On Friday, I was walking up Rebgong’s main street and trying to keep from getting run over by a vehicle (a continuing feat of endurance and agility on the part of the pedestrian) when I nearly ran into two older ladies. They were short and stocky, with the short hair and flowery dress clothes common to older Han and Hui women. They seemed archetypal no-nonsense Chinese matriarchs, the type of women who spend hours playing ma-jiang and gossiping with their friends before turning around to dress down their husbands, children and grandchildren on their perceived faults (anything from an improperly formed baozi to poor grades in geography class). Fierce yet friendly, pushy yet grandmotherly, these impressively enduring and powerful women are common across the country; I pegged these two as the type. Until they started to talk.
“Hello,” said one. “We are just poor old ladies. We have many children and grandchildren at home and we need money for food . Can you give us some money? Maybe 20 kuai?”
I was shocked. These two women didn’t look like beggars. They were well-dressed, clean-cut. Among Rebgong’s population, they looked wealthier than average. They were carrying shopping baskets already filled with food.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have any spare change…”
But before I could break away, they grabbed me, one to each shoulder, and started protesting. “You don’t understand,” one said. “You’re a foreigner, we have so many people and so little money…” “you can help us pay for our food,” another said, “and we will be grateful…”
I pushed them aside and strode up the street with a quick and angry step. Who were these women? Why did they not seem like beggars at all? They seemed like nothing more than wily old women looking to hoodwink a clueless foreigner for free cash.
But what was the real story here? Did they only look wealthy and clean-cut? Were they truly poor? And what was the situation like at home? In short, did they really need money after all?
I have no illusions that being one of two foreigners in a poor, rural region makes me stick out like a sore thumb, a thumb whose print is nothing more or less than a dollar sign. People assume, in short, that due to my white skin I’m overflowing with cash – cash which, if they simply shake me a bit, will start to come out of my bodily orifices.
And to some extent this is true. While I’m definitely not rich (especially by American standards), my family is not poor. I have a bit of spare cash saved up in the bank – a pittance by American standards, but a passable amount in rural China. My salary (stipend) is 2400 a month, which is not high by Beijing standards but puts me in the upper echelon here in Rebgong. In short, while I am definitely not wealthy (locals have complained that my salary is “too low to find a wife”) I do have more money than most in the region, money which I could be giving to people like these older women.
So why am I so reluctant to do so? Why do I hate the foreigner cash-shakedown with such a passion?
To put it bluntly, I don’t like being equated with money. I don’t enjoy having a dollar sign dangling over my head. I want to be treated as a person rather than (to use a tired parenting metaphor) a free-access ATM. And when I am constantly accosted for cash, often from people who don’t seem as though they actually need such money, I feel myself being dehumanized; I am reduced from a person to a pile of cold, hard, cash with the unusual abilities of walking, talking, and (occasionally) thinking.
But this attitude is only visible in a portion of the population; others, often extremely poor, show the opposite tendency. Many students and families, despite being desperately poor, have shown me the most unbelievable generosity, treating me more like extended family (in a good way) than a simple guest.
So why this extreme split? Why am I treated as subhuman by some but as superhuman (dissociating the word with superheroes) by others? What connects or separates me as a person from the concept of money? In America, we are now zoned by class; neighborhoods may be racially mixed but are almost unvaryingly economically homogenous. If we don’t want to see poor or rich people, we don’t have to; we live around people of our own social class. This creates a severe economic myopia, in which we have to turn on the TV, and thus accept TV’s distance, to discover the social and economic ‘other.’ But living in Rebgong, I have to struggle with severe income inequality on a daily basis. I live in a heated, five-room apartment with electricity and water; across the courtyard, families of five to nine live in one- to two-room shacklike homes heated by coal or yak dung; many of my students, when they go home, are returning to nomad tents. If we started an Occupy Rebgong, I would probably be the 1%. These ever-present issues of class are, here in Rebgong, as in-your-face as they could possibly be. Money and inequality are things I am forced to think about not simply on a daily basis, but constantly; they are irresolvable issues for a foreigner living here.
So should I have given those women money? And how should I go about my economic relations and exchanges with people in Rebgong? I haven’t come to any resolution, but the equalization of me with cash will not go away. And though my resulting frustration will not go away either, I can at least use this anger as an impetus to further think about issues of money, inequality, and difference.