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  Shanghai Postcard - 2004   (2004)

How much can we ever know about a culture different from our own? Experienced travelers learn not to extrapolate superficial experiences into an illusion of cultural understanding; they know ex-pats can live in a foreign culture for years and still remain only half-aware outsiders.

But there is at least one universal in human experience that is not shrouded by culture: the facial expressions of joy, anger, distrust and sadness. These, it seems, are in our genetic wiring.

This is not to say there’s no cultural content in a smile or frown; but it is something that an outsider can grasp with visceral immediacy. This may be why a face glimpsed in a faraway land can haunt you long after the recollections of a cultural artifact have faded.

For me, that face belongs to an aged man standing on a side street in Shanghai, China, facing the bustling stream of fashionably dressed young people crowding the city’s main shopping street, Nanjing Lu.

A bent, scarecrow figure with a weathered face beneath a woven peasant’s hat, the elderly man wore the simple post-Mao garb of faded white tunic and loose trousers; his hands were extended in the universal gesture of begging.

Although you don’t read much about it in glossy tourist literature, this is not an uncommon sight; many old people are begging in China nowadays. Weathered grandmotherly women shuffle down Shanghai’s sleek new subway cars, hands extended, and various beggars cluster around any Big Nose (foreigner) entering a train or bus station.

The elderly beggars are largely invisible; few people glance at them, and even fewer drop a coin or two in their outstretched palms. Beggars are certainly not unique to China; but unlike many American panhandlers, the beggars in China don’t seem troubled by drug addictions or mental illness. Their insecurity seems to stem not from disease but from age; the boomtime China walking by seems to have no place for them.

The cause of such social insecurity is no secret; for decades pensions came from state factories and communes, not the state per se, and as factories have been closed and communes dissolved, so too did the employees’ pensions. China is still a poor nation compared to the West, and the Chinese government does not yet have a universal social security safety net in place.

But the old man’s expression was not of anger or resignation; his features were fixed in an unwavering, abject grimace of pained bewilderment. Though I cannot know the man’s thoughts, the bewilderment in his half-open mouth and piercing eyes suggested that none of Nanjing Lu made any sense to him.

His own impoverishment amidst such overabundance made no sense; the complete dissolution of his generation’s social uniformity made no sense; and the transformation of his city from a backwater to a gleaming metropolis of wildly extravagant and widely disparate wealth made no sense. The brightly dressed young people strolling past, shopping bags and McDonald’s ice cream cones in hand, indulged by his children’s generation and chasing a lifestyle beyond his era’s fantasies, made no sense.

In a nation where family ties are paramount, I wondered how the man had been reduced to such a state. Certainly no one with any means would let their father or grandfather reach such depths; if he hadn’t lost his family, he’d certainly lost touch with them. Whatever the circumstances, he was not alone in this plight.

I too was guilty of passing the man by. I caught a quick glimpse of him as the crush of bodies carried me past the side street, and though arrested by his expression I did not break free from the flow to give him money. Hardened by the clusters of beggars who’d descended on me at every train and bus station, I’d sworn off rewarding such pestering. But this old man wasn’t pestering anyone. He was simply standing alone in his pain and bewilderment, hands beseeching, taking the one action left to him in the enfeebled poverty of advanced age: hoping for a handout.

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