This post has taken a while to write.
The majority of our trip to Shenzhen, as I described in my last post, was a more-or-less wacky good time. It was a bit disorienting, to be sure, but we felt pretty much on solid ground—a little research and a good amount of time in HK had prepared us pretty well for the whole thing, and while the shopping experience was certainly surreal in some ways, it was still well within the realm of the ‘normal’ world.
But the entire atmosphere of Shenzhen, for whatever reason, gave me a vague sense of apprehension almost from the moment we crossed the border. It’s difficult to describe. There was no sense of immediate physical threat, nor pity, nor surveillance. Just a weird, latent tremor.
It didn’t help that the landscape, at least what we saw on that particular day, was vaguely post-apocalyptic. I took a photo of the view from the restaurant we had lunch in:
Welcome to the desert of the real, indeed.
But seriously, the view that day was not that much different from the world of the Matrix: gray and forbidding, with dark clouds of pollution hovering low over the buildings. Looking out, you couldn’t really discern much movement below, either—there was an oddly static look to the scene. It was like watching a thunderstorm roll in across a plain, but with no wind moving the trees.
As I say, that odd feeling was mostly dormant, a process whirring away in the background. It took just one second at the end of the trip to bring in charging forward.
We had planned on spending the night in Shenzhen, not knowing how much time we would need or want to spend there. By about 5:00pm it was clear that we didn’t need to spend the night, especially with home just a 40-minute train ride away. The hotel was close by, and we decided that it would be easier to take a taxi over and cancel in person than it would be to figure out how to call them. (We didn’t have cell phones.)
So we hauled all of our wares out of the mall and headed towards the taxi stand, where (fortunately) they enforce a queuing rule with some permanent metal handrails like you’d find at Disneyworld, everyone snaking back and forth. The line was pretty long, so every minute or two we’d shuffle forward toward the front of the line, where taxis were appearing and disappearing at a furious pace. The entire operation lay under a building, and the low concrete ceiling overhead made everything resonant and loud, as well as stomach-turning from the concentrated fumes.
It was at the last turn in the line. Finally deciding to take stock of how this taxi-loading business worked, we looked toward the front. There, where the queue opened up onto the driveway, was a man. He had no shirt. His legs were amputated at the hips, and he had only one arm. He was propped up, leaning against the metal handrail facing away from the street—towards the line of those waiting—the crown of his head resting on the middle rail with his face angled downward. His bare torso was ash-colored, shiny with sweat and humidity, almost waxy. He wasn’t moving. His arm was extended out through the bars, hand held palm up.
For a split second, I thought he was some kind of movie prop, so other-worldly was it.
I was overcome with a stomach-churning horror, and disgust, and pity, and anger. I have witnessed horrific scenes before—beggars and otherwise—but this was different in kind, not degree, and I’m not sure why.
There was something about him that was so manifestly in extremis—so far beyond the realm of normal existence—and so unexpectedly encountered that seeing him felt like a physical blow. I actually recoiled—literally and truly, I took a step back, even though we were 15 yards away—and felt my head spin. I felt awful, in all the senses of that phrase: physically, emotionally, spiritually. I felt awful for him specifically, but mostly I felt awful, angry and awful, for us. For all of us. Angry that this situation could even be, angry that there was little we could do about it, angry (foolishly, I know) at him for being there to make me feel this way and to force each person waiting for a cab to pass within inches and make a choice about what to do, angry at everyone in the line for not, I don’t know, rising up as a group and doing something, anything.
Instead, the line of us, all laden down with luggage and shopping bags, kept inching forward, heading for the cabs. We paid him no heed. Never before have I seen such a sickening juxtaposition: his dire need with our wholly unnecessary excess. The bags I was carrying all of a sudden felt very, very heavy.
Mostly I was angry at Shenzhen. I’m not sure why. But I thought: Shenzhen should do something about this. Shenzhen shouldn’t allow this to happen, shouldn’t allow people to have to debase themselves like this to survive, shouldn’t allow them to force us to confront it. What appalling, bitter emotions. I thought: Surely the United States would never allow this to happen, even knowing full well that things like this happen a thousand times a day, though in more hidden ways, which is no better and probably worse.
But at that moment, I experienced an emotion I don’t think I’ve ever had before: revulsion. Genuine revulsion—disgust and anger, directed indiscriminately. Even as my heart broke for this man, I hated the situation, I hated everyone who had a part in creating it, I hated Shenzhen, I hated that we were there, I was disgusted and horrified with myself for feeling disgust and horror before pity and compassion, and all I knew is that we had made a terrible, terrible mistake and I just wanted to be anywhere, anywhere else.