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The Kunming Street Artist/Begger

The begger and his characters on the sidewalk

This picture was worth a thousand words, or Chinese characters, depending on how you look at it.

I happened upon this man, actually, a teenager, drawing Chinese characters on the sidewalk. They were very well written and organized.

I couldn't tell what the characters said, but I figured that they were poetry. At least I hoped that they were. I couldn't communicate well enough with the others who were reading it to ask them. This took place during my first week in China and my pronunciation seemed to be sorely lacking.

I decided to take a picture. Which required of me that I get off my bike and hold the camera down above the characters to get a long shot toward the artist.

Within 20 seconds I had a crowd of ten people staring at me. After I took the first of two shots, I held my digital camera up to the crowd to let them take a look at what I'd shot. I decided to get in a little closer and straighten out the angle. I was more focused on the shot and the composition of it than on the crowd that was gathering around me, but by the time I took the second shot, I had about thirty people crowded around me watching my every move.

It was really bizarre. Linda and I are getting used to being looked at, and even ogled as an occurrence that happens about once per minute, but to draw a crowd so easily, without even trying was a special treat that I didn't exactly care for too much.

I kind of wanted the focus of the crowd to be on the artist whom I was taking pictures of, rather than the photographer. I felt a little bad for him. I tried to bring the conversation back to the characters on the sidewalk by asking those around me what the words said. Nobody understood what it was that I wanted, and they just continued to watch me.

I asked if they were the words of his heart, meaning poetry. But again, they were only watching me, there was no other interaction, other than looking at my digital camera as it displayed the last shot I took. I later discovered that this young man was a begger. His words were likely describing the circumstances of his life and why one should give him some money. In Santa Monica, we'd call him either a street artist or homeless. Perhaps he is both. Although it isn't very clear in the picture, his legs were kind of deformed. The one that extends to the right of the picture ends at his ankle.

The most disturbing part about being out among the Chinese is their ease with staring, pointing, giggling at foreigners. To someone from Southern California, where multi-ethnic interactions are the norm, it is very difficult for me to get through this.

Where we, in the culture that I was raised in, might make notice of someone very different, we would not stare. For us foreigners, it is a constant affront. Of course, it isn't meant that way at all. But after a while, you just naturally put up a wall. With all the eyes staring at you, wherever you go, you just can't make eye contact with anyone. What you get coming back is not very often a friendly connection, but a sort of gawking. You get the sense that you are as real to them as if they were watching you on TV.

I see other foreigners from time to time on the streets. At least once or twice per day. Those who are walking in pairs are a little more at ease. Those who are alone, have a very thick wall put up around them. They look exceedingly inaccessible. I notice that I too get a little cold to my surroundings after a short while on the streets.

Its the most difficult thing about living here, the feelings that you are subject to while walking among the Chinese. Crowds are especially difficult to pass through. Nobody puts you down, or does anything, but treat you like a freak. Perhaps that's enough of a put down, perhaps its all in the way in which one interprets it.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 17, 1998 1:09 PM.

The previous post in this blog was The "Laowai", Racism and Personal Space in China.

The next post in this blog is Why I Love Santa Monica: Tan Sand.

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