A few years ago while living in China I went back home to Kansas City for a short trip. One day I was riding in a car with my mother and we passed a child about five years old sitting alone on the sidewalk.
My mom asked if I’d “seen that”. I had, but it didn’t register what she was referring to.
“See what?” I asked.
“That little boy,” she replied. “He was all alone there without his parents.”
“Oh yeah,” I said dismissively.
“We’d better go back and make sure he’s ok,” she said as she pulled onto the next street to turn around.
“K…” I answered, just starting to realize what the big deal was.
By the time we got to the boy, another woman had also pulled over to see what was up. We all walked around with the child looking for his parents until eventually we called the police. An officer showed up within ten minutes and took the boy to the station.
As soon as I saw that the other woman had pulled over, it immediately sank in what I’d just done…or rather, what I’d failed to do, and it made me sick. Had I been alone in the car, I would have kept on driving. I was ashamed because it’s not something I would have done just a few years earlier. China had desensitized me.
Last week five young Guizhou children were found dead in a dumpster from carbon monoxide poisoning after they’d climbed in and burned coal to stay warm. They’d been missing for three weeks after running away from home. Someone apparently even took a picture of them sitting in a public place the day before their deaths, but still, no social safety net caught them in time.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised. People wrote heartfelt messages of sorrow and disgust online, but I imagine if they’d walked by the kids sitting alone on the street themselves, most would have just kept walking by. It pains me now to say it, but I’ve done it dozens of times myself.
It’s not that people in China are heartless. The sight of children running around alone is just so depressingly common that it’s barely enough to raise an eyebrow. Sometimes they’re child beggars being exploited by a guardian watching from around the corner. Sometimes they’ve just been left to run about by parents who’ve never been warned by the always-harmonious media about China’s epidemic of child kidnappers.
These unaccompanied children are ubiquitous and there’s been very little done to educate society that this isn’t a normal or acceptable thing. Unfortunately, when I entered this society I gradually forgot this myself.
People have been quick to blame the parents, the school principals and local government officials for letting these kids slip through their fingers. Indeed, they all bear some responsibility, but so do all of us who’ve ever seen a child alone and kept walking. Most of all though, responsibility lies with the system that’s allowed us to become desensitized to something that’s clearly very disturbing.