“The future and past are dead. Seizing the moment is what matters,” Xue says. His words sound remarkably similar to a phrase I learned in my high school philosophy class: a man can never step in the same river twice.

It’s surprising to hear such words from a security guard.

Xue is 23 years old and comes from Xinyang, Henan province. His special perspective makes him a joy to talk with.

As a former firefighter, Xue is considered a veteran of the Chinese military. He retired from a Shanghai fire station in 2013 and came to the capital hoping for career development. Now he is working in a friend’s private security firm. But Xue probably isn’t satisfied: he constantly refers to his “veteran glory” throughout our conversation.

When I snap his photo, Xue stands at attention like a soldier.

In school we learned that military personnel – soldiers, armed police and firefighters – are the heroes who protect the country. It’s hard to imagine them ending up as common security guards.

“Beijing is the national capital. There are more people here, but also more opportunities and more to see,” Xue says.

During his four years in the city, Xue has scraped out a living as a street vendors and parking attendant before. His current work as a security guard is fairly typical and simple: he directs vehicles and patrols the grounds. In his free time, Xue helps ill or infirmed tenants to clean their homes. He boasts about chasing off a stalker a few weeks ago.

“I told [the woman] if her stalker dared to come closer, I would definitely kick his ass,” he says. Xue smiles as he recounts the story and gestures as though pretending to beat someone.

Such responsibility is rare to find in Beijing security guards.

But for a former firefighter, the work leaves much to be desired. “Serving as a firefighter was the ultimate glory. Working as security guard can’t compare, even if the occupations share some things,” he says.

“Security guards are definitely on the bottom rung.”

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In early June, the government announced the average salary in Beijing reached 6,463 yuan per month. Xue earns only 2,000 yuan. “Even friends working as salesmen in Wuyutai Tea make more than I do,” he says.

The 23-year-old Xue seems like a boy next door. Shy smiles appear from time to time on his face, and I couldn’t help wondering how he keeps his kindness and integrity in this city. Xue says most of his earnings go to a sister in Shanghai.

“I only earned 1,000 yuan per month when I first started working as a security guard. At that time, one of my friends had money problems. I lent him my whole paycheck and spent the next month living on steamed buns and water,” he says. “What keeps me fighting is hope for a better future.”

Xue drops terms such as “subjective,” “objective” and “conditioned reflex” while describing his thoughts. While not the most complicated lingo, it’s not quite how I imagined a security guard would talk.

I previously tried to interview another security guard surnamed Lu who always opens the gate for me when I forget my card, but I had to cancel because he spoke in nonsensical mumbles. He told me he was 19 years old and had only attended school for several years.

I tell Xue he should think about going back to school, but he shoots down the idea. He says schooling isn’t a magic wand that can change your life. Instead, he prefers making connections and relying on his personal ability. He hoped to find a job a mechanic when he first came to Beijing, but limited aptitude for car repairs left him stuck in security work.

“College students aren’t any better off than I am these days. So you go to school, then what?” he says.

Xue is not the only one who thinks that way. According to a 2012 report by Sina.com, 92 percent of former military members never pursue education beyond their high school diploma. As a result, many can only become security guards, laborers and drivers – the only low-salary jobs open to people of their educational background.

I searched Zhihu for information about former military people returning to school, but the lone post was depressing. “It is so hard for me to keep pace with my classmates. Most of my time is spent studying and taking exams for classes I missed during my service. If I fail even one class I won’t be able to graduate,” it reads.

With the state of the Chinese job market, it’s still hard to defend higher education as being all that necessary.

Throughout my conversation with Xue, I continue to sense a difference – a barrier between us. I understand we have different family backgrounds and life experiences, but it’s something more.

I spend the following days trying to figure out what was different and searching for an answer to Xue’s question. Frankly speaking, I ask myself why college matters almost every day.

I used to think that students at China’s top universities wouldn’t cheat, skip school or sleep in class, but my friend there told me that cheating is rampant. I wondered what the National College Entrance Exam is for? Just to classify students based on arbitrary academic criteria?

Days pass and the answer becomes clear: education is what separates people. Even though 90 percent the things I learned in college are of no use, that utterly useless knowledge shapes who I am today and who I will be tomorrow.

I am losing count of how many people have told me, “I can’t speak well so it wouldn’t be a good idea to interview me.” I used to regard their refusal as a polite excuse. As I speak to more people like Xue and Lu, I’m starting to understand their words have little to do with modesty.

Their limited education makes it hard to organize a coherent sentence and to say what they really mean. And because of that, many of them are confined to a narrow range of occupations.

“Knowledge gives the power to change your destiny.” It sounds out of step with the modern world, but this phrase appears true even now. Of course, it’s undeniable that there are other factors that contribute to success.

But in spite of the challenges ahead, Xue speaks about embracing life – about confronting adversity head on and seizing the moment to lay the cornerstones of his future.

Karena Hu

About Karena Hu

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Karena was born with the English name Karen but decided to add an “a.” She dreamed of a career in astronomy, but bad scores in physics kept her out of the science department. She seeks other worlds in reading and writing and is a super fan of the Hunger Games trilogy.

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