I don’t remember when the canteen in our community opened up. For me, it came out of nowhere. I am stunned when the shopkeeper tells me his canteen opened while I was in elementary school.
After so many years, I should have some memories – even fragments. The family running the canteen is friends with nearly every nearby tenant. The sounds in their canteen are a lively mix of conversation, laughter and television. It is the background music of the shop piling with all kinds of foods and daily necessities.
Only two needs send me into the canteen: bottled water and express parcels. Unlike my mother, who is always willing to chat or play with the shopkeeper’s 5-year-old daughter, I never say more than two sentences. So when I walk side-by-side with the 32-year-old owner surnamed Jing on a drizzling night, I have the strange experience of getting to know an old acquaintance for the first time.
As I summarize everything I want to ask, I get my very first opportunity to watch the shopkeeper closely. The dim light casts shadows on his emerald polo shirt and his wheat-colored skin. The dome light in his car gives a clear silhouette of his high cheekbones and pointed nose. Behind his blood-shot and weary eyes is the face of a kind and happily married man.
“I came to Beijing 15 years ago when I was only 17 or 18 years old. A few of my relatives lived here,” he says. Before running a canteen, he tried to scrape out a living by delivering water and driving cars. He took over the shop from one of his former employers and renovated it into a canteen.
But staying on the right track while self-employed is not as easy as it sounds.
“Relatives and friends chipped in money to open the canteen. At that time, I was too poor to buy the initial stock. Even if I finally found a way to do it, few people would even come in,” he says. He made only 60,000 yuan during his first year of business. But things grew gradually better – even his father moved from their hometown to help him with the swamped store.
“We only have time to eat two meals a day,” he says.
“Life is getting better. I’ve gotten to know the city, and that’s good for my business,” he says. He met his wife in Beijing and had a beautiful daughter named Snow. His friends from Shandong province are also doing well with their businesses here.
But when I ask whether he plans to move his family to live in the capital, his answer is something I don’t expect. He says his mother shot down that plan because she prefers a pastoral life.
“If my daughter goes to a Beijing elementary school next year, then yes, I don’t mind to stay longer. Otherwise, I want to go home. Life can be extremely boring if you run a canteen shop. This is not the lifestyle I pictured in my head when I came,” he says.
After a pause, his words remind me of the people I meet on subway every day.
I see too many people – both my age and older – who pursue their dreams in this city of possibilities, opportunities and challenges. They sacrifice their dignity, squeeze onto the super-crowed subway and sacrifice their sleep for paltry paychecks. Their faces show the same look: one exhausted, numb and poker-faced.
Beijing is not the city I remember from my childhood. The congested highway to Tongzhou at 1 am and the flooded bus stops at Guomao reflect the extremes to which people will go to chase their dreams.
At times, I feel like a bystander who will never share these troubles. I was born in the city and grew up without worrying about apartment rent or the sadness of leaving my hometown. I have my own battles, but theirs seem much harder.
An imperceptible smile lights up the shopkeeper’s face as he talks about his greatest wish. “I want my family to be happy, content and safe. Being rich doesn’t mean much to me. But my biggest hope is that my little girl can enroll in a local elementary school next year,” he says with a shrug.
Attending a local elementary school is a common problem for migrant parents who come to the big city to seek their fortune. As many as 160,000 non-native school-aged children are competing for admission this year. There are 28 certificates required to even begin the process, and most children are ultimately rejected.
After finishing the interview, I find the drizzle has stopped. I take my express parcel and put the lift button to go home. When I reach my floor, the corridor is in complete darkness except for shimmering city lights outside the window. I know they are not simply lights: they are homes, individuals and stories.
The shopkeeper is of many people struggling for themselves in the enormous city.
For most Chinese youth, megacities in China like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou are names that glitter. They are promises of a future.
This city, at a size 13 times that of Los Angeles and twice that of New York, is the home to at least 22 million people: 40 percent are migrants.
Fifteen years ago, when Jing first walked out of the train station and had his first glimpse of this city, he was probably lost. “When I first came to the city, I only hoped that I could learn to drive a car. What I have now is beyond my expectation.”
The annual income of his canteen is more than 200,000 yuan, twice the city’s average annual wage.
“Keep the greedy thoughts in check and be nice to the people around you. Take everything as it comes and only make one step at a time,” Jing says, “but the most important thing is to be really, really grounded in your work, your family and your life. There will be a reward. I’m sure of it.”
In silence, I realize Jing might have given me one of the best lessons in life: dreams can come true.
The canteen in our community remains an alien location that materialized into my life. However, it now bears another layer of meaning – it’s a place that reminds me of millions of people fighting for their dreams in this city every day.