Those were the images that flashed across the TV as I ate lunch inside my cousins’ apartment. Outside, Beijing’s weather reflected the somber realities of shattered lives making news.
Dark, overcast and not a glimmer of light anywhere.
After lunch, I had planned to make a return to the flea market at the Worker’s Stadium that comes every four months. But, all of a sudden I was in no mood to dig for bargains, to buy clothes that I really did not need. I realized then that living in Beijing has already affected me in more ways than one.
Sure, like all bleeding heart liberals, hell even Republicans with a heart (jk), it is not hard for me to empathize with scenes of despair. In fact, I dedicated all of last year discussing and dissecting poverty and development issues to better understand the roots of inequality.
Nevertheless, it was easy to read the articles, write the papers, and then carry on with my own life. A life where suffering only surfaced when the occasional homeless person crossed my path on the streets of London. And later, surrounded by the affluence of the Silicon Valley, it was even easier to feel disconnected with events affecting the poor halfway across the world.
But, now everywhere I turn in Beijing, poverty stares me right in the face. Sure, like you have all read and heard a million times, China is the next big thing. China, the superpower developing at unheard of rates. China, the country with the new middle-class parents and their spoiled only child. The only child who is fed McDonalds, and who is constantly dressed in new clothes instead of only during New Year’s like in yesteryears of China’s not so distant past.
Yet for every Chinese person that is reaping the supposed benefits of an increasingly open economy, there are many more who are being left behind. And yes, I’ve read the statistics before coming here, “In the early 1980s, the richest 10 percent of the population earned 20 percent of the national income. By 2005, the top 10 percent earned 45 percent of the income, while the bottom 10 percent only earned 1.4 percent.” (www.geocities.com/dale_wen2000/Globalization/en.doc).
However, as the old saying goes, “Seeing is Believing.”
Well, I saw IT when I walked along the sidewalks of Sanlitun past the groups of migrant workers in their cheap suits, cigarette dangling out of the corners of their mouths as they built skyscrapers that appear overnight. Lightening-fast development, or so it seems, does not magically occur. According to various reports, these workers, work an average 18-hour shift, seven days a week for a wage of 900 rmb a month. Do the math, that’s $112 US dollars. And $112 dollars, they are sometimes not even paid. Labour is a’plenty in China, but so is crony capitalism.
I saw IT when I stepped out of Touch, a trendy bar in Hou Hai, Friday night. A middle-aged man asked whether he can take us somewhere in his pedicab. He was not dressed in rags, but I sensed the desperation in his voice. For the rest of the night, this scene repeated itself all along the road that wraps around the lake, illuminated by the endless lights of restaurants and bars catered to tourists, expats, and of course Beijing’s forever-talked about middle-class. Pedicab drivers, cigarette sellers, masseuses, the person dressed in a polka-dotted clown suit (I kid you not) selling roses… .Each of them hoped that I would use my fortune to lessen their misfortune.
I saw IT again last night when I stepped outside the Chaoyang Culture Centre, where I just had the privilege of watching the spectacular Kung Fu moves of the world-famous Shaolin Monks.
Adjacent to the parking lot where the tourist buses began to pull out, stood a large crowd of people enjoying an old revolutionary movie played out on a tattered white screen. The movie was free you see, and one of the few forms of entertainment that is provided specifically for the working class of Beijing. However, unlike in the lobby of the Chaoyang Culture Centre, popcorn and soda were not sold since this group could not afford to buy.
” IT ” – ”being the juxtaposition of the life I lead and the life of the have-nots in Beijing – ” is starting to bear weight on me.
Instead of spending the afternoon shopping as planned, I found myself unable to shut off the images with the flick of the remote. So, the news stayed on, is still on. And as the problems of the world continues to be broadcast, I am left to wonder how to reconcile feelings of unease with the reality that is happening this time, right outside my doorsteps.
Newly armed with her MSc from LSE, Bay Area native Jenny Chu packed her bags in April 2006 to help green the motherland. Now a CSR (corporate social responsibility) consultant by day, and wannabe bonne vivante by night, she is endlessly amused by “ghetto-fabulous” Beijing. From eating at the best hole in the wall restaurants to run-ins with naughty expat businessmen, Jenny is enjoying all that life in the New China has to offer. Yet adventures are not just limited to the Middle Kingdom.