On a beautiful day, while running through the neighborhood in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, Dr. Sherman waves to me from his shiny luxury SUV. I pass by little Susie, who’s too focused on her next text message. 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 stretch of economical apartments. It dawns upon me… this is the poorest part of town. I stood pensively, thinking about what “poor” really was. I thought, and I remembered…
Running through Beijing, I gaped at numerous high rises and skyscrapers, luxurious and modern. In their shadows were cramped houses and apartments, run-down and obscure. I’ve always seen pictures of places like these in magazines and on TV, but I’d never given them much thought.
One night, among those houses and apartments, my friends and I walked down the street. Vendors quickly targeted us with their cheap goods. Normally, I would pass on by, but they were selling something that I fancied: Beijing Olympic T-Shirts. They would make nice gifts, I thought. And so began my bargaining adventure.
I approached a middle-aged woman, maybe in her late forties, early fifties, wearing out-of-style, worn-in clothing. Her expression was eager yet gloomy. She was selling the shirts for 120 yuan, roughly 15 dollars. As the bargainer, I told her it was way too expensive. I gave her my absolute, unwavering price: 40 yuan … for 4 shirts (that’s 5 dollars). Desperate for business, she was willing to negotiate. And through my stubbornness, I got my way.
But apparently we misunderstood each other. I offered 40 yuan; she demanded more – 5 yuan more (that is, 63 cents). But I refused. Sixty-three cents. I didn’t care; I wanted to get the best deal possible.
My Chinese-speaking friend had come to my aid as the vendor erupted with anger, ranting in Mandarin to him, her eyes burning. My friend told me to just give her the extra 5 yuan. I asked my friend 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 I realized: this woman wasn’t selling these shirts in her free time. She wasn’t coming back to a perfectly-made home only to gossip on the phone. She would return to her cramped house, her mind focused only on the next day’s opportunity to make ends meet.
Running again, I passed by the so-called “ghetto” part of town. I remembered the run-down houses and apartments, the despairing, wretched woman. Wiping sweat onto the sleeve of my new shirt, I am grateful of the clean change of clothes waiting in my closet. I never forgot that one night in Beijing where I saw poverty more profound than any place here on the North Shore.
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