I took a few photos the other day after commuting from my area of town, xizhimen, to the fancy side and back. Everytime I come back from the pretty and pruned neighborhoods of Beijing, I get to see my neighborhood for the first time all over again.
A heavily populated subway car
While crowded subways, smelly sidewalks, grubby children, and speeding bikes and cars are not always the most pleasant things to see, hear, and smell, I love that I am here during a time when Beijing is still grimy. All around me construction is actively taking place. A few hundred feet outside of the campus there is a big, modern residential complex being built over what used to be (and what still is, for around a block) a very small
A quaint street near campus
group of streets where vendors hawk wares to men and women resting on the curb and people live in the back of their small corner stores.
Though it seems as if all of the bulldozers will eventually wipe out all of the small buildings in this area, it’s hard to imagine the same speedy transition for Beijing’s smaller infrastructures, such as sanitation. In the east
Garbage disposal on a city sidewalk
area of Beijing, it’s clear that street cleaners clean the streets on a daily basis, perhaps with machines. Where I live, garbage is swept up and piled into random areas of the streets and sidewalks. While walking to class at 7:45 am, I am usually overwhelmed by the smell of garbage rising up from the street and sidewalk. I’m beginning to wonder where all the garbage is hiding during the morning, since I cannot see it. Of course, the west village and the Washington Square area also smell like garbage on a Monday morning, so I certainly cannot single out Beijing as a city that smells like garbage.
One contributing factor to the garbage situation is food. The street right outside of our campus’ gate is lined with food vendors, and I’m sure that a lot
of the food garbage is thrown into the sewers. On Friday, a group of us went to a market “better than Wal-Mart” (according to my friend, Johnny). Right outside of the market (which was placed in a large warehouse) was a food market, where we found a couple selling fish on the street. Cooked fish is more likely to be found in these street markets, but here we found this couple picking up live fish out of basins and scaling them alive on a dirty
A woman scaling fish in a street market
piece of cloth. Two questions arose in my mind after witnessing this: 1. where are all the scales thrown out?, and 2. can people really make a living on selling these fish?
The answer to the first question is up to anyone’s imagination. I’m sure that the sewer or the general ground area is a good enough answer for anyone concerned. The answer to the second question is more problematic and complicated, I think, especially because the phrase “make a living” evokes extraordinarily different images from one culture to the next. An anecdote: a Chinese friend of one of my international friends works at a bookstore and makes 10 rmb/hour, 80 rmb/day. Her rent is 200 rmb a month. She can live on this salary in Beijing. To put this into perspective, an average English tutor makes between 100-150 rmb/hour; a swim instructor makes 300 rmb/hour. So, how much money does the fish-vending couple make? And is it enough for them to live on?
Many of the street vendors and construction workers that I see around Beijing probably make more money in Beijing than they would where they are from, which is probably an area outside of Beijing. The city is full of “migrants,” Chinese people who live outside the city’s limits, who travel to Beijing to work and make money for their families. (I have tried to do a bit of research on street vendors here, but some of the better sites are blocked (not sure why). If you’re interested, check out streetvendor.org)
The same question – can they make a living? – goes out to the construction workers that one can see all over the city in orange and
A construction worker in xizhimen
white-striped vests. The construction workers, I know for a fact, do need permits to work here under the hukou system , which allows workers from rural areas to obtain permits to work in the city. Under the system, everyone is registered as residents of their place of birth, not the entire country, so if someone wants to work outside of their birthplace, he/she must obtain a permit. Read more about it here. While parents can make more money for their children while working in the city, they cannot change their original place of residence and therefore lose benefits – healthcare, schooling, etc. – for themselves and their children while in the area. Scott has been telling me a bit about this and I did some research on the hukou system and occupational health for the Social Science Research Council in 2008. Seeing migrant workers and imagining what their life trajectories have been like or where they live with their children, what schools their children are allowed to go to, and how they make it through their daily lives is something that I’ve been thinking about while I’ve been here – and I don’t think I’d be able to get a feel for it from New Jersey or anywhere else.