If you live in San Francisco you know about panhandling. San Francisco is an expensive place to live, and some people end up here without the necessary support systems. San Francisco can be a very hard town.
I’ll give money to panhandlers – when someone is desperate, it seems utterly heartless to pretend they do not even exist. A dollar here and there really won’t inconvenience me, but it enables them to continue for a while longer, and maybe things will turn out better for them.
Yes, a few probably intend to spend that money on booze or illicit substances. Given their circumstances, I have to assume that even that choice is the result of an informed decision.
Their life, and their need for something to distract themselves from it - anything to make conditions bearable.
THEY HAVE FACES
A few years ago a new person showed up around the corner from my office. It’s a busy street in the evening, when people head towards the Bart station, so the panhandling chances there are relatively excellent.
This person was an old Chinese woman, barely four and a half feet tall, with white hair, and a very gentle intelligent face – in her youth she must have been just about the prettiest thing. She had small gnarled hands that had clearly done much work, and would have preferred to yet be working.
A very delicate and vulnerable woman, but very much alive – her eyes still sparkled. She could only speak a few words of English, and those so badly that context had to make clear what she said.
She was, with extreme and almost paralyzing embarrassment, asking strangers for spare change.
HI, HOW ARE YOU?
I did what I always do in cases like that. I smiled, gave her some dollar bills, and wished her a pleasant evening. One has to invest such transactions with dignity and a semblance of normalcy. Things like this feel much better for both people if done gracefully.
Two or three evenings a week she would be at the corner timidly asking the rushing pedestrians for coins. The vast majority studiously ignored her, hurrying by as if no one were there, and they themselves were very important people late for an appointment.
Every time I saw her I gave her some money. While having a smoke near the end of the day I would walk down the street to see if she was there – it’s good to see someone smile.
She wasn’t always there, as she probably did receive a monthly cheque. Which, in San Francisco, does not go very far. But being so incapable of speaking English, as well as shy, she was in no position to figure out the complexities of the system. Funds would run out in a week or so.
I believe that she had been employed in the garment factories (sweatshops) that used to be in Chinatown, and once manufacturing went overseas she was left without many options. There are a fair number of middle-aged and elderly women like that – they came to this country years ago, and found work among the safety of other Cantonese speakers. Where many stayed.
The need to earn a living, the pressure of raising a family, the isolation, all prevented them from learning English.
Pride, stubbornness, and a sense of what is proper all conspire to keep many such people from forcing themselves to rely on their kin, if they have any.
The old traditionally nurture those who are younger than them, and most elderly Cantonese women will put aside candy and food to give to young relatives when they visit. Some women are so tied up in this that they will spend far more on food for their grandchildren than on essentials for themselves.
Elderly Cantonese men will put on their one threadbare good suit to visit their offspring’s families for a few short hours, bringing along treats – which may have cost them much of their budget for the rest of the month.
Being unable to feed people who are younger is unbearably shameful for a Chinese person of senior status
It is better to starve, than to neglect obligations – especially this one.
This is so programmed into many old-fashioned people that going against it is impossible.
Additionally, maintaining a pretence that they are able and secure is so fundamental to their sense of self-worth that elderly immigrant Cantonese often successfully hide precisely how desperate they are from their grown children, the children are so used to respecting the dignity of their elders that they are far too scared to ask any difficult questions.
And beyond the family no-one wants to shame their friends and neighbors by pointing out to their relatives what might have been obvious if everyone wasn’t so good at maintaining a facade. Cantonese parents do not want to be a burden to their children, sabotaging the next generation’s success by having themselves failed. The sad thing is that many of them have indeed failed in comparison - the Americanized children are more likely to succeed than their parents.
The generation gap is not only cultural and linguistic – crippling enough! - it is often also economic.
In consequence, there is frequently a measure of estrangement in Chinese-American families that baffles outsiders, who don’t understand that it is precisely because of the distance between parents and children that safe comfort levels can be maintained for all concerned.
THE PERSON ON THE CORNER
Over the months I found out a bit more about the woman – her home-town dialect and my movie-learnt Tsim-Tung goomba patois were not too very far apart, and I can sound like I understand the proper protocols when speaking with the elderly.
She shared cramped living quarters with another woman, and she had a grown-up daughter far away who was happily married. She did not mention her own husband, so I assume that he had passed away years before. She knew how to sew, and she could make coats, shirts, and pants – especially shirts and pants. She would so much like to work again.
She hadn’t seen her daughter in a long time, but they wrote to each other regularly and occasionally talked on the phone. She really wanted to see her daughter, and her grandchild …….. but her daughter couldn’t visit as yet (translation: the old lady must have been paddling furiously to keep her daughter from finding out just how difficult her situation had become).
Nearly every week she would mention her daughter. She was very proud that her daughter had a nice husband, a bright child, a decent life.
She even sent the kid a present - she was on the corner every evening that month. It must have seriously depleted her funds. She looked far more vulnerable than usual.
One day she demonstrated something new she had learned to say in English. She had had a lot of practice, even though it was a word so very recently acquired. Lung cancer.
She had only two or three weeks left to live; she had delayed going to the doctor for so long that it was entirely untreatable. In a few days she was going into the hospital. Her daughter was flying in, with her grandchild. She was distraught that her daughter was spending so much money – but also very glad that she would finally see them again. She was extremely happy.
She thanked me sweetly for helping her so many times. She would have liked to have been able to do something in return, but ………!
I never saw her again.
CHONG CHAU JIT
Yesterday was mid-Autumn, the Moon Festival. For Chinese people, the Moon Festival is a time to spend with family, and many will travel back to their village or the place where they are from to be with their loved ones. Those who are far away think longingly of their own places and their relatives, and fondly indulge in remembering those who are dear to them. Being able to visit kin means incredibly much to people at this time, family is everything.
In their dreams they go back home.
Her daughter and grandchild surely remembered her this week, and will have placed some mooncakes for her on the family altar.
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Labels: San Francisco Chinatown, Talk-story, 中文字, 唐人街, 大阜