Walking around Beijing, it is difficult not to come across the homeless, many of whom are severely disabled. I have seen both a man with no arms and a man with no arms or legs. I have seen mentally retarded kids. I saw a severely burned woman yesterday, laying almost naked on the side of a subway stop, perhaps hoping that others' pity and sympathy will allow her to eat that night. Alongside these people with the most unfortunate circumstances, there were also your "regular" beggars, possessing all their limbs, tugging on your shirt sleeves for spare change.
These intense, vivid scenes really make me think about the effects of China's modernization and economic development. China's miraculous economic turnaround has made countless Chinese citizens enormously wealthy by any standard. In the streets, I see Mercedes, Rolls-Royce and, once, a BMW that was gold-plated from bumper to bumper. In fact, over 2,000 new cars are added to Beijing's roads every single day. The magnificent skyscrapers, many designed by the most famous of architects, pop up around the city almost overnight and testify to wealth brought by the boom.
But at the same time, the ill effects are just as stark. The wealth gap is widening at a constantly-increasing pace. Minorities are still at a disadvantaged. Migrant workers are often without legal rights; their kids without avenues for education. The poor finds it extremely difficult to significantly increase its wealth. Social mobility is still lagging far behind more developed nations.
Ironically, my Chinese lesson for tomorrow is titled "天堂? 地狱?" (Heaven or Hell)? When I first glanced at the heading, I expected a paper broadly discussing some religious viewpoint, probably written by some author I didn't recognize but who is widely read in China. I was right about everything but the subject matter; in actuality, the article was about America and all its contradictions. The Civil Rights Movement occurred in the 1960s, and yet today, blacks in America still face insulting stereotypes and are severely underrepresented in leadership positions. The homeless live in the same cities as those who splurge carelessly on luxurious fur coats and fine dining. The United States is both like Heaven and like Hell, it just depends on who you are.
While preparing for the lesson, I first felt very defensive at some of the observations made by the author. It was obvious to me that he or she had only a shallow understanding of America, and to hear her make arguments based on poor examples was quite maddening.
Then, it dawned on me. Wasn't I doing just the same? I am already making highly critical comments about a society that I was only just beginning to understand. My impressions are probably just as unfounded as those presented in the lesson. It is just too easy to criticize from the outside. Hopefully, over the next two years I'm here, this land will become more familiar, its customs and habits more sensible.