The more people I talk to about living in Beijing, the more I realize their idea of China isn’t quite on a par with reality. Most people react with surprise when I describe to them the poorer parts of the city, which one doesn’t have to travel far to find from any starting point in Beijing.
Since my arrival in late November of last year, I’ve been actively reading English-written news about China and America, with a particular focus on the economic and social issues. Born into a multicultural family but first generation in America, I never had any particular sense of patriotism for any of the three cultures I represent. Before I came to Beijing, my computer hard drive, filled with Chinese media, probably spoke volumes of my interest and enthusiasm about going to China. But after a few months of living in Beijing, I increasingly felt anxious reading about China’s progress by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The longer I’ve lived here, the more I secretly don’t want China to succeed. While I’ve had these thoughts, I think it’s strange that I do, because in America, I never considered myself even a little nationalistic. But alas, the day came when China replaced Japan as No. 2 for having the biggest economy by GDP. My eyes widened upon reading a headline about it and I felt a sudden surge of patriotism. Even though the U.S. hasn’t been in the greatest shape for a while now, my pride and gratitude to be American has grown every day, even as I stand on soil on the opposite side of the world.
Initially, it was the cultural differences that made me experience cultural shock and ethnocentrism simultaneously. The hawking, the spitting on the floor, the cutting in line, the inquisitiveness during both short and long encounters, the last-minute change of plans and the unregulated smoking in public areas are all things I disapprove of but have added to a list of things I can joke about because they’re simply a part of life here. As a book I’ve read on the cultural aspects of China states, you can’t change 500 years of history. But the more people I become acquainted with here–both foreign and local–the more I can pinpoint the source of my growing patriotism, much of which has to do with the working and living conditions I’ve seen.
By now I have become accustomed to seeing places grander than any I’ve seen in the States, as well as places that are habitable but obviously second-rate. But what disturbs me the most are the poor people and close proximity of the rural areas to the heart of Beijing. From my observations, I believe the poorest in China are poorer than the poorest in America; the worst living conditions in China are worse than the worst in America.
At least in California, I can recall the annual Feed the Hungry event on Thanksgiving in Pasadena, the public showers in San Diego, the can drives in elementary school, and the homeless guy in San Francisco who rejected my oyster crackers because he said it wasn’t marijuana. In China, I’ve seen all sorts of acts by the poor, including those with missing or distorted body parts, those playing instruments, singing through a microphone attached to a portable amplifier, carrying or holding their child’s hand, lying on the ground with their tragic life story written over an entire poster board, and those humbly walking through the subway asking for money. Sure, people give money to them, but the poor lack the basic care and protection that I know are provided in the States.
What tugs at my heart more than the homeless in China, however, are the hardworking Chinese people I’ve met with jobs but who may never be able to change their status. The people I speak of are mostly the teachers I met at the kindergarten I taught at. The majority of them are young: 16 to 25-years-old. Though they work a relentless 11-hour shift, they get paid 15 percent of my monthly stipend while I work 4.5 hours, with a 3-hour lunch break. I feel that the fundamental difference between the teachers and myself is that I’m a native English speaker. For them, though there is a pay increase each year of employment, the difference is so little that, on their own, they will never be able to buy their own apartment. The youngest teachers, who haven’t completed their high school degrees, eat and live in the kindergarten. The food, by the way, is very mediocre. There are thirteen I heard of that live together in the basement of one of the apartment buildings. Others share rooms outside the apartment complex but within walking distance or a few bus stops away. They are all kind-hearted girls who have their own aspirations outside of teaching kindergarteners and like to go out when they can. Most of the ones I’ve talked to dream of going to the States, which isn’t nearly as much a downer as the fact that I’ve easily been to more places in China than they have, since they only know Beijing and their hometown. Meanwhile, their daily duties include educating and nurturing the well-off kids that attend the kindergarten, many of whose parents have so much money they can afford to have a second child, which comes with consequences that don’t just end with a fee.
Knowing the conditions in which my colleagues at the kindergarten live has recently made me feel guilty when I switch gears and hang out with my fellow native English-speaking colleagues or friends. We casually go places and do things that so many people here have never experienced in their own country, many of them who never will.
As a proud American and as someone who is part Chinese, I will hold my commendation for China’s economic success commend until it treats the majority of people who are at the heart of the country’s successes better than it treats its small circle of elites.