August 22, 2012

Chinese Roadside Carts

A lone child sitting alone in a public lounge. He is reading out loud his homework for today. One plus one is two. Two minus one is one. Six minus three is three. What an adorable sight. Like clockwork, the child is there every single day. Rehearsing his multiplication charts and reading them aloud to his parents over dinner. His mother corrects him every now and then, while the father nods solemnly.

The mother is a sort-of janitor for the international student’s dormitory. By "sort-of" I mean she's not legally or officially employed by the university. She works daily, cleaning after the students, restocking toiletries, and attending to various needs of the staff. By night, she uses the public kitchens and prepares dinner for herself, her husband, and their son. She stores the leftovers in the communal fridge.

Where does she live then? In the basement level, with the other members of the staff and her own family. They live in cramped ten-by-ten rooms with multiple bunk-beds stacked on top of each other. Not the ideal condition to raise a child in. All the while, students are living in doubles in the floors above, complete with refrigerators, air conditioners, and personal bathrooms. It's a clear-cut example of the major disparity prevalent in China these days.

How is this possible? You see, in China, there is something called the "floating population." Scores of migrant workers, seeking better living standards, leave their rural villages for the cities--taking any jobs that they can manage to find. Due to China's vast population, a lot of daily meager work is fulfilled by these migrant workers. For example, most of the magazine stands and street-side vendors are run by these exact workers--you can't go a day in Beijing without running into them.

When I first landed in Beijing, I had expected a fully modernized city with futuristic skyscrapers and advanced commuter rails. I was not disappointed, Beijing is indeed a 21st century modern city, but at the same time, there were many parts of it that caught me by surprise. The advanced look of skyscrapers and Olympic stadiums stood awkwardly next to the wooden cart markets. Large-screen TVs on buildings lit up the roadside Chuanr (meat skewers, or kebabs) carts. The city is a weird juxtaposition of the some of the most modern architectures with the impoverished look of the poor.

In high school, I had the opportunity to visit Japan on a similar study abroad experience. One thing that particularly struck me as odd there was the obscene amount of vending machines that Japan had littered throughout its streets. There wasn't a single city or rural block that did not have at least one vending machine on it. Now take every single vending machine and replace it with a migrant worker on a wooden cart selling beverages and you have Beijing.

I love chuanr.
Obviously both have their advantages and disadvantages, one is cheaper, the other is more refreshing, and both are extremely convenient. At a glance, the Chinese equivalent seems a bit off-putting--almost an eyesore to the otherwise modern cityscape. But after a few conversations with them, I realized that the wooden carts are actually a deeply integrated part of Chinese culture. The large population isn't just a boasting figure or statistic of China, but rather its most defining characteristic.

I had an assignment to interview a migrant worker on his/her experiences. I had to ask for any challenges in their lives, their motives, their goals or aspirations. At first, I was a bit hesitant because of their facial expressions--hardened with the tough reality of their lifestyles. But after getting over the initial fear of speaking to them, I found that they are quite charming. A chef at a dumpling restaurant taught me to make Mapo tofu, a cell phone and magazine vendor chatted with me about his life back in the villages, and a hairstylist told me his views on America and Chinese communism. I realized that, past the toughened exterior, is an extremely colorful mind, just waiting to share his or her views with the world.

I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with some of the city's most interesting characters--the average street peddler. Each and every one of them has a unique story to tell--one filled with hardship, sweat, and perseverance. So whether you're buying fresh fruit or a bottle of water from these migrant workers, take a moment to look beyond the wooden cart and try to engage in a friendly conversation. You may be surprised at what you may find.

On a side note, this was an essay I wrote for a scholarship.

1 comment:

S.Chan said...

This was beautiful. Belongs in Time or NYTimes Op-Ed.

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