Wu Deshun lives next to a warehouse off Guanghua Lu in what can best be described as a hovel, a cinder block, one-story, falling-apart edifice in the shadow of the almost-completed CCTV headquarters. It’s a surprisingly desolate area in the middle of Beijing’s breakneck construction zone know as the “CBD.” – the Central Business district – that is on its way to passing for a downtown even if the concept of a downtown is inherently ridiculous in the decentralized sprawl of Beijing. Nearby is CCTV’s much-ballyhooed “Big Shorts” building, the Chinese customs house, and across the Third Ring Road the almost-completed China World Trade Center Phase 3 (“embodying quiet, purposeful elegance”) that at 85 stories will be the tallest building in Beijing and looks suspiciously like one of the two buildings that used to constitute the other World Trade Center except with cut-off tapered corners. Guanghua Lu is a busy traffic-clogged thoroughfare, but if you go through a gate on the south side about four hundred meters east of the Third Ring you pass a guardhouse and when you turn right by some acrid bathrooms you arrive in a placid environment where through the open doors of the empty building there are a bunch of bicycles and one sad, dusty architectural model of a never-realized development. It’s peaceful back there, with a ten-foot high brick wall blocking Guanghua Lu, a hidden-away ramp in a small walled-off end part of the warehouse, and the building that constitutes the simply constructed and decaying home of Wu and a few others. There are a some trees on the side of the cracked cement parking lot that’s bigger than two football fields combined, and usually there are a few buses parked there along with a random selection of garbage and various heaps of discarded bits of wood and cardboard.
Beginning last fall whenever I’d go to the ramp I’d see five or six people living next door whose occupation seemed to have something to do with trash. There were a couple of the ever-present Beijing trash tricycles parked by the door, and in one part of the structure that has three walls and a metal roof they’d be sorting through their pickings. There was a middle-aged couple, a couple other men of about the same age, and one guy who looked a little younger and stood out. The couple and the two other men were friendly and would wave, and a few times I asked if I could wash my hands with the water they had in a plastic tub, and that was about it. But Wu, the one who caught my attention, he appeared more curious about what was going on and would come over to watch the skating, and there was something appealing about him that isn’t so easy to put into words. He’d always smile and say hello, and then invariably offer a cigarette, and the moment you were done with one he’d offer another. We were introduced through an intermediary, and he said his name followed by the word “worker” – “gong ren” – that I misheard as “Con Gro.” Then for three months I mistakenly used that nonexistent word as his name. We frequently had these non-verbal exchanges, or more precisely one-sided verbal exchanges when he’s speak rapid-fire Chinese at me and I’d smile and after a while throw up my hands with an “I’m sorry, I wish I spoke Chinese, but I get what you’re saying man” gesture. Then we’d smoke another cigarette, I’d go back to skating, and he’d watch for a while before waving goodbye and disappearing into the night. We both didn’t seem too bothered by our inability to communicate, the feeling was mutual, and we’d have our interaction and that was that. Then one night there was an opening for an art show at the ramp space and a bunch of people showed up, a bizarre mix of hot Hong Kong ladies in stiletto heels, skaters, art types, and other assorted human flotsam. It was a fun night, and Wu was having a good time drinking and sharing a joint with someone and talking to my friend Eleonora, obviously smitten. At one point I was with my friend Rutherford, who’s Chinese, and seeing Wu said “Oh that’s my guy, Con Gro.” They talked for moment, and Rutherford reported Wu asked if he was Chinese, which was a bit strange, and then emphatically said “We welcome the foreigners.”
Con Gro, that is, the worker Wu Deshun, looks anywhere from twenty-five to forty, it’s hard to tell. He’s slight, has blackened and missing teeth, a bit of gray where his hair is parted in the middle, a lopsided smile, and a cool sartorial style that’s “worker” but somehow his and his alone. Occasionally he seems a bit drunk or slightly “touched,” and a few times I’ve heard a couple of the skaters refer to him as “that crazy bum.” That bothered me, because they didn’t appreciate the ineffable quality about Wu that transcends language and makes him extremely likeable even if you can’t understand a word he’s saying. He evinces heart, for lack of a better word, and displays a willingness to put himself out there in an alien context and take it all in, i.e. at a ramp where foreigners lurk, drink beer, and smoke pot. That’s all I knew about the person I called “Con Gro” until one day I dragooned my friend Emily to come along and help me find out more.
Wu and the gang were sitting on little plastic stools in front of their house when we showed up around noon. The first thing I found out was his real name, finally, that he’s thirty-two, and he and the others are from the Shandong Province, which is about eight hours away by train. They’ve been in Beijing for a year. Flies buzzed around, and there was a tea thermos on the table made out of a board, a transistor radio, a lei of multi-colored fake flowers hanging from the doorway, four fire extinguishers, and plastic bags and piles of trash—mostly office building rubbish. We were offered hot water by the couple, who explained that they were all farmers who had been hired to come to Beijing by a family friend, a “contracting head” who lets them work whenever they want or for however long they want, taking care of the garbage from one of the nearby office buildings. They deliver that to a nearby drop-off spot at Dawanglu via the tricycles, where it’s trucked out of the city. Back home they grow corn, wheat, and peanuts, selling what they don’t eat (about 90 percent of what they grow) but the lure of Beijing is to make 750 Yuan—roughly $110—a month, way more than they can make on the farm. As we were talking there was a lot of commotion under a tent that had been set up by the door to the ramp, with trucks pulling in and out and guys throwing bales of something around. It was explained that they were exporting clothes to Russia but because of the Olympics had to relocate so as to avoid detection and interference. Earlier I’d looked for Wu in his room around the corner and been surprised that it was set up as an office, with new wood floors and a couple of desks manned by harsh-voiced young women barking into phones. They’d kicked Wu out of his room and forced him to move, and we all agreed that was unfair.
We discussed, or more precisely, Emily and they discussed some general topics as I checked out the tricycle cart with its plastic bag-covered seat. The CCTV headquarters had just started when they first arrived, the boss decides the prices, and the amount of money they get for their goods has decreased due to the temporary restrictions on the outflow of trash put in place because of the Olympics. For a bundle of newspapers they used to get 1.7 Mao, and that’s gone down to 1 Mao, and instead of there being ten companies buying what they have to offer there were now three or four, bringing down their profit. The Olympics invariably came up, and the couple’s answer was along the lines of “They’re good for Beijing’s image and show that China is strong, but they are causing a lot of hassles.” There were the fears of terrorism, a fear that gets expressed often, which although certainly valid get repeated almost to the point of a mania. The whys and hows of the Government pounding the idea into the heads of the populace that bad people might somehow try and tarnish or ruin the Olympics don’t really need to be elucidated. In keeping with the sentiment of almost everybody fatigued by the juggernaut of the Olympics their attitude seemed to be that the Olympics are great and all but let’s get it over with so we can go on with our lives. I asked if they’d seen the Olympic stadium, and was told they’d gone and looked at the “Bird’s Nest” as it’s always damnably called.
They talked about where they live, not far from a “Confucius House,” a Confucian cultural center that Chinese and foreign tourists visit to pay respect. It was partially destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and has been rebuilt, but they don’t have time to go there. The countryside is better, with cleaner air, and it’s more “hygienic” than the city. About where they lived now I said it must be cold in the winter, to which their response was that they were Lao Bai Xing, ordinary “people of the old hundred surnames,” a term most accurately translated as “folk,” and that they are used to suffering from young to old. They were quick to add that things have gotten a lot better in the last ten years on the farm because of automation. Now two people can do the work of five, and they have air conditioning and a refrigerator. At this point we sort of broke off for a bit and they went and did some sorting while Wu began to talk animatedly to Emily.
Starting in a desultory fashion, he reported that Shandong had been named a “World Cultural City” and made a query about a city in America where there’s a street named after a Chinese person who had saved someone there, or something like that. It was one of those “You’re from New York? Do you know my friend Joe?” questions. Then we segued onto the subject of Hawaii and if you had to be rich to live there. Wu thought the gap between rich and poor was too great in China, especially in his hometown. Then there was an outpouring of words; to which Emily listened intently, after which she turned to me and somewhat uncertainly said “his goal is to get an MBA at Harvard.” We looked at each other, not sure how to respond. “Harvard?” Wu had found a Harvard course book somewhere, and had set his sights on that august institution. He also knew about Cornell. On one level this wasn’t too astounding because a few famous American universities—Harvard, Yale, Stanford—are arguably even more famous in China than they are in America. It’s hard for outsiders to imagine the premium put on higher education in China, the absolute unshakeable belief in the benefits of a degree from a prestigious American University. So it wasn’t so incredible that Wu had heard of Harvard, but it was also like, wow, what do you say to that? Without making too fine a point of it, the chances of Wu getting an MBA at Harvard are probably non-existent, and there was something indescribably poignant and distressing about this talk of that Ivy League school in Cambridge that any association with here translates into unquantifiable advantages. After that, Wu basically said, “I’m really fucking poor, and it sucks.” To paraphrase, his father had been a bank manager in Harbin but had died, and now his family was poor, and he wanted to open a small business in Shandong. For that he needed 10,000 Yuan, or around $1,600, to get started. There was a familiar ring to the story about his father, and other members of his family that had gone on to become “big characters.” You hear multiple versions of this narrative, they’re a trope, of families once well off who because of the revolution of 1912 or the revolution of 1949 or for whatever other myriad reasons fell on hard times and lost their fortune. They’re a common lament, and often give the impression of being based on a tortured combination of fact and wishful thinking, of nostalgia for past glories (and more importantly, wealth) that might never have existed. It’s hard to know, you just listen and commiserate.
He went on to say he’d lived in Shanghai and worked for UPS for a year, that Shanghai was better than Beijing because it had more “greenery,” and that he’d read a book having to do with a system for predicting the future. Returning to the subject, he also said, with unassailable wisdom, that since he’d read the Harvard course packet he was on the level of a Harvard MBA in practical educational terms but he didn’t have a degree from Harvard and that’s just a piece of paper. There was also a plan for selling video games for grownups he’d seen in Shanghai and Beijing back home in Shandong, that there was a niche market for them there that hadn’t been exploited. Then came a question that wasn’t unexpected: Was China really twenty years behind the United States, like he’d read in the newspaper? And one that was strangely poetic and not really answerable. “Are the stars multi-colored in America?”
The couple had moved under the three-sided wall enclosure and were picking through things, and I got the impression they were disgruntled about something. Emily confirmed a bit later that they were, as she put it, “really pissed” about Wu’s unashamed honesty, and that his groveling and “I’m really poor” and implying that maybe I could help him was an affront to their dignity. On one hand I could see their point, because as Emily told me later, “It’s in the telling of oneself that dignity is conjured or destroyed,” but on the other hand it’s hard not to appreciate Wu’s brutal straightforwardness. We’d entered a murky area of conflicting notions of honor, pride, ambition and self-respect, and though to the observer his transgression might have been justifiable, you could also understand their disapproval. But Wu was going for it. You only live once, right? There might be a chance. Breaking up that part of the interview and absent-mindedly forgetting about Emily for a moment Wu and I went through a broken door to his new spot. It had a concrete floor, a bed made out of plywood covered with a mosquito net, and a cabinet with broken drawers. There was a makeshift desk with a small globe on it and tattered copy of an ABCs of English book and a lavender razor and a cup of pens. On one side of the room clothes were hanging and scattered around were a few potted plants. It had a homey feeling, especially in comparison to the trash-strewn surroundings outside. I looked around, and then Wu handed me a piece of paper I took to be a story he’d written. A few weeks previously he’d also given me a drawing of two birds. We brought the story out to Emily, where she read for it under a tree in the lot.
“Let me tell you about a small thing: Truth is the foundation of success,” it starts, and then goes on to tell of Wu’s female friend who is a finance major at a commercial school. Like everyone else she’s looking for a job, looking and looking, unsuccessfully. Then Wu tells her he’ll give her the equivalent of $500, saying that they’re friends and if the situation were reversed “I would want you to help me.” At first she is silent, then she takes the money and gives him an I.O.U. A long time passes without any contact and then one day she gets in touch and tells him she’s found a job with a foreign company and wants to take him out to dinner. She’s happy, and after dinner they go to a nice teahouse and talk about life, and she tells him what happened at the company. At the initial interview she was told they would only call if she got the job, but she persisted and asked that she be called even if she didn’t and told why she wasn’t hired, offering to provide two Yuan to cover the expense of the phone call. That she was willing to give her own money for the phone call impressed the interviewer, and she got hired for three principal reasons, namely that she could separate work from her private life, showed determination, and was able to recognize her own inadequacies. Another year went by and by now she’d become a manager, and when she told Wu she’d repay him he declined the offer and told her “Whatever job you do, aim high, and whatever your heart and mind can reach for can be attained, and your heart and mind have to be ‘turned outward.’” It was a mixture of modern-day aspirational fable, Chinese inspirational sloganeering, and what seemed to be reportage, and that’s what was strangest—it had the feel of being based on real life but was actually fiction. The tale’s yearning for fairness and honesty in advancement and a wish for the world to repay good behavior made it almost mythical in sense of the contemporary aspiratonal mythos of China’s helter-skelter and decidedly not fair rush into and through development.
Again, what do you say to that? Life’s not fair? Good intentions, hard work and persistence don’t pay off? But you don’t want to say that because it’s a cherished dream and to refute the belief in it would just be mean-spirited. So we said something to the effect of “That’s a good story,” and then asked if we could check out the trash.
We went to the office building they work at but for some reason couldn’t go down to the basement. Then Wu said his friend was the trash boss at another place and we could go there. A ten-minute walk east on Guanghua Lu brought us to the “Winterless” building, one of the countless 25 story high, totally nondescript buildings of its sort in Beijing with a completely nonsensical name. Winterless? Is that some kind of breath mint? Confoundedly the Chinese name does make sense and has no connection whatsoever to the name or concept of “Winterless.” We went down in the elevator, taken by the girl whose job it is to spend her life in the elevator, and came out into the parking garage and went over to a caged-in area where a wire fence went halfway up to the thirty foot high ceiling. At first the smell was overpowering, sour and sickening, coming from a barrel of assuredly “wet” refuse—some kind of food remnants spilling out over the top. To say it was dank, dim, and depressing in there, with two or three weak single bulbs giving off the only illumination, would be a crime of understatement. The disconcerting string of turned-off Christmas lights along the wall and a few plants only emphasized the overall squalor. A cave, a subterranean dungeon, with styrofoam and cardboard overflowing out of trash carts, that rank smell, and to one side a curtained-off area with rudimentary board beds, some clothes drooping from twisted hangers, a calendar hanging from an overhead wire, and a dingy stuffed panda bear in the corner.
An old man was taking a nap while a weathered woman rummaged through the trash, and a younger guy lay on one of the cots not really paying us any mind. The “Boss,” showed up, and there were some mandatory questions: Are you married? How old are you? It’s a funny thing, but just as Westerners have trouble gauging the age of Asians it goes both ways, and almost invariably my age is guessed ten years down from its actual number. That’s flattering, or possibly just flattery. Then we got down to business. They wanted to know the differences between how trash is handled here and in the United States. My simple answer was it’s more mechanized in the US and it’s structured from the top down, not from the bottom up as it is in China. I also said, with a quick “You don’t have to translate this part if you don’t want to” to Emily, that, well, for the most part in American the workers that pick up the trash don’t live right next to the trash. A long, heated discussion ensued without my participation, and as I smoked one of the boss’s cigarettes I pondered the shadow of a fan on the wall and thought about how I’d already gotten used to the smell in there, or at least that as time passed it wasn’t as shockingly bad.
After about 20 minutes we said our goodbyes and emerged into the now fresh air of the street, and went to have an early dinner. There was some kind of licorice-flavored soup, noodles, and beer and cigarettes, which, in an affront to all things scared in China, we were told to put out. Wu asked if I knew a girl named “Lena,” and when I said describe her he said she was “beautiful.” I surmised he meant Eleonora, who he’d given the good luck charm to, and then he asked he if could “have my permission to pursue her.” We sort of laughed it off, and then he said maybe he could introduce me to some girls. Kind of a trade, I suppose.
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