Monday, December 26, 2011


This post is a translation of my other post in Chinese.  I wrote that to share my personal reaction toward a recent incident in Taiwan: the municipal administration used water jets to drive away homeless people in the park in a cold evening.

Please note that since this is a direct translation from the original Chinese post, the composition flow may not be as natural to English readers. Please bear with me and hear out what I have to say, if you are interested in reading this anyway.

When I moved from Southern California to Philadelphia for my graduate study in 1998, I was shocked to see so many homeless people. I witnessed a country in which the rich can personally own a hill, while the poor would seek food in the garbage can.  While some spend their afternoons watching seagulls with their beer on the beach, some others try to survive a cold night by staying close to the external vent of a building's heater.
I was lucky enough then to be granted enough scholarship to support myself, while also being able to buy a lunch box or two for a couple of homeless people in the community. After a while, I learned that some of them were veterans but things didn't work out too well for them after they came back from the battlefields. They had spent their best years on the battleground, so going back to school was not easy for them. They did try to apply for jobs, but since they were poor and couldn't afford the rent, they were homeless, and very few business would provide opportunities to people without a fixed address. According to them, the shelters were filled with sick people and the people who worked there didn't treat them with any respect. They'd rather be homeless than losing the basic dignity.

From them, I actually learned about my own blind spots. Blaming them for being lazy or rejecting help is basically like saying "Let them eat cake". I am not a princess living in a palace so I managed to somewhat overcome my own blind spots. Taiwan's recent economic depression and the unemployment rate, coupled with high rents, makes it possible for me to imagine how a person without a job for a while can eventually end up homeless.

A decade or so ago, during the Asian financial crisis, many families in South Korea chose to commit suicide. Most people in Taiwan were able to understand and sympathize. Now when Taiwan's own people are suffering and homeless, why do we choose to further insult them by using the water jets against them in a cold night?

I wasn't the only one in Philadelphia to notice the homelessness problem. Students there organized events to help people understand the problems at a deeper level. They were called "Students Against Homelessness". Today, we need to be careful -- we are against with the problem (the homelessness), not the victims (the homeless).

Homelessness is a structural problem that my buying an extra lunchbox cannot solve. And this water jet against homeless incident prompted me to re-inspect my personal value system and concept of societal responsibilities.

If I cannot completely solve the problem, may I just as well do nothing?

I admit that I am not willing to take care of strangers in need in a long run. However, does that mean I may as well do nothing? I ask myself: since I will die eventually, does my life have to be meaningless? My own answer to that question is: the meaning of my life lies in its process. Now, even if I can only help them with just one meal, that one meal can help sustain the person's life by a little bit, and that little bit of life time is still meaningful.

Now, who is responsible for homelessness?

A society's system in a particular time and place, always benefits some people more than others. For example, in Taiwan's current society, those with more advanced academic degrees enjoy more professional and financial opportunities; those who studied arts and humanity, earn, in average, much less than those who do law, medicine, business, or engineering. If I really look at it objectively, I simply happen to benefit from those particular conditions, i.e. I happened to be in an environment where things work for me. As for those who don't have things work for them just right, I have to ask myself, is it totally their fault?

When I enjoy societal resources, do I affect others, directly or indirectly? For example, if I am extra capable and can cover two people's responsibilities in a position, so the boss is happy giving me higher salary instead of hiring two people, am I taking away one other person's job opportunity while I enjoy my higher salary?

Well, I am still quite selfish. If there is such a higher paying job for me, I will gladly take it. However, I will have to remind myself that a position taken by me is a position not taken by somebody else.

Such realization of limited resources makes me be extra aware of the pride that I may have when helping out those in need. I am giving not because I am superior or more able, but because I am also connected to the causes to the problems.

Homelessness is a collective karma and everyone is connected to its causes. Most of us are not saints, but at least we can learn not to take away people's dignity simply because they can't afford a home.

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