The Other Side of Beijing

When I visited Beijing this summer, I met an 18-year-old girl named Jiao Xie who likes pandas, badminton and the color pink. She works six days per week for almost 16 hours per day, and she makes the equivalent of around $25 each month, half of which she mails to her family in the countryside. Beijing has been covered with a skin of gold leaf for the Olympics. Tourists marvel at the magnificent buildings, the cleanliness and the well-trimmed flowers planted in the shape of athletes that line the roads. They are stunned that they can get a two-hour full-body massage for less than ten dollars, and they applaud as the 16-year-old girls on China’s gymnastics team put on a performance worthy of a gold medal. But what about the other end of the stick? Tourists take three meals per day and a place to sleep at night for granted, just as we do, and assume that all the people they interact with in Beijing live just as comfortably. They don’t think that the 50 cents they bartered off of their latest souvenir purchase at the market would have paid for the salesperson’s dinner. Three weeks ago, I walked three blocks down the street from my grandma’s house to a spa to get a foot massage. I was surprised to see that my masseuse was a girl around my age, and I asked her why she wasn’t in school. She replied that she had been forced to drop out of school a year ago so she could work, as her family could no longer support her. Yes, going to public school was free, but eating and sleeping under a roof required money. Originally from the countryside, Jiao Xie worked not only to support herself, but her family back home, too. She has taken a job at the spa giving back massages and rubbing people’s feet for 16 hours a day, six days per week, earning a mere $10-$25 after she sends money home. She’d like to find better work, but for that she would have to go back to school to gain some “skills” to put on her job application. She’d like to come to the United States or Canada to work (which, being a first-rate masseuse, I’m sure she would find), but with modern immigration laws it would be impossible. When I told her I was sorry, she smiled and said in Chinese, “Why? It’s a lot better than it was back home. Here I don’t have to worry about starving for days on end, I have a place to sleep, I have clothes to wear, if only two outfits, and I get to shower every day. Plus, giving massages can be fun, especially when nice people like you come.” At this point I thought about my own life – the things I take for granted and the things I complain about. If I’m hungry, I can walk over to Uncommons and eat whatever I want. No matter what, I’ll always have a place to sleep and my only job is to learn. We consistently complain about our workloads, but think about the opportunities they give us. We have a choice of what we want to study and what we want to become. We are able to choose – choose to work hard and become what we want to be, or choose to slack off and lose that opportunity. Either way, however, we will still have the support of our parents and can depend on them in times of need. For Jiao Xie, it’s the other way around. She has no choice in her career, and it is her parents who depend on her. However, she takes it all in stride with a smile on her face, always looking for the silver lining. We should respect and learn from her inner strength – I know I have. What we should take away from these people’s lifestyles, which to many of us are unimaginable, as well as their perseverance and optimism, is that we are privileged. Children in China would sacrifice everything for a U.S. passport or the opportunity to work here, much less go to school here. We should learn to first recognize the lifestyles we lead for what they are: a gift. Then we should make the most of them. We shouldn’t be running back to our dorms to play Halo or watch “The O.C.” at every chance we get. Why should we be the ones living in comfort while others working much harder than we are struggle to put food on the table each day? We should take what opportunities we have to make the most of our potential, and then someday we can help lift others less fortunate than us out of poverty and give them the lifestyles all people deserve. Charlie Dong is a four-year Senior from Madison, Wisc. and an Arts Editor.