Every day is the same, yet every minute is different.
The routine is constant, yet somehow becomes harder and harder to maintain. Day after day I struggle. Growing up, my parents would tell us about the city of dreams, where the buildings stretched past the clouds and luminous lights radiated with life. The city of dreams is where you will find your future, they said.
For the first 30 years of my life, I worked with my parents and brothers in the fields of Shanxi. I worked all day, every day to ensure I could afford a one-way ticket to my utopia. Now, I work for 10 hours a day just to keep myself off the streets. It’s funny how life never changes for us; I have learned that dreams in this world are only attainable by those who can afford them.
You see, when I was a child, I didn’t go to school. My village didn’t have one. Now, as a rickshaw driver, I still can’t tell left from right.
My name is Li.
I was 36 when I scraped together enough money to buy myself a rickshaw. Up until now, it is still my golden chariot. Every gloomy day in this brightly lit city, I drag this rusty piece out of the courtyard I share with 23 other people. The dilapidated, damp box I call my home has no heating, air conditioning, or bathroom. A moldy, moist mattress is my bed, and the scraps of processed food I can barely afford are stored in a fridge that hasn’t been running for seven years. I ride down to the subway stop of Dongzhimen, creating an unpleasant rusty shriek as I go. This city is not how they described it. The lights do shine, but only for the rich. The buildings do surpass the clouds, but only to find themselves enveloped in smog and pollution.
It was bearable for the first few years. I was young, strong, and filled with high spirits. But I was foolish to think that this world had anything kind in store for me. People change, technology advances, and I fade into the smog of this utopia along with the rest of its culture. Rickshaw drivers were once a major contribution to the charm and elegance of Beijing’s marvelous culture. We would attract tourists; light up the city with our happy buzzing chatter and bright colors. Little did we know that these flashy paint jobs would only add to the embarrassment of this bygone era. How foolish we were to decorate our vehicles with the colors of hopes and wonder. The colors that would later mock us as our wheeled palaces became artifacts of this nation. Now, with better and safer transport options that can be hailed through smartphones, we are forgotten.
My brothers and I would always sit in the fields after a long day of excruciating work, and talk about owning our very own golden chariots which others liked to call cars, depicting every detail of the excitement and thrill of hearing the majestic engine of the magnificent machine purr under our commands, and enjoying the refreshing air of success blow through our hair. But those were but dreams; none of us will ever be able to feel the smooth leather rim of a steering wheel on our grimy hands. My kind will only ever be the ones who make the leather, while its smoothness will only ever belong to the wealthy.
They have been cracking down on us. Asking us for IDs and driver’s licenses. We rickshaw drivers have been disappearing as fast as the rich drive in their glamorous wagons. They are untouched of course, as clean as their cars, yet as filthy as this city. We are sitting ducks to the authorities; any resistance will end in…well, let’s just say I’m lucky.
It’s Saturday evening. I might as well be a roasted duck after sitting in the scorching summer sun for the entire day. “50, 100, uh… 250?” Yes, that should be RMB 250 after today, RMB 100 of which I will send back to my family in Shanxi. I take off the raggedy jacket I have been wearing almost daily for the past three years and toss it onto my mattress, sending clouds of dust into the dry, glum air.
That is when I hear them knock.
Some might mistake them for rats, standing side by side like a pair of ragged puppets. Their eyes filled with misery and self-importance. They tell me that my rickshaw has been taken; that I will not have the right to drive on the streets of this city of dreams until I get a legal driver’s license.
They leave without another word. Emotionless.
I can’t help but just stand in the splintered doorframe, paralyzed. My legs start to shake as I crouch onto the ground, forced to relieve my stomach of whatever rubbish it held onto the grey pavement under me. I collapse onto the concrete and sit there whimpering. Sobbing. Wondering why the heavens tricked me into believing in this world of corruption. “Why?” I whisper as I put my head between the two twigs I call legs. “Why me?”
Society will always have a chain wrapped around my waist, pulling me back into the dirt whenever I’m out of my place.
So here I am, sitting in a decayed piece of rust, which will be the only wagon ever willing to accept my status: a train wagon dragging me back to the fields of Shanxi. Cramped and squashed together with hundreds of those like myself who have been rejected of their hopes and dreams. We observe as the sun sets behind the distant hills, watching the light of our beliefs and prospects fade out of sight.
My name is Li, and it is time for me to leave the city of dreams…and wake up.
Photo: Kipp Whittaker
This article appeared on p35-37 of the beijingkids September 2018 Teen Takeover issue.