China’s leaders have the country’s future all planned out. In their eyes, the Chinese Dream means leaving behind low-margin factory floors and charting a course for the brightly lit shopping centers of a consumer-driven economy. To look at central Shanghai’s many-tiered malls and designer fashion stores, one might conclude that ship has well and fully launched. But not everyone is on board.
Even among those who have come to Shanghai seeking fortune and attained it, there are some for whom lucre and luxury have lost their luster. Instead, as with one young woman from a “small town” of 700,000 in Hunan province, they seek out new ways of thinking and experiences, whether through backpacking abroad in Italy or in deciding how, and to whom, they express their love. She assumes, for her part, that this is all a matter of humdrum reality:
“I don’t know how to use beautiful words to describe my story. Nobody would want to read it! [laughs]”
When I was in Spain, in Barcelona, I was staying with a guy friend I met in Shanghai. One day he took me out on the streets of Barcelona, and we saw an old man, totally naked – travelling naked – with only a backpack on! I said to my friend, “Hey, if he can do that, can we?”
My friend said, “why not?”
He lived on the 3rd floor, and both of us just left his apartment naked! But we didn’t go to the street [laughs]. We went outside of the apartment, to the first floor, but we didn’t go out. He told me, “We have to go back, we cannot go out because I didn’t bring the key with me!” [laughs]
He’s crazy. He’s my very good friend, like a girl friend. I have seen him cry: when his girlfriend cheated on him, he cried, and every time he talks about it he cries, like a very close girlfriend, you know? In China we say “real men don’t cry easily” (男儿有泪不轻弹).
But I think I am stronger, inside, than most boys I know. Even though I am tiny.
My grandparents raised me when I was a child. This is normal in China; our parents leave us to go and live in the big city to make money. My dad worked for a real estate company, and my mum was a housewife, I guess. I don’t know because they were in Shenzhen. They used to come home every three or four years for a short stay, so we were never close. I was close to my grandparents, but they were old and I didn’t want them to worry about me, so I kept my problems inside.
At school, I studied English, Maths, Chinese, and history, geography and politics until the Gaokao, then I went to a small college near me… It isn’t famous. I think they’ve closed it! [laughs] At college I studied business English, writing and literature, but I left after one year because it was too expensive. I liked school. It is a pity I didn’t finish it.
There were two years when I stayed in my friend’s apartment and did nothing. They paid for my rent, for my food, they paid for my whole life. I think I was thinking, and waiting. Then one day I told my friend I wanted to go somewhere that nobody knew me, a totally new place for me.
I had never been to a big city and I was very scared, but I knew I wanted to go to a new place. Actually my mum talked to her cousin, who was the Director of the Education Bureau in Shenzhen, and he wanted to give me a job there. But I refused. I didn’t want to stay so close to my family. So I borrowed 500 yuan from my friend and I came to Shanghai.
The day after I arrived, I went to this motorcycle company to ask for a job. The manager was very nice to me. She said, “I want to give a chance to a student, someone who just graduated.” Actually, I never graduated, but still, she wanted to give me a chance. So I translated a very simple email for her, and she said my English was OK, and she gave me the job.
That night, they showed me the room where I could stay. It was so dirty, with nothing in it apart from a bunk bed… no blanket, nothing. I sat on the bed and I cried for more than two hours.
I stayed there for five years. I had to learn more English. Nobody else spoke English at the company, and though I could write English for my exams, I had never talked to any foreigners, so I couldn’t speak at all. The first 3 months in the company I tried to talk to everyone I could on Skype! [laughs] And I watched many movies and TV shows and listened to English songs… that’s how I learned my English.
The second year I became the best sales person in the company. In the first year, the whole department sold maybe 500 or 600 motorbikes and scooters, and the second year I sold 12,000 by myself. I got a really good bonus and commission… I was rich, I think. I was only 21, and I got more than 500,000 yuan as a bonus. Also most of my customers really trusted me, so even if they wanted something from other companies they trusted me to do it and they paid me for it.
So suddenly I had a lot of money. Then, I don’t know why, when I got money, I … changed. Money was not so important any more. When I was younger I was poor, but then one day I got rich, and then I wanted to spend my money. But of course, the first thing I did was buy an apartment for my family, pay for the insurance, and I paid for my brother’s studies.
After I made sure my family was OK, I went travelling. I went to many countries, the US, Russia… most of the countries in Europe. Between 2008 and 2012, I spent three months of every year in other countries.
I don’t have a favourite country, but a favourite place? I like Sicily. Not the big island, but there are seven small islands near the big island, so small they are difficult to find on a map. There are only 250 people on one island, and they are all friends or family!
I was depressed when I went to Italy. But I met an old guy on [the room-sharing travel site] Couchsurfing, and he told me “You have to come here, and that will change.” I thought, “I have never been there and I want to do something different, I will try it.”
I liked that place very much. The day I left, when I saw the old guy waving at me, with his seven cats [laughs], waving at me on the boat, I cried. When I stayed with him, he looked after me, he taught me how to swim, he showed me the stars from the mountains where he lived. I felt like he was my father. He took care of me.
Travelling changed me. In 2009, I earned so much money from my company, and I spent a lot. I lived in expensive hotels, bought expensive clothes, because that’s what my friends and everybody else did. I thought it was normal. Sometimes, if I wanted to spend the weekend in downtown Shanghai then I would pay for a very expensive hotel, more than 1000 RMB for one night. Sometimes I would fly to places just for the weekend, like Hainan. Now I think of it as a waste.
When I was traveling in Denmark, in Copenhagen, there was one day when I didn’t have a place to stay. It was raining, and I was carrying my bag and walking along the street… I had money in my bank account, I had a credit card, but I didn’t want to live in a very expensive hotel. I just wanted to, you know, spend some time with the local people. I changed. Before I would always complain about life. Like… why my parents can’t afford my school, like… why I am so short? [laughs] I mean, I can’t be taller?! [laughs]
I was the shortest one in school, in middle school, in primary school. [laughs] I am always the shortest one! [laughs].
Hey, stop laughing at me!
You know, in China, people care about appearance a lot. If you want to be a waitress in a restaurant, they will say you have to be 160 cm plus. So when I came to Shanghai I was really very scared, because I thought I couldn’t even be a waitress in a restaurant. Anyway, too much complaining. I was too depressed when I came to Shanghai. But, during my travels, I didn’t complain. I just enjoyed it: The good moments, the bad ones… I didn’t care so much about mate
rialistic things. I felt happier all the time. You see? I like laughing. I smile all the time.
In the future, I have so many things to do. First, pay for my baby to finish school. Then travelling. I want to go to many other places, in Asia, the UK… I like the UK because I’ve heard many stories about castles. I like that.
Of course I want to keep working, because I am the kind of person who likes to be busy. When I was working in the first company, I stayed there many nights to finish my work. And I like my current job. I import and export: Food, ice cream, red wine and coffee from Italy and other products from other countries, like Poland. [Businesses there] want to work with me, too. And for exporting, there’s car parts, motorbikes, everything, to all over the world. In this kind of job, I can use English, I can talk to people, I can travel, I am free!
For me, really, the Chinese Dream is if the people can open their eyes to see what there is in other countries, to see what happens in the world, and be wise… that’s the Chinese Dream for me. Because I still think that… Yes, China already opened the door to other countries, but they didn’t learn good things from outside, they only learned bad things.
I don’t know much about the politics – even when I stay with friends I don’t talk about that. Even if you want to do something, we are so… not powerful. If you’re a single person, you are not so powerful. But if you don’t do what you want to, nobody will know about it. If you do it, maybe other people will listen, some people will help you.
Anyway, I still hope that when we learn the good things from outside, we can keep some traditions. The good things, like Chinese characters—so many people use computers or mobile phones every day, so we forget how to write them. Yes, we must learn English and other languages to learn about other cultures, but we still need to learn Chinese, because it’s our language, our own language, our culture, and we can’t forget that.
But everyone now is so materialistic. You can see with marriage in China, if a boy doesn’t have a house or car, it’s really hard to get a wife. They always ask for a house, or car, or money… even parents think the same way. They hope the daughter is looking for someone who is rich. They always think about money first, not feelings.
But I didn’t ask for anything from my husband’s family. [laughs] I hoped I would get something, but they didn’t give it to me [laughs]. They are living in a very poor place, so what could I say? My husband is a very nice guy. For me, that’s what is important.
I met him at my second job. I went to Huizhou, a city near Guangzhou, and was working in a lamp factory. I was the sales manager and he was the director of the technical department. He was shy, very shy, and I like shy people, you know? I thought it was cute [laughs]. Maybe it was his expression? The first time when I saw him, he was shy, and that was it: I told him I liked him straightaway. He just said, “OK, got it.” [laughs]
My husband’s family are Hui [nationality], and I like them very much. They are farmers: very pure, very nice and kind people. We don’t talk much because they can’t speak Mandarin. Sometimes my husband translates, but they are very busy because of farm work, so we don’t talk much.
There are differences: of course they don’t eat pork. Then there are some words we can’t say, but it’s not that strict. They just tell me if I can’t do something. I still remember our wedding – it wasn’t a real wedding! Just someone, an important Hui guy, he read something in Arabic, and I had to read it and make a vow…. And it’s Arabic! [laughs] I can’t speak Arabic [laughs], I just pretended. [laughs] And I had to cover all my hair, and wear long sleeves. It was very interesting. I’d never seen that before.
I think my experiences make me very different from my parents. They are very traditional, and even compared to other parents, they are different. They didn’t work much—my mum was a housewife her whole life, and my dad stopped working when he was maybe 40. To be honest, I thought, and still think, they had to work hard for their children, to at least help them to finish school. But they didn’t. My mum cannot afford her life, but now she enjoys it because I pay for them.
But no matter what they did to me, what they did to their children, I think they are good people. I still love them. That’s why I am working very hard to help my family, because I want them to live well. For my son… [laughs] I just hope he can be happy and healthy. That’s it. I don’t want to be like the traditional kind of parent, “I pay for him now, and then when I get older he pays for me.” No, I do not think in this way. I just want to help him to finish school first, but that is also up to him.
I just hope he can do things he likes in the future. I will take care of myself when I get older so he doesn’t need to worry about that. It’s his life. I can’t do the same things to my child that my parents did to me. I think it isn’t fair. I chose to have him, so I have to help him. In the future, it is his life. He can choose what he needs to do. ♦
Author: Georgie Barber
Editor: Hudson Lockett
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