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“Please, Mom. It's on sale for $24.99! It's Abercrombie, and you know how expensive that store is!” I whined, my eyes brimming with tears.
“Exactly. I don't see why you can't just get the one at Gap for five bucks! You can get five for the price of that one at Abercrombie.”
“But it's not Abercrombie!” I stormed out of the room. She just didn't understand.
That was the summer of 2007, and my 11-year-old mind was polluted with its obsession over designer clothes and Coach handbags. Every part of me longed to be at the mall buying the latest fashions. Instead, I was trapped on an airplane dragging me halfway across the world to Beijing, China.
Once off the plane, I knew China was different from any place I had ever been. People seemed conservative and appreciative. An unfinished sandwich belonged in the fridge, never abandoned in a garbage can. At the marketplace, a shopper would spend countless minutes haggling with a storekeeper just to save a Chinese dollar or two.
My mom and I spent a full Sunday afternoon emptying her wallet at a local mall. Our arms filled with bags of clothing and shoes, we exited the shopping center to be immediately strangled by the stifling heat of a typical Beijing day.
“Ice cream?” my mom suggested.
“Sounds good,” I replied. We found a shaded area to sit, and my thoughts drifted to the shirt I had just bought, perfect for the first day of school. Everyone at school is going to be so jealous. This shirt is to die for! Mid-thought, something caught my attention.
My eyes were drawn to the nearby subway stairwell. I had taken those stairs a number of times in and out of downtown Beijing, but I'd never before seen the two kids sitting below the handrail. A girl of about six or seven hid in the shadows of the passing commuters, gently shaking an aluminum can. Printed in fading but delicate Chinese handwriting was the word “money.” Her hair was greasy and uncombed; her clothes were soiled. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I felt my throat tighten as I looked at her younger brother, sprawled in her arms. At most, he was two years old. Like his sister, the boy's scraps of clothing were covered in dirt. Trembling, I reached for my shopping bags that now seemed to weigh a million pounds. I moved closer.
I could see the girl had a water bottle that was almost empty. Her forehead was beaded with sweat as she lifted the bottle to the boy's lips. His tears stopped and for a moment, so did the world around me. He smiled, and I witnessed happiness in its purest form. The girl's face broke into a smile too, and I broke into tears. I wanted so badly to say something to her. I wanted to walk over and hug her. I wanted to tell her that I loved her. I wanted to do so much.
She coaxed the little boy to sleep. Rocked between her delicate knees, his expression eased from stressed to serene. A tear slid down the girl's face, leaving a brown streak on her cheek. I covered my mouth to keep from screaming. How could children be living like this when all I cared about were clothes and shoes? As if she felt my connection with her, the girl looked up. Her eyes shot emotions at me all at once: anger, frustration, and loneliness.
For days, all I could think about was the girl and her brother. As if it wasn't enough to handle, my aunt took my family out to dinner one night. As we pulled up to the fancy restaurant, my jaw dropped. It was beautiful; the massive chandelier hanging in the doorway pierced the surrounding night.
A boy of about eight approached the car to tell us where to park. I was uncomfortably close to him, our faces and lives divided by the thin car window. I couldn't help but wonder who he was. I saw his tattered clothes and his sad brown eyes, but I didn't want to believe that there were children living such shattered lives.
“Hold your purse close,” my aunt warned. She pushed past the boy and tugged my hand.
As we sat down to dinner, my appetite disappeared. I ate in silence, haunted by the boy's face. God, why him? He doesn't deserve this. At the end of dinner, my eyes darted across the table to an untouched plate of food. I silently thanked God and asked the waiter for a take-out box.
“For him?” my aunt asked tenderly. I nodded.
Stepping out into the heat of Beijing, I looked toward our car. The same boy was standing next to the passenger door, still but alert. I ran over, growing more self-conscious with every step. “Here. This is yours. Eat it, please,” I begged. My American accent seemed to strain my words.
Unsure what to expect, I stepped back. Would he want my leftovers, my garbage? Everything seemed to flash before me: the dress I spent hours begging for, the excessive amount of food I'd devoured in the last hour. I was scared.
The rustle of the plastic bag shook me from my thoughts. He inspected the container's contents, then looked up. For a second, I thought I was looking into the eyes of Brian, my little brother. I shivered.
“Thank you,” he blurted in an angelic voice. He ran off behind the building and out of sight. That could be Brian.
I don't know what the boy did with the food. Maybe he shared it with his family. Maybe they all enjoyed it. The possibilities were endless. Now, four years later, I wonder if that boy knows I'm writing about him with a full stomach, in an air-conditioned room halfway across the world, in a promising country called America. I wonder if the subway girl has a home. I wonder if she still has that strength I admired – the strength to smile even when the treasures in her life are practically invisible. I wonder if they both know how much they mean to a spoiled young girl like me.