北京动物园：Some afternoons after class I’ll ride the subway one stop from campus to Beijing’s zoo, which is adjacent from two huge bustling indoor markets. They’re by no means glamorous shopping centers, more like flea markets, where the average piece of clothing is just over $5. More importantly, these massive buildings are also the home of countless vendors that if aren’t busy sleeping, sit motionless among piles of clothes, eyes glazed over, waiting for the day to end. To a student studying Chinese, it’s a jackpot if you’re looking to 交流一下 (chat). Today I ran into one vendor I’ve talked with before. I remembered him because the first thing he said when he found out I’m American was “我爱小布什，我们的性格一样！” (I love George Bush, we share the same personality!) Ugh. I said, how do you possibly know you share the same personality as George Dubya? He replied that he also likes to start wars.
Despite the content of our last conversation, today I returned to his stand, half because I like looking at the shoes he sells, half because I figured he’d want to talk more politics. But today was different. First off, he was overjoyed to see me, and instantly went off on how we were going to be great friends, he’d make me dinner with the local specialties of his home town, on and on. He told me about the animals his family used to raise when he lived in the country, told me there’s countless fields there, and upon assuming I didn’t understand him, drew the character for field, 田, on a sheet of paper. I said I understood. He said he’s impressed, said he can’t read every Chinese character, that he never graduated from elementary school. He pointed to his brain and said he’s not too smart. I countered him. Surely he was born during the Cultural Revolution, when not many kids attended school? Sure enough, he said he’s a child of the 70s. So, I pressed, not finishing school isn’t a matter of his intelligence level, he was just born at an unfortunate time. Upon hearing me, he remained silent, eyes fixed to the ground. Unconvinced.
We continued chatting and I learned he came to Beijing to find work, hates living in the city, but still can’t return home. His average daily profit is 700元 or $100. Although he works every day of the week, his yearly salary is about $30,000. Right now he rents a cheap apartment outside the city, rides the subway to work, cooks his own dinners and buys street food for lunch. “你的生活特别幸福啊，留学生”, he told me. (Your life is so pleasant, a student studying abroad).
All this wouldn’t be incredibly surprising to hear, but then he launched into a description of his personal life. He’s 40-something, has a girlfriend who’s 26 and ”相当懒” (very lazy). When he comes home from a monotonous day of work, he has to wash all the clothes, make dinner, wash the dishes. Half of the time his girlfriend won’t come home at night, sleeps around after partying in the city. When she finally does return home, she won’t tell him where she’s been and refuses to accept his questions. They’ve been together 5 years.
I shook my head and asked, why stay with this immature girl? Or, surely you’ve had good times if you’re still with her? No, he replied. In the beginning they had some happy moments. Not anymore. So why stay with her?! I asked again. He said because he loves her.
I watched his eyes glaze over as he talked, but not from boredom, more like someone’s eyes do when they speak from the heart. Seeing him, right then, it was one of those moments that makes you pause. Life sinks in.
I bought a pair of shoes and we both tried to give the other more money than we’d agreed on. I was more persistent though, and he kept an extra 50 kuai. He handed over a business card, told me to stop back tomorrow, and wished me well.
Walking out of the market, I looked up and down the street. Like always, it was packed with Chinese. Young couples linking arms. A quartet of older folks strolling slowly along. A middle-aged man pushing a stroller. I couldn’t help but wonder, how many stories like that vendor’s are out there? In Beijing, in China, in the world? How often do you really look into someone’s horrific life? And how often is a phrase like “the gap between the rich and poor in China” (my research topic for the semester) sprawled across a New York Times headline? But what does that phrase mean? Is it about money? Opportunities? Luck? Isn’t that vendor better off than so many people? Yes and no. Looking into his eyes, I could only think: back at college, sitting in a warm coffee shop, reading about the atrocities of the world, feeling intellectual and believing you can change the world from the sofa you recline on. I’m guilty of it. But I hope one day I’ll read a statistic and instead of feeling proud that I plan to “save the world”, will instead picture that vendor, alone in his cramped apartment, washing dishes for one place setting, waiting for his love.
(*Post title inspired: Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What A World”)