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Whose fault is it?

| Friday, February 19, 2016

It was a sunny afternoon in Washington D.C., and I was at my favorite Starbucks, holding a cup of hot chocolate with extra whipped cream. It was a busy day for the café shop. Every seat was occupied. As I looked for my favorite spot — the table in the corner next to the window with the street view — I spotted her.

She was sitting in my favorite spot, quietly eating a tiny box of expired biscuits that were still soggy from the rain the day before. She was wearing a washed hoodie that was way too loose to stop the January freeze. Beside her, there was a used backpack that she guarded carefully by wrapping it around both her feet. She looked confused, tired and profoundly sad. She was homeless.

I approached her with a friendly smile and asked if I could join her at the table. In silence, she removed her belongings from the chair opposite to her. As I was sitting down, she suddenly said, “You know, I was thinking, maybe with this temperature, I can get through the night without going back to the shelter.” With that, our conversation began.

Ten years ago, she divorced her husband and had everything taken away from her: jewelry, furniture, family, a roof, everything. In the same year, she was diagnosed with brittle bone disease, a condition that results in fragile bones that break easily. The disease shut the door to employment in front of her. Since then, she had been sleeping in the shelter. The guards in the shelter did not like her. They said her backpack, which contained all her belongings, would take up too much space and must be left outside. They once refused to let her enter the shelter and shut her out in the cold, simply because she was five minutes late for the 10 p.m. bedtime.

“The shelter gives you a bed, but the price for that is your dignity,” she said and looked me straight in the eye. “My biggest dream now is to have my own apartment again. Every day I pray to the Lord, ask Him to help me, but I guess my dream would never come true, at least not in this life.”

She also lost her family forever since she became homeless. The last time she got access to a computer in a public library, she sent her daughter a message saying she loved her very much. Her daughter replied within seconds asking if she was on drugs. It was humiliating, she told me. Since then, she never used Facebook. When she registered for the shelter, they asked her to provide an emergency contact, and she simply could not think of any.

“Being homeless is the worst thing that can ever happen to you. I’m not even worth having an emergency contact. Nobody cares if I die tomorrow.” Tears ran down her cheek. She covered her face with both hands.

That was an intense moment. Her comment about an emergency contact deeply resonated with my own experience. I understand her pain, though only to a very limited amount. Every time I was asked to provide an emergency contact, I hesitated. My parents are in China, and I doubt they would pick up a phone call in the middle of the night from a strange U.S. number. Even if they did, it would be very difficult for them to hop on a 14-hour flight and be with me when I need them the most. Overwhelmed by a mixture of empathy, pity and sadness, I asked if she wanted to have my phone number — an offer I regretted immensely 30 minutes after, as I escaped from her, walking away from the Starbucks as fast as I could, deeply bewildered and terrified.

Out of curiosity, I asked her to tell me her life story, and she did.

She was a gymnastic child star. She had perfect balance on the beam and was artistically expressive in floor exercise. Her talent and hard work won her a spot in a professional gymnastic school, a place she dearly loved, until one day “that man” appeared. According to her, he would be there every day around the corner, waiting for her to finish morning practice. Together they would drive across the city to his place, where he would rape her and then drive her back to the school, just in time for her parents to pick her up.

“Do you know what hypnosis is?” she asked me as she was taking a break from recounting the story.

“Yeah, but only a little bit.” I answered with hesitation. For the first time since our encounter, a slight sense of danger shadowed my heart.

“He hypnotized me,” she said. “When you are hypnotized, you have no control over your consciousness. You would do whatever he asks you to do. For example, he would tell you to kill somebody, and you would not even hesitate.” She stared at me with a strange smile.

My heart started to beat faster and faster. I bit my lips and tried to hide my trembling hands under the table. She is a human being whose stories deserve to be heard. I forced myself to repeat that sentence over and over.

But then her story made it impossible for me to maintain my coolness. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by terror as she went on. The man … a long drive from the school … the attic … the six-year-old girl who was her friend … the gun … her hand … a man’s voice … “Make your choice!” … crying … a girl’s shriek … more crying … “don’t know where I am” … darkness.

I was petrified in my seat, shaking uncontrollably and feeling physically sick in the stomach. I stared at her face, trying to decide if she was hypnotized at that moment. I could not help but glancing at her backpack, trying to see if there was a gun inside. I looked around the second floor of the Starbucks, trying to locate the nearest staircase to escape. It was a story I wished I had never listened to. All my empathy, my concern, my kindness toward her was gone. The only thing I knew at that moment was that I needed to get away from her, as quickly as possible and as far as possible.

As she stopped to take a breath, I quickly made up the excuse that I had to go to work and started gathering my stuff. Before I left, I asked her if she knew the name of “the man.” She shook her head and said she did not dare to tell me. With that, I stumbled downstairs and ran out of the Starbucks at full speed.

Before I turned the street corner, I looked up to the window beside which she and I had been sitting. And there she was, on my favorite seat, quietly eating a tiny box of expired biscuits, enjoying the first sunny day in the week. She looked absolutely normal, a homeless person. Standing in the sun, I suddenly recalled her comment on dignity and separation, and I started to feel ashamed of myself for abandoning her as everyone else did. It was not her fault she became homeless. Life took her there. However, it was also not my fault to run away, since my fears were real. Then whose fault is it?

I am still struggling with that question and will struggle with it for a long time.

Author’s Note: This is an honest account of my encounter with a homeless woman in a random Starbucks in Washington. The story is for reflection and self-scrutiny only.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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