The Public Square

Azim Khan On One Night In Beijing


It's a beautiful day and I decide to go out for a run. Making my way through the neighborhood, Dr. Sherman waves to me from his brand-new luxury SUV as he heads to his office. I pass by little Susie, who zips down the road on her scooter while chatting on her razor-thin pink cellular phone. Mr. and Mrs. Rosenbloom are out on a power-walk while landscapers do their yard work and maids do their cleaning.

Midway through my run, I get to the poorest spot in town - a group of economical apartments lining one of the major roads. Not the ideal place to live... but still tolerable. I reach the intersection, stopping to stretch. It dawns upon me... this is the poorest part of town. I stood pensively in front of the apartments thinking about what "poor" really was. I thought, and I remembered...

Running through Beijing, I stopped in front of a soaring apartment complex, one of many lining the busy street. From the frequency of windows and clotheslines, I deduced the building to be very dense with small living areas. But this wasn't exactly poor for the average Chinese citizen. As I kept going, I gaped at numerous high rises and skyscrapers, luxurious, flashy, modern. In their shadows were cramped houses and apartments, run-down, shabby, obscure. I've always seen pictures of places like these in magazines and on TV. I'd never given them much thought.

One night, among those houses and apartments, my friends and I walked down the street and happened to pass by vendors. As "wealthy" American tourists, we became the targets of street vendors. And so began the attempts at walking past unscathed, avoiding eye contact, hand gestures, and anything else that would even feign our interest in them. Except they were selling something that I fancied: Beijing 2008 Olympic T-Shirts. I thought they would make nice gifts for friends at home. And so began my bargaining adventure.

We had already been in China for about two weeks, and as well-off foreigners in a country where the exchange rate was to our advantage, shopping and bargaining became a hobby - an excellent opportunity to make use of my new skills. The one vendor I encountered was a middle-aged woman, maybe in her late forties, early fifties. She wore an out-of-style dirty blazer, old generic suit pants, and flimsy slip-on shoes. Her expression was eager yet gloomy and uninteresting. I asked her how much for one shirt. She replied 120 yuan, roughly $15 US. As the bargainer, I told her it was way too expensive. I gave her my absolute, unwavering price: 40 yuan (about $5.00 US)... for 4 shirts. Desperate for business, she was willing to negotiate. And through my stubbornness, I got my way. When I offered her the money for the 4 shirts, she demanded 65 yuan, not the 40 yuan on which I thought we had agreed. And now began the real struggle. I stood my ground, wanting to pay only 40 yuan, while she kept complaining. In the distance, my professor, who had tagged along, saw the argument and came over to see what was going on. By this time, the lowest she would go was 45 yuan (about $5.63 US), but I still wanted it for 40 yuan, a difference of about 63 cents. Sixty-three cents. I didn't care, I wanted to get the best deal possible. Now with my professor here, the vendor began to get into a fit, ranting in Mandarin to him. I've had vendors get mad at me before for trying to bargain so much, but this time the anger seemed more real, more fervent. I could see her eyes were burning. I could only watch and wonder what was going on. The vendor continued to go off yelling indistinctly to me. My professor told me to just give her the extra 5 yuan. As I walked back to the theater with my professor, I asked him what she had been shouting. It turns out that she was a laid-off worker needing to support her child through college. We fixed our gazes downwards; there were no lies among the flames of her eyes.

And it dawned upon me: this woman wasn't selling these shirts in her free time. She wasn't going to grab a cup of coffee and read a magazine after work. She wouldn't be spending an hour on the phone with girlfriends gossiping about the latest fashion trends. She would come back home to a room the size of my bedroom with her entire family living in a cramped space waiting for another day of work and, hopefully, money.

Running again, I looped around the square and headed back in the direction of the apartments. As I ran by the so-called poor part of town, I couldn't shake the idea that this was what kids jokingly referred to as "the ghetto." I remember the run-down, dense apartments, the despairing, wretched woman. I carry these thoughts with me on my way back home as I wipe sweat onto the sleeve of my 2008 Beijing Olympics T-Shirt, knowing that there's a clean change of clothes waiting in my closet. I never forgot that one night in Beijing, among those houses and apartments, where I saw poverty more profound than any place here on the North Shore.