One in three elderly in Hong Kong aged 65 and over are living in poverty. They spend the remaining of their lives, looking through trash that we throw, trying to salvage something out of it and make money, says Suveera, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
I gaze at her as she moves about slowly, doing what she does every single day for the past six years that I have been watching her. She is rummaging through rubbish bins mechanically, one after the other, looking for tin cans and anything else that could be of value to her and provide her with some income. Her back is bent at a painful angle, carrying the weight of innumerable years. The deep folds on her skin are nearly covering her eyes, leaving a tiny speck of brown- shiny and piercing. Her eyes are the only feature on her face that shows any emotion.
Her petite frame tells the story of a woman that has gone beyond the average lifespan of an individual. I would clock her well over 80, closer to 90. There are many theories about her. Some say that she was a wealthy prosperous lady, and has now been abandoned by her children. Others say that she has lost her sanity. But of course only she knows the truth and can speak of it but she doesn’t want to.
She seems strangely content, pushing her heavy cart full of empty flattened cardboard boxes, up the steep slopes of our neighbourhood, never asking for help, and yet accepting it when offered without any change in her stoic expression. It must be sheer willpower that makes her go or perhaps a gradually grown indifference over the years of hardship.
She lives the common story of innumerable elderly Hong Kongers’ living in poverty struggling each day to survive. One in three elderly in Hong Kong aged 65 and over are living in poverty. They spend the remaining of their lives, looking through trash that we throw, trying to salvage something out of it and make money. The ones that are lucky, live in tiny cubicles called cage homes or coffin homes, the others live on the streets. In our city of glittering malls, disposable incomes, and well-heeled individuals carrying expensive bags, and cribbing about our first world problems, this is a stark parallel reality that we shut our eyes to.
In the shadows of the night as I sit on the benches in the plaza, enjoying my expensive glass of wine, I see her diminutive figure inconspicuously making her way around one garbage bin after another. I buy her a small meal from a local restaurant and she accepts it without as much as looking up.
If only I could see behind the mask of that loose skin, and dispassion, into the woman that she once was. One that laughed with her kids and danced to music. Perhaps she loved cooking or singing or maybe she worked in an office. Will I ever be able to know? If only I could travel back in time and see her as a little child playing with her toys.
But then I realise that maybe I don’t have to pull that mask away, and do not need to go back in time. If I could just look into her eyes, and listen to her words, I might still be able to get her out. That child might escape. Maybe she still lives in there, just like the one inside each one of us!
Photos from the Internet, sourced from the author
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Suveera Sharma is a postgraduate in English and a qualified software trainer. She is an avid reader and writer. Being the daughter of an army officer, she spent her childhood in various cantonments all over India. At present, she is settled in Hong Kong. She runs storytelling sessions for little kids and writes in her spare time.