I keep wondering where are the unemployed, neglected people in this Chinese city? Living here for a year now I keep looking, and except during my occasional Saturday trip downtown to a museum in the wealthy, manicured, target-rich touristy part, I see no beggars or homeless people. 

One Saturday as I visited my local bank, I happened upon an old blind couple — perhaps married — playing historic 3 stringed instruments near the corner of a busy intersection, both seated on upturned white buckets. Their music was haunting. Who stopped to admire their grit? Who cared about their misfortune? Some clearly did, and I did, and after listening to their mournful duet, tossed into their open coffee can 20 RMB, but I never saw them again, and imagine authorities eventually chased them away. 

Here in my burgeoning new town, on the far outskirts of Shanghai, I notice all sorts of people perpetually engaged in ugly labor, at hours that amaze me. Everyone has a task, everyone seems dedicated and busy. I see little idleness. Sunday is not special. Every day is someone’s work day.  

Many laborers are dressed in long sleeved uniforms and wear wide-brimmed hats to shield themselves from the relentless sun. They lay a thousand bricks in a week to beautify a sidewalk. They sweep the same sidewalks with their straw brooms. They stand at store entrances with frozen smiles to welcome shoppers. They remove restaurant refuse in sloppy buckets from the back alley. They deliver packages and mail from their over-loaded mini-bikes in every weather. They guard apartment buildings, or wash unimaginably huge windows. On the sidewalk outside their small shops they make windows for the mammoth buildings springing up everywhere. They sell a dozen varieties of vegetables I have never seen before and live fish (and sometimes live birds.) They work in restaurants that twice each day feed hundreds of construction workers who are building this new town. They are resident “Moms” in my school dormitory who wake at 4 AM to wash clothes for 200 students and hang them to dry upstairs on the 6th floor, outside in the Shanghai sun. 

In early morning when I cross the street to visit my neighborhood Starbuck’s for a coffee, I notice old people walking methodically through back alleys scrounging empty glass beer bottles, or plastic, or cardboard throw-away. They collect this refuse and continue looking for more, because there always is more. I imagine at the end of their 10-hour work day they turn it in to a collection depot nearby and collect 200 RMB ($30.00) and for them that is probably a good day’s wage. They do not collect welfare, or social security, or disability, or donations from the rest of us. And they smile when I pass them on our different ways. 

These “poor people” might be the most Noble people I have ever seen.  

Last May, my high school division sponsored a festive day of competitive intramural athletics in the nearby park — including games of team jump rope, Frisbee golf, relay race, and eventually the most plebeian Chinese sport of badminton. During the 1 hour relay race, I noticed a sun-burned older fellow mowing the lawn of the park where we were contesting. He pushed his 21-inch lawnmower while a younger (supervisor) followed him for a few wide circles in his golf cart. This seemed insane to me. The poor fellow would be mowing this park area for 10 hours to achieve what one large, golf-course dedicated mower could easily accomplish in 30 minutes.  

Later that afternoon back at school, I shared my observations with a colleague, a young talented and modest Chinese woman teacher who speaks good English. She nodded at my comment, searched for words, and replied “Yes. These people you see were displaced. They had to leave their homes when the government decided to build (20 story) apartment buildings or business parks where they had lived. After they are evicted from their homes, the Government provides them an apartment and a job. It’s sad,” she paused, “but that’s the way of things here in modern China.”

My wife visited me during Autumn vacation and we toured the Yangtze, starting upriver from Yichang. As the cruise progressed, I kept thinking about the million+ people displaced from their previous homes along this colossal river after the government determined to build the Three Gorges Dam. Entirely new cities were constructed 150m above the old water level to “accommodate” this throng. Their new apartments had toilets and electricity and internet (and would be paid for by the government) and they were assigned jobs. The tour guide on our ship explained that the electrical power generated by this largest dam ever built in history had already paid for itself after 10 years. Mountains of fresh water could now be pumped North where it was scarce, and electricity everywhere was now cheaper. He paused, and then admitted that if some (countless) families were displaced, well, such be the consequence of progress. The docent finished his discourse and seemed genuinely proud of all this. And by a certain calculus, he was right.    

These displaced people — including the fellow I saw mowing the park grass — are all older than me. But they work, and they are happier for it. And I wonder if there might not be a lesson here that America needs to learn?

Rick Swenson is teaching International Baccalaureate Math in China these days. Some of his adventures are posted in his blog Dancing with the Dragon.

I keep wondering where are the unemployed, neglected people in this Chinese city? Living here for a year now I keep looking, and except during my occasional Saturday trip downtown to a museum in the wealthy, manicured, target-rich touristy part, I see no beggars or homeless people. 

One Saturday as I visited my local bank, I happened upon an old blind couple — perhaps married — playing historic 3 stringed instruments near the corner of a busy intersection, both seated on upturned white buckets. Their music was haunting. Who stopped to admire their grit? Who cared about their misfortune? Some clearly did, and I did, and after listening to their mournful duet, tossed into their open coffee can 20 RMB, but I never saw them again, and imagine authorities eventually chased them away. 

Here in my burgeoning new town, on the far outskirts of Shanghai, I notice all sorts of people perpetually engaged in ugly labor, at hours that amaze me. Everyone has a task, everyone seems dedicated and busy. I see little idleness. Sunday is not special. Every day is someone’s work day.  

Many laborers are dressed in long sleeved uniforms and wear wide-brimmed hats to shield themselves from the relentless sun. They lay a thousand bricks in a week to beautify a sidewalk. They sweep the same sidewalks with their straw brooms. They stand at store entrances with frozen smiles to welcome shoppers. They remove restaurant refuse in sloppy buckets from the back alley. They deliver packages and mail from their over-loaded mini-bikes in every weather. They guard apartment buildings, or wash unimaginably huge windows. On the sidewalk outside their small shops they make windows for the mammoth buildings springing up everywhere. They sell a dozen varieties of vegetables I have never seen before and live fish (and sometimes live birds.) They work in restaurants that twice each day feed hundreds of construction workers who are building this new town. They are resident “Moms” in my school dormitory who wake at 4 AM to wash clothes for 200 students and hang them to dry upstairs on the 6th floor, outside in the Shanghai sun. 

In early morning when I cross the street to visit my neighborhood Starbuck’s for a coffee, I notice old people walking methodically through back alleys scrounging empty glass beer bottles, or plastic, or cardboard throw-away. They collect this refuse and continue looking for more, because there always is more. I imagine at the end of their 10-hour work day they turn it in to a collection depot nearby and collect 200 RMB ($30.00) and for them that is probably a good day’s wage. They do not collect welfare, or social security, or disability, or donations from the rest of us. And they smile when I pass them on our different ways. 

These “poor people” might be the most Noble people I have ever seen.  

Last May, my high school division sponsored a festive day of competitive intramural athletics in the nearby park — including games of team jump rope, Frisbee golf, relay race, and eventually the most plebeian Chinese sport of badminton. During the 1 hour relay race, I noticed a sun-burned older fellow mowing the lawn of the park where we were contesting. He pushed his 21-inch lawnmower while a younger (supervisor) followed him for a few wide circles in his golf cart. This seemed insane to me. The poor fellow would be mowing this park area for 10 hours to achieve what one large, golf-course dedicated mower could easily accomplish in 30 minutes.  

Later that afternoon back at school, I shared my observations with a colleague, a young talented and modest Chinese woman teacher who speaks good English. She nodded at my comment, searched for words, and replied “Yes. These people you see were displaced. They had to leave their homes when the government decided to build (20 story) apartment buildings or business parks where they had lived. After they are evicted from their homes, the Government provides them an apartment and a job. It’s sad,” she paused, “but that’s the way of things here in modern China.”

My wife visited me during Autumn vacation and we toured the Yangtze, starting upriver from Yichang. As the cruise progressed, I kept thinking about the million+ people displaced from their previous homes along this colossal river after the government determined to build the Three Gorges Dam. Entirely new cities were constructed 150m above the old water level to “accommodate” this throng. Their new apartments had toilets and electricity and internet (and would be paid for by the government) and they were assigned jobs. The tour guide on our ship explained that the electrical power generated by this largest dam ever built in history had already paid for itself after 10 years. Mountains of fresh water could now be pumped North where it was scarce, and electricity everywhere was now cheaper. He paused, and then admitted that if some (countless) families were displaced, well, such be the consequence of progress. The docent finished his discourse and seemed genuinely proud of all this. And by a certain calculus, he was right.    

These displaced people — including the fellow I saw mowing the park grass — are all older than me. But they work, and they are happier for it. And I wonder if there might not be a lesson here that America needs to learn?

Rick Swenson is teaching International Baccalaureate Math in China these days. Some of his adventures are posted in his blog Dancing with the Dragon.



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