I was finishing a hasty meal at McDonald’s, on the way to meet a friend, when she came up to me. She was Chinese, and old, and wide-hipped in the way old women can be while still appearing brittle.
She said to me, in Chinese, “I would like to eat a hamburger.”
It took my mind, at that point mired in one of my stupid personal dramas, several beats to realise she was asking for food because she probably didn’t have enough to eat. I only had a few scattered fries left, which don’t actually count as food, and I generally don’t feel good giving others my leftovers anyway. I said, “I can give you some money to buy one.”
I gave her the six dollars that was in my wallet (because I’m that person forever hunting for ATMs after running out of cash because I never draw enough at any one time). She sat down. “My leg is bad,” she said, “so I’ll buy it later. The queues are quite long now.”
Then she asked me how much the burgers were. I said, “Well there are some sets that are $4.50, but if you buy the burger alone it’s three dollars plus, I think.”
“They don’t have $2.50 burgers anymore?”
“No, the prices have all gone up.”
After that, she said, “I am quite tired now, so I will rest over there for a while. I will buy the food later.”
She walked over to another corner of the McDonald’s, by this time emptying itself of the lunch crush, and sat down on one of the padded couches. A bit more comfortable than the stool I was sitting on. She walked with the aid of an umbrella.
After I’d finished my meal and put the tray away, I went over to her. “Auntie, if your leg is bad, I can help you buy the food, so you won’t have to queue.”
“No, it’s okay. I will wait for the crowd to grow lesser, and I will buy it myself. I will buy a burger, and maybe a coffee, to drink.”
“Oh, I see. Okay.”
“Yes. I will buy the food later. Thank you for the money.”
I left the McDonald’s not sure where to place my feelings. The old lady seemed quite independent to me, yet somehow she had ended up in a situation where she didn’t have enough money to eat. The thing that struck me most about our entire conversation was the question about the $2.50 burgers. She was so resigned to the fact that they now cost more.
I wish I had asked her more about her circumstances – where she lived, if she had children or other family, and were they giving her any support – but I’m pretty awkward when it comes to dealing with strangers, and I have no confidence in my poor Chinese communication skills. I regret not asking – but then again, maybe it was best I didn’t oblige her to share her life story with me if she didn’t want to.
So all I will take away from this incident is the memory of a old woman, who probably lived through war and watched a nation grow up, and who has now been put aside by the same nation. A nation which has transformed itself into a glassy city stuffed to the gills with bright lights and mass-produced chain franchises, where you can no longer buy a burger at $2.50 anymore.