It was almost two years ago when I first saw the disfigured man begging for money. He was at an intersection a few miles from my house and I was both horrified and transfixed by his severely burned appearance as I inched closer and saw that he was handing out a piece of paper to anyone who would roll down their window to accept it. I was ready to have a look, but the light changed, horns honked and I drove away.
About a week later, the scene repeated itself. This time I had money in hand but again I had to drive by. About 10 days later, I returned again, prepared to park and make sure I spoke with the man with the melted face. But he was gone.
I returned several times, but never saw him again. I wondered who he was, what had happened to him -- and where he'd gone. Months later I received an email forwarded by a friend from a friend of a friend. Other expats had been more persistent than me, learning the man's story and setting up a loose network to help him.
In our home countries there are plenty of people less fortunate than ourselves and opportunities to help out, but we often tend to live at a distance, both physical and cerebral, which isn't easily bridged. For example, our town of Maplewood, N.J. borders cities with high poverty rates and lots of problems, but there aren't people living in lean-tos in our backyard. Going overseas, however, we get knocked out of our comfort zone, and disparities can be particularly jarring in a developing country because of the rapid and arbitrary nature of growth and the lack of social safety net. Here in Beijing, there is huge contrast between the expat-dominated housing compounds in our neighborhood, filled with manicured lawns and spacious modern homes, and the surrounding local villages where families live in ragged unheated rooms. The man with the melted face proved to be a bridge between them.
It began in September 2006, with Justin Hansen, then a 16-year-old junior at the International School of Beijing. He had seen the man begging on the road near his apartment, seen people roll their windows up and avert their eyes. And he heard kids at school talking about the scary, freaky guy and the threats he posed.
Justin asked the man what happened and heard the tale of Wang Ming Zhi, a 43-year-old peasant farmer who had come to Beijing four years earlier to better himself and his family. He had been working in construction, making between 30 and 70 yuan (between $4 and $10) a day. His wife and three kids had been about 700 miles away, back in rural Henan province, continuing to farm wheat, corn, peanuts and sesame. In a good year the family made about $1 a day, and Mr. Wang had wanted more for them. 'I want my children to make a job with their minds instead of their hands,' he explains.
Mr. Wang had been in a basement room when a spark from a welder's torch fell and ignited the fumes of the waterproofing material he was applying, alighting his clothes and leaving him a molten mess. A fellow worker pulled him from the basement and an hour later an ambulance took him to the hospital. As a day laborer, he had no health or disability insurance. His employer put up money to have him admitted -- Chinese hospitals generally demand an advance -- but this was the end of their goodwill.
It was days before Chinese New Year and he should have been back home visiting his family. They were fearing the worst by the time he called after six days in the hospital. A doctor had removed a breathing tube and was holding a phone to his face. Mrs. Wang got on a bus to Beijing. After 43 days, the money supplied by his employer was depleted and he was to be released. The family's pleading won him one more day of hospital care.
Mr. Wang traveled back and forth between Henan and Beijing twice, in pain, finally staying here in hopes of getting more treatment and avoiding the humiliation he feels in his hometown, where he is mocked for having sought a better life. His fingers were fused together and he was unable to close his mouth even enough to avoid drooling. He dragged himself out to that intersection near my house, in the heart of Beijing's expat community, in the shadow of villa compounds and rising hotels, malls and convention centers.
This is where I saw him and, far more importantly, where Justin and later Craig Belnap saw him. The American Mr. Belnap asked him what he needed and was told: 'Burn cream and clothes.' He returned with a bag of clothes, and offered Mr. Wang a ride home, where he discovered a shabby single room with a bed made of plywood atop stacked bricks and holes in the wall covered with newspaper and magazine pages.
He listened to Mr. Wang's story as his wife wiped away the incessant drool from his chin. 'The room was so full of love and affection,' says Mr. Belnap. 'I gave him my phone number and promised to help.'
The Wangs put Mr. Belnap in touch with Justin and his mother, Chi Gao, a Taiwanese-born American citizen who had already begun to help, and they formed a loose confederation of expats assisting Mr. Wang. Mr. Hansen wrote an article about him in his school newspaper -- the first of five. He gave Mr. Wang copies, which he handed out to prospective donors. That eased people's fears, but only if they would roll down their windows. Many stepped on the gas and averted their own gaze and their children's.
Meanwhile, Mr. Belnap was reaching out to friends and starting to collect money. Given news that Mr. Wang's 14-year-old daughter had dropped out of school to work long days in a garment factory because the family could no longer pay her tuition, he raised enough money to get her back to the classroom. They now have enough money to pay her tuition of almost $1,000 per year through high school. Some donors have expressed interest in funding college education.
On Sept. 26, 2006, the U.S. Embassy issued a security alert about Mr. Wang, citing an 'aggressive panhandler,' and asking citizens to report his presence to the authorities. Apparently, this stemmed from uninvestigated reports. Around that time, local police gave him 1,000 yuan ($140) and told him to stay off the streets. This was a highly unusual action. Mr. Wang says that a local police chief felt sympathy and asked a large construction company (not the one that had employed Mr. Wang) to make the donation.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hansen's mother had gotten her personal lawyer, a local Chinese, to file a pro bono lawsuit -- a small but growing field in China -- against Mr. Wang's employer. They eventually won a 60,000-yuan settlement, which got Mr. Wang out of debt and allowed him to have the first of several still-needed surgeries, separating his fingers some, and aligning his jaw so that he can chew better and drool less. His appearance is much improved -- which would be a surprise to anyone seeing him now for the first time. Sleep remains difficult, with continual pain from his tough, dry skin.
His two sons, ages 17 and 19, are now in Beijing working in a nearby grocery store. Mr. Wang is no longer as destitute but he is still barely able to work, because of both prospective employers' attitude toward his appearance and the harsh effect of sun on his skin. There is not a lot of sensitivity to disabled issues in China.
Mr. Belnap has relocated to Switzerland but remains in touch with Mr. Wang and other expats assisting him, all of whom have different motivations but the same goal.
'I am a Christian and the Bible repeatedly instructs us to love your neighbor as yourself but I have never had neighbors in need of so much help,' says Lisa Rassi, an American who is providing part-time employment to Mrs. Wang, in hopes that she can one day be hired full time with experience working in a foreigner's home.
Like Mr. Belnap, Mrs. Rassi was touched by the way she was welcomed into the Wangs' humble home and their gratefulness for any help offered.
'I have never known what it is like to live in hunger or face the elements in a home without the comforts of heat or air conditioning,' she says. 'I never want to forget what I have seen. I have also always tried to teach my children not to look away or be judgmental of those in need and this is was an opportunity for me to practice just that.'
'I could also do the same thing back home in Peoria (Illinois) and I hope I will, but such an intense need never crossed my path before,' she said. 'Also, if we assist the less fortunate there, we are so separated from it. Here the assistance is very personal and tangible and you can make a huge difference with so little.'
Mrs. Rassi says she feels honored to have been able to help, a sentiment echoed by Mr. Belnap from his new home in Geneva.
'It sounds like a cliché, but I got more out of this than he did,' he says. 'Mr. Wang is a very kind man with a very nice family who is simply of victim of gaps in the China system. And yet, he plugs along.'
Mr. Wang still has plenty of needs. When I visited him, he was out of burn cream and said his skin was particularly itchy. I'll be using my payment from this column to do my little part. I'm meeting Mrs. Rassi at a Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacy soon to buy tubes of burn cream. It feels like the least I can do.