We Make the Road by Walking: A Series on Intersecting Lives

I saw compassion today. Crossing the street to avoid yet another homeless character sleeping on the sidewalk, I saw what should have been the act of many. There lay a young man sleeping on the grass, a block shy of the local expat grocery store and prominent international school. He is a well known character in the Shekou area of Shenzhen. In conversations with others, I have learned that I am not the only one to witness what appears to be a wild man, often with pants missing, careening down the center of streets or sidewalks.

One can find him huddled on a hot sidewalk, sleeping as if wishing to be absorbed by the steaming sidewalk – never to be seen again. A conflicted feeling rises each and every time I encounter this poor young man whose looks probably belie his suspected youth. He is someone’s child; he may be someone’s brother or father.

Today, I saw someone care for this man as I have so many times wished for the courage to do. As I hurried along, once again late for the ever-empowering language lesson, I saw the bare rear-end of this young man fully exposed to all, as he curled up under a tree – for what I hoped was a dreamy state that removed him from his sad circumstances. Nearby, an elderly street worker, super-sized chopsticks in hand, was picking up garbage (an uncommon moment). There on the sidewalk, dead center, for all to step over, step around or step on was a crumbled sweatshirt.

As I crossed the street I struggled with that inner voice, the compassionate side pressed down beneath a rising fear of -  what? I don’t know. But there before me, this street worker gingerly picked up the crumpled clothing and tenderly placed it over the young man, carefully arranging it as if he were tucking into bed a long-ago child he, too, may have left behind in hopes of a better life.

The streets of Shenzhen offer much to reflect upon. I often ask myself, what am I taking home from this place? Is it a Louhu moment? Is it an international conversation on world events? As I witnessed this moment, I considered not what I might take “home” from this experience but what I might give to this place.

Walking down the street seeking a language lesson, I found a greater lesson in compassion.

We Make the Road by Walking is a book written by educators and social activists Miles Horton and Paulo Freire.

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