My Encounter With The Invisible People Of Guilin

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Our small bus was approaching the center of Guilin, China, and we were headed for one of the local highlights called Fubo Hill. An emperor from the Tang Dynasty had erected a temple there to commemorate the life of one of his top military leaders, a general named Fubo. Mr. Li, our guide, assured us that the view was worth the difficult climb, and that we would be able to see the entire countryside surrounding Guilin from the top of the hill.

As we approached the park that had been built at the base of this sight, I readied myself for the onslaught of beggars and street peddlers that always surrounded us when we visited any of the local tourist spots. We had already learned how to say bu hao, to indicate that we were not interested in buying anything, and generally avoided eye contact with the beggars so that they would not pester us as we walked through their midst. Unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, Guilin was to be an entirely different experience.

Our group was small, only six people, and we seemed to be the only western tourist group in the park at that time of the morning. We were quickly surrounded by peddlers trying to sell us postcards or other souvenirs. I took my wife by the hand and tried to rush through the peddlers, but out of the corner of my eye I became aware that there were a large number of seriously crippled people just standing or sitting to the side of the path.

Still trying to avoid eye contact, I tried to look straight ahead but could not help to notice the extent of their deformities. There were people missing one or more arms or legs, and in some cases, both. Some others moved around on the ground on all four limbs because they could not straighten up, while many others had arms or legs that stuck out from their bodies at impossible angles that made movement extremely painful. What came to my mind were the carnival sideshows of the past that unfortunately used to be called “Freak Shows,” and exhibited people whose deformities were not much different from what I was seeing around me in this beautiful park.

Unlike the street peddlers who were aggressively pushing their wares, most of these people just sat by the side of the path. They simply looked at us and smiled while they put their hands out hoping for the generosity of strangers. I continued to try to look straight ahead, almost refusing to confront the horror of their lives. Every now and then I would hear a small voice say “Hello” in English, and look over to find some limbless man looking at me with that same smile on his face. My usual reaction was to quickly look away, and I realized that I was trying to make them invisible so that their presence in the park that morning would do nothing to ruin the mood of my lovely day of sightseeing in China.

The view from the top of Fubo Hill was well worth the effort of the climb, and as we moved on to the next local attraction I managed to put the beggars in the Guilin park out of my mind for the rest of the day. Later, as I was preparing for bed back at our five-star western hotel, they managed to creep back into my mind, and I found myself troubled by the way I had behaved during the whole experience.

We had been told by friends that we should carry a large number of American dollar bills with us as we traveled because they could frequently be used to negotiate better deals with local merchants. I realized then that I had a pocket full of small bills as I walked through the park, and that I could have easily given some of the beggars just one dollar that would have helped them through their day or bought a small treat for them. Instead, I had taken the easy way out and made them invisible, so that my conscience would allow me to walk past them and not react in any way.

I have always been a compassionate person, generous with charitable causes and greatly affected by the plight of people suffering through some natural or man-made disaster, but I had not reacted the way that I should have to the beggars of Guilin. As I looked at myself in the mirror of the hotel bathroom that night, I was certain that I saw that a part of me was missing. It was then that I realized that my Guilin experience had come full circle. As I had done to the people in the park that day, I had made that compassionate part of me invisible as well.

By Ralph Brady

[Fubo Hill by Noel Jones/Flickr]


About the Author

ralphbradybioRalph Brady is a retired executive from the transportation industry with more than 25 years of experience owning and operating a nationally know logistics consulting company. He is married with three children and six grandsons. While some might consider it fulfillment of a “bucket list,” Ralph has included skydiving, SCUBA diving, sports car racing, glider piloting and ballooning in his list of adventures. He holds a second-degree black belt in Okinawan karate and has completed more than 20 full marathon road races. His affiliation with The History Press in publishing his recent book has allowed him to realize another one of his life’s dreams.

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