a grotesque midget who would chase after people in an attempt to sell them knock off purses; it takes a lot to stop you in your tracks and actually confuse you once you’ve been here awhile, and well… This guy and his companion had managed to. Slack jawed and scratching my head, I’d stood there for several minutes amidst the bustle of commuters, struggling to make sense of this ridiculousness. Judging from the constant looks of shock and the people who’d knocked into each other while rubber necking, I wasn’t the only one either. You know it’s strange when the Chinese even stop to gawk.
After passing by one an especially unique beggar on street, it’s difficult to stop yourself from wondering how they’d even gotten there in the first place; a beggar who, whether due to crippling deformities or huge desert mammals, couldn’t possibly have moved themselves to wherever they were panhandling on their own. The obvious guess would be with the help of family or friends, but one night in Beijing awhile back, I’d stumbled onto another possibility. Cutting down side streets to get to a popular bar area, I’d rounded a corner just in time to see three younger guys roll a legless old man out of their van and onto a tattered blanket. They’d driven away yelling commands at him, at which he began pulling himself towards the main street. I’d stood there in a mix of shock, confusion and curiosity, watching as this nubby beggar crawled out of the alleyway and onto a busy bar street to shake his cup at the partiers passing by. The street and its bars were full that night, and I’m sure that the bum had made quite a bit even if each person had only given him their pocket scraps.
Several day later and still puzzled by this scene, I’d started asking my coworkers what their thoughts on it were. One of them, a knowledgeable guy from South Africa, told me I’d just confirmed a rumor floating around the expat community. He went on to talk about how most beggars, especially the maimed and deformed ones, are essentially owned and put to work by various criminal organizations, who then take the majority of the earnings for themselves. Thinking back on all of this with what I’d just seen, I’d have to guess that if a camel was in the middle of a sub-tropical city on the opposite side of the continent as it’s natural habitat, then this shady activity is probably going on in Shenzhen as well. There’s really no way to end this on a positive note, so I guess all I can do is offer a hundred RMB to the first guy who gets a gorilla. Now that would be a sight.