Shanghai Scene #2

Ten pm, perhaps a little later. I sit with my head down on the subway, listening inattentively to music from my ipod. Over the familiar melody I hear the gentle, rhythmic rustle of coins in a cup. I open my eyes to see a woman of indeterminate age knelt directly before me, her head lowered as either a sign of humility or shame; I cannot be sure which. She looks at me through eyes of glass, blank and soulless, reflecting my own discomfort. On her lap is a young child suckling her milk. She is dressed to display her thinness, in what I can only assume is a deliberate attempt to show that the child is drinking from a rapidly drying well. I am paralyzed with a mixture of shock and pity. But I am no stranger to poverty. I have seen what I had hitherto thought were the depths of human displeasure and desperation. What about this scene has evoked in me such a crippling emotional response? At first, I think it is the presence of the child and his patent suffering. I reconsider this; I have seen poor children. I close my eyes and re-imagine the scene. I am overcome with a sense of emptiness and desolation, but even more by a sense of ubiquity. Before me are representatives of a visible, but silent population of Chinese poor, too distant from the long arm of Big Brother to receive His aid. This country has perhaps a billion more people than my home nation, and in its impressive size is a similarly impressive number of ever-desperate impoverished citizens staining the pristine image of communist equality. Poverty seems a force as unstoppable as gravity, and has bred in Chinese of every class a sense of annoyed impotence. I recline in my seat, having done nothing to alleviate their squalor. To my left, receding in the distance, I hear the gentle, rhythmic rustle of coins.

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