It was one chilly winter morning in 2009. It was also the fourth year that I would experience winter in a country that I have come to love. I was standing at the front gate of my posh apartment complex here in China, where I study and work as a freelance researcher. I came down from my pad, in full winter attire and stood there waiting for a taxi on my way to the first appointment of the day.

Coming my way from across the security guard’s office at the gate where I was standing, was a ‘jaywalker,’ someone who crosses the street not using a pedestrian lane. My first impression tells that she’s what the society would consider a ‘bum’ – being the operative word for a citizen who does not earn a living and who does not pay tax.

From the looks of her, she had no car, no decent home, no fancy clothes, and no money. There are times when I feel generous but there are times that I just don’t want to be disturbed, if you know what I mean.

And this was one those “keep-this-space-mine times.” “I hope she doesn’t ask me for any money,” I thought. And, true, she didn’t. She came and sat on the elevated walkway of the bus stop while keeping a distance 3 meters from where I stand. She didn’t look like she could have enough money to even ride a bus.

After a few minutes, she spoke in Chinese. “That’s a very nice pair of shoes,” she said referring to my red Adidas sneakers, which I was bought in Hong Kong at 30% off the price. Yes, she was ragged but she had an air of dignity around her. She was wearing a very old and stinky sweater. I said, “Thanks,” and continued waiting for a taxi, shaking my knees. She sat there quietly while I anxiously check my watch.

The expected plea for money never came… there were a number of buses that has passed by and yet, she did not ride. I was worried but hesitant to talk to her.

As the silence between us widened something inside me said, “Ask her if she needs any help.” I was sure that she would say “yes” but I held true my inner voice. “Auntie (the Mandarin term of endearment for an elderly woman), do you need any help?” I asked.

She answered in five profound words that I shall never forget.

We often look for wisdom and ask expert counsel from great people. We expect it from those of higher learning and accomplishments. I expected nothing but an outstretched grimy hand. She spoke the five words that shook me. “Who does not need help?”

I was feeling high and mighty, successful and important, above a bum or thief in the street, until those five words hit me like a .45 revolver — right on my forehead.

Who does not need help?

I needed help. Maybe not for bus fare or a place to stay, but I do need help. I reached in my wallet and gave her not only enough for bus fare, but enough for a week’s meal, shelter, and if she made great bargain, she would have had enough to buy herself a second-hand sweater in the flea market.

Those five words are still very true. No matter how financially stable I am, no matter how much I had accomplished in life and in education, I do need help too. And so I say: No matter how little you have, no matter how loaded you are with problems, even without money or a place to sleep, you too, can give help.

Even if it’s just a compliment, you can give that.

You never know when we may see someone that appears to have it all. The truth, I have come to believe is: nobody has it all! They, being the operative for ‘us’, are waiting on you, which is also ‘us’, to give them what they don’t have. A different perspective on life, a glimpse at something beautiful, a solace from daily conflict, that only ‘us’ through a torn and yet still magnificent world can see.

Maybe the woman was just a homeless stranger wandering the streets. Maybe she was more than that. Maybe she was sent by a supernatural power far beyond my comprehension, that is great and wise, to minister to a soul too comfortable of themselves, like I was.

Or maybe God, in His rightful place in the heavens, looked down, called an Angel, dressed him like a bum, like the final scene from Bruce Almighty movie, then said, “go, minister to that man waiting for a taxi, he needs help.”

Who does not need help, anyway?

— The author is freelance writer and physics lecturer from the Philippines. He lives in Shanghai, China.