You can be a trans-national mooch if you want to. It’s not particularly difficult: you just become a beggar. People will help you out. There are plenty of narratives about people traveling around the world “on the goodwill of others” out there to claim otherwise. From time to time I’ve met travelers who were trying to pull this off, who were moving across large spans of geography fueled by the alms and favors of strangers. The wandering beggar is a character that has been a part of the human narrative from the start, and you can still do it today . . . but I don’t have any idea why you’d want to.
Whatever is the case, traveling beggars are not uncommon in China. I don’t mean bums here — the wandering bum network is a remarkable story for another day — I mean backpackers: college-age Chinese youth from generally decent backgrounds who want to travel but don’t have the money.
You can sometimes see them standing or kneeling in the streets with their heads turned down in shame. They often have their travel gear — backpacks, bicycles, etc — with them as props and little signs in front of them asking for money so they can travel.
And people do give them money.
I stop and talk with these travelers whenever I see them. I’m interested in their story, I want to learn more about their travel strategy. But more often than not there pretty much isn’t a story: they just want to go traveling but don’t have the money, so they stand in the streets trying to look shameful as they mooch off their countrymen.
Now China has a long tradition of alms giving. It’s the country’s social security system, and it’s incredibly common to see people in the streets with downturned heads and little signs asking for money so they can obtain something they can’t afford. Usually, the things they are asking for money for are along the lines of paying for education, to help support their families, or to get some kind of medical procedure — definitely more vital pitches than the backpacking beggars.
I talked with one of these travelers recently in Fenghuang. He was traveling by bicycle, and I saw him earlier in the day dressing and preparing to cook a raw chicken for himself on the sidewalk of a busy street. A real roughneck sort of move. His panniers and baggage were likewise a little grungy, ultra-second hand, a little cheap. This guy clearly wasn’t the pampered and moneyed type of bicycle traveler that makes up 99% of the profession. The next time I saw him he was begging. He was kneeling on the side of a pedestrian street with his head down execution style. He was frozen stiff, not talking, not moving, statue-like. I crouched down and looked at him. He didn’t acknowledge me, he kept his gaze locked on the hand written sign laid out in front of him.
“Hello, hello!” I called out to him.
He didn’t want to look up at me. I was crashing his act.
“Where are you traveling?”
He realized that I wasn’t going away. He broke posture, looked up at me, and said he was traveling all around China. I kept asking questions, and found out that he was from Shandong and had been traveling for four months.
“Why are you begging?” I asked. “Is it because you don’t have any money?”
“Why don’t you have any money?”
He looked at me like it was obvious and said that it was because he was traveling.
I don’t call begging a horrible way for making travel funds for any moral reasons — I don’t give a hooting hell if some itinerant mooch wants to ask people for money — but more for practical reasons:
Who wants to spend time in a new city kneeling in the streets begging themselves into a board stupor when they could be out doing something?
You see, putting time into sitting in the streets with your palm sticking out is essentially working. You trade the time of your life for money. People give you money to feel good about themselves. It’s a standard economic exchange. But there is little more to gain from it other than money.
There is a trove of services that travelers can offer people in the places they visit so I don’t really understand why these Chinese kids — or any other traveling alms seeker — restricts themselves to kneeling on the ground trying hard to look shameful when they could be doing something respectable, interesting, or otherwise enlightning. It’s not difficult to pull a Heinz Stucke by doing street presentations about your travels and selling postcards for a buck a pop. Every traveling busker I’ve ever met made good money — and this is something that other traveling Chinese youth, like Ryan Lee, do to make up their funds. So while it is possible to travel the world begging, I have no idea why anyone would want to.