Saturday, December 31, 2005

"I Have No Money"

The shirt caught my eye as I walked along the market street of Dali's "Old Town" in the Western Province of Yunnan, China. "I Have No Money" it stated simply in Chinese. Boy, I thought, I should get that shirt to wear on my trips.

I did buy the shirt, as a joke and as a reminder. The simple truth is that everytime I come to China I experience events that break my heart, and reinforce to me again and again how most of the world lives. Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan doesn't apply well to the back streets of rural China. If one took the teachings of this parable literally, one would never be able to walk to the end of a single street. Need is everywhere here, and manifests itself in many forms: the four year-old street urchin; the teenager asking for education money; the crippled man barely able to push himself through the dirt and trash; the old woman with broken teeth asking for enough to give her another meal.

"I Have No Money"

The Chinese remind me that the shirt is meant as a joke, that the Chinese seek to impress those around them with their possessions, even if purchased with borrowed money. For the Chinese, the look of money is the goal. To be able to portray to the less fortunate that the Chinese gods have looked with favor upon them. The joke lies in the fact that few in China are willing to admit that they truly are poor and have no money.

"I Have No Money"

I wear the shirt feeling a burden of guilt. Although I am told that most will find the shirt funny, and show others that I have sense of humor, I realize that I also must hide my face in shame as I pass the poor beggar. For the truth is, I am richer than 95% of those whom I walk among in China. I carry my trinkets home from my daily shopping excursions, passing those who have nothing of what I have. My heart is torn between my selfish and carnal side, and my religious and moral upbringing that holds the conviction that those who assist others in need will be blessed.

I am reminded of a night I sat in a KFC in Nanking, in China's eastern Province of Jiangsu. A city steeped in history, I had come here to witness for myself the pictures and graves bearing witness to the atrocities the Chinese had experienced in World War II at the hands of the invading Japanese. Now, as I silently ate my fried chicken, a woman approached me through the glass and motioned that she was hungry.

I invited her to come into the facility to eat, but an employee forbade her entry. "She comes here often," was the look the employee gave me, "don't feed her." But in my mind I kept hearing the words of my youth, "I was an hungered, and you gave me food." I walked to the counter, ordered some food and drink, and walked it outside into her eager arms. She turned and walked into the darkness.

The Chinese largely ignore the myriad beggars they pass on the streets. "They do it for business," is their reasoning, a rational I am all too familiar with at home. But when I am approached by a young girl who looks like she could be my daughter, my hand slips once again into my pocket, hoping that I will find some small change to pass on. Even those who work make little money by Western standards. The director of my daughter's orphanage, a respected government position, makes $160 a month. Taxi drivers make about the same, and those that clean China's streets make less in a month than I spend to go to McDonalds with my girls. Most of China's farmers and the factory workers make less in a year than an American teenager makes at a part-time job in a month.

China's poor remind me that I live in a global society, not on an island of prosperity in the sea of destitution and poverty. U.S. calls to limit imports from China, India, and other impoverished nations fall on deaf ears with me. The threat of globalization, the loss of American jobs, the importing of cheap goods, is a two edged sword. Certainly there is a cost to be borne by those whose incomes exceed that of most in the world, but few of us in the U.S. realize the benefit those jobs are to those in other countries. The exporting of factory jobs to the "Sweat Shops" of China allow many women who previously worked at the back-breaking labor of the field to make more money in a factory job. In a small way their lives are improved -- slowly, almost imperceptively -- but improved none-the-less. I question any policy that elevates or maintains my standard of living by continuing to suppress that of others.

As I walk China's streets, I have long ago stopped trying to discern who is "doing it for business" and who is in true need. I give whatever change I have freely and willingly, with a silent prayer that others might do so also. What I do is small. If I was a better person I could do much more. But I hope that one day all might be able to live like I do, rich in the abundance of the earth's blessings, free of the deprivation of life's basic needs. Instead of living on an island of prosperity, I hope that one day the economic continents will unite and we will all live in abundance together.


Anonymous said...


Everytime I am in China I face some of the same interior conflict that you described. I find I am in agreement with much of your thinking on the question of the inequities between our two countries.

I am reminded of a speech John Kennedy gave at the University of Michigan in 1960 in the last three weeks of his presidential campaign. It was then that he asked the students of U of M to recognize that the school did not exist just to make their lives more prosperous. He went on to ask them to commit two years to service to the globe in what would become the Peace Corps.

Later, on a somewhat more limited note, he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you...."

In both speeches he reflected the gospel message, and the message of evey other great theological construct...we're in this together.

A few short years later, another President running a campaign for re-election said, "Look to your own wallet. Are you better off now than you were four years ago." Translation...Ignore the woman outside the KFC if your belly is full.

We've come a long way and not for the better. A variety of researchers and commentators have suggested that the next world war will not be between nations or ideologies, but between the "Haves" and the "Have-Nots."

In the US Space Command’s Vision 2020 the point was made that it is part of the mission "to guard against 'the widening between haves and
have-nots' and to 'dominate and control' the earth in order 'to protect US interests and investments' and this has
been reaffirmed by the Rumsfeld Commission’s Report to Assess US National Security Space Management and
Organization in January of 2001.

In the late summer of 2006, we will go back to China to complete our fifth adoption. I'll still take my walks in the neighborhoods. I'll still sit in the parks and visit with local inhabitants. I'll still give what I can to the poor and to the manipulators because it is not my role to distinguish between the two. I'll still know that as "middle-class" or lower as we are by our standards, I return home to a lifestyle to a great degree unimaginable in most of China. And I suspect that not long after I'm home with Zi Hui my wife will start thinking about applying for an exemption from the Chinese limit of 5 children under 18 in a household so that we can begin work on the next adoption. There truly is always room in the heart and resources for one more.

Keep up the good work.

Mike O'Neill

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian:

Thank you again for a wonderful message. Everything you describe is true, both within China and vis-a-vis the wider world of affluence.

Indeed, the rich-poor gap inside China is exceedingly wide, with billionaires at one end of the scale and rural folks barely existing on 50 cents a day.

I'll go further: the beggars you saw on the streets of Yunnan's cities and towns are rich compared with their rural counterparts.

Yunnan is one of the poorest provinces and it is one where human trafficking (women and children) is fairly rampant, as is the smuggling of drugs from neighboring Vietnam and the resultant spread of HIV/AIDS in that province. Most of the trafficking in babies and young children within China originates in Yunnan.

The Chinese government has just announced a major push to try to drive better economic growth in the countryside, abolishing farm taxes and budgeting for free education and better healthcare, for example. But it will take much more than this to close the rich-poor gap in China.

Deng Xiaoping once said, in trying to push through his reforms against strong Marxist opposition, that "Socialism is not poverty" and hence some people and places should be allowed to "get rich before others" in order for China to break out of its past and into a different future.

But I cannot imagine that he ever imagined that the rich-poor gap would get so wide. It will take at least a decade to make even a small dent in the problem. And so there will still be many years of begging and child abandonment in rural China.

Regards, Frank Feather,
China Adoptive-Parent News group,

Anonymous said...


Here is an excellent summary (by two economists in India) of the recent UNDP report on China's rich-poor gap, a report which was produced and written by Chinese economists.

Cheers! Frank

Anonymous said...

Brian, I apologize if this is a no-no.

I have read your blog from time to time and have enjoyed your posts.

When I looked at the reply from Mike O'neill, I thought,
"how sad he uses this place to promote his agenda."

He said in part:

"A few short years later, another President running a campaign for re-election said, "Look to your own wallet. Are you better off now than you were four years ago." Translation...Ignore the woman outside the KFC if your belly is full."

I applaud JFK's response, but take issue that Reagans was as he put it"ignore the women outside the KFC....

It is our responsibility to give and share, how can we do it if we do not have it to give??

I am not rich, I have been a liberal and a conservative politically, right now I guess I am a moderate and float back and forth.

Let Brian use his blog to enlighten and leave the political junk out.

adpotive mom from China