By Diana Stottlemyer

Ifirst saw him through the crowd of children and curious adults, his arms hidden under his cut-off T-shirt. At least he didn't have the cloth pulled up, resting on a prosperous belly like so many of the other men—the type of men who staggered down the dim alley to the barber shop, the one released to lewder purposes at night.

I noticed his eyes, which absorbed his surroundings with the fascination of a child. Only after he came closer did I realize that he was not hiding his arms—he didn't have any. His shoulders ended abruptly with short six-inch stumps. I tried to hide my shock at his deformity, but internally, my mind explored the possible causes. Had he greeted his mother like this at birth? Had disease urged an overly-eager Chinese doctor to amputate? Had a tragic accident befallen him? He passed by, and in spite of my morbid musings, I soon forgot him.

Hours later, I returned to my hotel room, exhausted from the chaos of a prodding crowd oblivious to my Western concept of personal space. A month earlier, my adventure began when I stepped from a bus onto the streets of Jedong, surrounded for hundreds of miles in every direction by mountains, rice fields, and rural villages. Very few foreigners visited the small Chinese town, and for some, my pale skin and yellow hair were the first they had ever seen. My short walk to and from the English school each day elicited constant attention, typically unabashed, open-mouthed stares.

I listened to the typically noisy street below, filled with piercing car horns and music blaring from shop doors. That night, music, unusually loud even for a Chinese town, drew me to the window. I peered down upon the growing crowd on the street corner and immediately recognized the white shirt. Now, though, the man exposed his deformed limbs to everyone as he performed gymnastic tricks and flicked objects into the air with his feet, catching them in his mouth like a dog.

The crowd gawked at the unsolicited circus on the street. Few moved to give money to this unusual beggar. They merely stared, captivated, as I was, by the grotesque.

As I watched them from above, I wondered if they thought of him as a freak. I wondered if he thought of himself as a freak, going on show each night to earn enough money to buy a bowl of noodles to fill his belly. Or was it merely a job, like any other?

I thought back to the others I had seen, who humbly knelt on the filthy sidewalk. Most lay prostrate, their faces on the ground before them, with a simple bowl in their outstretched hands. They made no noise, no gesture. They were easy for a crowd to pass by, unnoticed. But for some reason, these needy ones pulled most at my heart. They had nothing to offer, nothing with which to entertain. They cast away any sense of pride or self-respect, so highly valued in their culture—but why? I could only imagine drove them to that point. These questions, these images, I could not shake. A young girl, too shy—or ashamed—to look up to the loaf of bread I held out for her. A grown man helplessly kneeling beside his young son, their faces inches beyond my passing feet.


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