November 8th, 2019

mom walk

conversations from the street

The last few weeks i have headed to the same 烧烤 (shāo kǎo) joint in my village. You know you are developing a "home" when the vendor sees you walking up the alley and already preps a plastic tray for you to put your selections.

(Shaokao means there is a wide variety of raw produce skewered on bamboo sticks, you pick the sticks you want and give it to the guy at the bbq, he asks how much spice you want, then he grills it over charcoal. It's all outside in the open air. The dishes arrive at your table one by one while you get drunk on cheap beer served in disposable plastic cups.)

So i am at the shaokao joint, sitting on a plastic stool, and it's not too busy because it's "cold" tonight in Shenzhen (23°C). The runner opens my beer then sits down opposite me and starts asking about my job and whatnot.

I told her where i work and she was all like "waaa", because it's one of the signature skyscrapers featured in Shenzhen propaganda videos. She said it's so nice there and bla bla platitudes. I said it's shit and there's a reason why i live in an urban village over 10km away. Perhaps the apartments near my work are beautiful, but how would anyone know? They're million dollar properties. US dollar, not Hong Kong dollar. That's more than most Chinese will earn in their entire lifetimes.

I said working in a neighborhood with a bunch of idle rich means that there is no culture, no community. Most of the apartments are empty. I tried to explain that the whole place feels artificial, but the best i could do was 假 (jiǎ), which means "fake". Perhaps that's more accurate.

I said apartments in Shenzhen cost the same as apartments in other major world cities, but the salary here is less. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. She agreed with that. Bbq man stepped out from behind the grill long enough to say: "you know how it is in China? They're all up there," he gestured to the sky, "and we're all down here," pointing at his knees. Then he shrugged and went back to grilling, because what you gonna do?

This is the fucked up reality. I prefer to live in working class or lower middle class areas because i find the upper middle class to be insufferable. But bbq man wasn't wrong when he pointed out that even an upper middle class software developer like me somehow has more in common with a "low class" street vendor than these motherfuckers in the condos upstairs from my office. Fuck, they don't even walk past me in the lobby. Private elevator to the underground parking lot, get in the Porsche and go.

The runner talked to me about how it isn't fair in China. If you don't have money, then you can't go to a good university. If you don't go to a good university, you can't get a good job. If you don't get a good job, you can't afford "hukou" (legal residence in the city), which means you do not get healthcare and you cannot send your kids to school. So either you send your kids back to the countryside for public education, or you pay for a shady private school in the city. Either way they never get educated properly. They never make it to university. The cycle continues.

The runner said in her hometown only a handful of kids made it to university.

As i have learned from conversations with other Chinese from small towns, it's not just about being the top 1% of the top 1% of students. It's also about parents giving kickbacks to the teachers and the cadres to make sure their kid's results shuffle up to the top of the pile.

In middle class urban China kids "just" need to be the top of the class to succeed, but in rural China, parents need to pay a whole chain of corrupt pipers to get them out. And even then, it's usually only to a bargain basement university that no employer in the big cities takes seriously.

So it goes.

Get drunk. Eat bbq. Feel grateful that at least you're not still breaking your back tilling the fields. The rich live in another world, just across the way. It's unusual that a foreigner comes over this side of the tracks, but here i am. Getting drunk. Eating bbq.