Living in China is an interesting experience … no, looking back on the ten years of my life split between Beijing and Shanghai, I can safely say that “interesting” is an understatement. That’s because being an expatriate in China essentially grants you the right to live like a king. Where else would common people be able to afford ayis, drivers, and large houses in private compounds? Combined with the relatively inconsistent enforcement of the law, an expat is basically allowed to do whatever they want. And that, is wonderful.
However, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about living in China, it’s how a large majority of foreigners and expats tend to (unintentionally or not) belittle the locals. Whether it’s talking in a demeaning manor, cutting in front of them in line, or pushing them in a crowd, it’s not acceptable. Just because we have the opportunity to live like kings does mean that we have the right to act like them.
So how does a 16-year-old raise awareness about a problem he sees in the world? Have a bake sale and hand out fliers? It’s an overdone practice – far too mainstream. Instead, to understand what it’s like to be a local, I woke up early on the last day of my summer vacation to spend a day working at a local villager’s car wash.
What I Learnt:
- Begin washing the car with a rinse, followed by soap, rinse, and general drying;
- Use the “nice” cloth to wick away the excess water on polished body panels as well as windows;
- Begin washing the car from the top down;
- ALWAYS wash the wheels last to avoid getting dirt on the body;
- Don’t wear a shirt to avoid unsightly tan lines.
After a day, my job was done; I claimed a life-changing experience and looked good to colleges (excluding tan lines). But there’s more to this story, I also learnt:
- The “shower” is a raised pipe
- The refrigerator is broken and used for storage
- The “air conditioning” is a hole in the wall
- Holding a high pressure water hose gets quite tiring
- An insane amount of water collects under the number plate
I cannot describe to you the feeling of walking back into my house after spending the day working at a car wash. If I were to attempt to describe it, the emotion would be a mix of elation, guilt, and relief. I had lived their life, eaten their food, and worked their job for less than one day, and was glad to be home. Call me spoiled, but the feeling of not knowing whether you’ll make enough money that day is not a pleasant pit to have in your stomach.
However, even in the face of this great adversity, generosity and kind-heartedness allow the locals I spent time with to genuinely be happy with their lives. And that is truly amazing.
Since that day, I’ve consciously tried to treat the locals I encounter with the level of respect they deserve. However, just changing my life alone isn’t going to solve the bigger issue we face as a whole.
So where does this leave you, the reader, and me? Well, it leaves us with a challenge. Not a challenge to just be “nice” to all the locals you meet—that will get us nowhere. Instead, we face the challenge to shadow a low-income local to truly understand the hardships they face every day. Through this, we as a community can show locals the kindness and understanding that is often taken for granted in our interactions amongst one another. So the next time you pass by the small village restaurant you frequent, see your usual black cab driver, or pass by a security guard, strike up a conversation and find a day in your oh-so-busy schedule to trade in your life of privilege and spend a day in theirs.
Author’s note: If you need any help organizing a day to spend with a local, or just want to discuss this idea further, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Gavin Tan, at 136 8319 3071. If there’s enough interest, I may start a program for this!
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Gavin Tan, a student at The International School of Beijing.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.