Skip to content

The Dark Underbelly

Most of the time, China’s an interesting culture, full of unknown nuances and quaint contrasts. However, once in a while I have an experience that shows just how different and scary China can be.

In Zhangjiagang, as with most of the rest of Asia, there are children we call “flowersellers”. A variant on the normal kind of beggar, these are children (maybe 4-10 years old) who will run up to you on the street waving cheap/fake flowers, supposedly selling them but more often just asking for money. They’ve been taught to say a few English words such as “money”, “hungry”, “please”, and so on, just enough to tug at the heartstrings of foreigners. They’re quite good at crying and looking pitiful on command; sometimes you can see them dramatically change their body language when they notice you. Some are the children of migrant workers, forced to sell flowers to supplement their family’s income. Others are connected with organized crime. Few if any are orphans, as there are lots of orphanages in China (albeit not great ones). Most of the time they are working under adult supervision.

To be clear, these children are not really abandoned. They’re not starving or barefoot. There are genuine street children, but they usually find a more constructive approach to make money such as busking or shining shoes. I’ve seen some impressive child acrobats or singers on the streets, and I’m more than happy to give them a few dollars. Shoe-shine children are all over, and from what I gather it’s a pretty effective way to make a basic living.

Flowerseller children usually work in groups of 3 or 4, finding likely marks and surrounding them. They don’t respond to anything you say to them, in English or in Chinese, and giving them money only encourages the rest of the group to continue mobbing you. I’ve occasionally managed to get them to go away by saying “look, a foreigner!” and pointing at someone else, but obviously that’s not a real solution.

Last night, as we were coming out of the most popular foreigner bar on our way home, we were mobbed. Not the usual 3 or 4 children, but a gang of 20 or 25. They surrounded us and made it impossible to move. Eric made a valiant effort to get them away from the door by going a ways away and waving some coins. Half of them went to mob him, but the other half stayed around me. It was quite frustrating, because we could easily see the adults who were managing them, standing about 5 yards away and shouting directions at them. I eventually managed to wade my way through them dragging my friend (who’d had about 10 drinks too many) and got to a taxi. However, the children clung to the doors and mirrors of the taxi, so we couldn’t shut the doors and leave. I was telling them in my best angry-teacher Chinese that we DIDN’T want any and to GO AWAY. It wasn’t working. Eric threw a 5-yuan bill out the window into the bushes, but that only distracted them for about 5 seconds, and then they were back again in force.

Eventually I had to get out of the car to get rid of them. Most of them backed off when they saw me get out of the taxi (I’m the biggest person most of them have ever seen), but there was one boy, maybe 6, who was clinging to the taxi door for dear life and bawling his lungs out. I had to pick him up and set him down a ways away, at which point he abruptly stopped crying and walked off.

Eric and I were both quite shaken by the experience. Only the hardest of hearts is insensitive to a weeping 6-year-old, and since we both have students this age it makes it that much harder to say “no”. But there’s no way we can help them. There’s no gratitude, if you give them a few yuan they just beg that much harder since they know you’re either sympathetic or willing to pay them to go away. What kind of person teaches them precisely how to get sympathy from foreigners? What kind of person uses their children like this?

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.