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Authors: Xinran

Tags: #Social Science, #Anthropology, #Cultural, #Women's Studies

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BOOK: The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices
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4
The Scavenger Woman
By the wall of the radio station, not far from the security guards, there was a row of small shacks pieced together from scrap metal, roofing felt and plastic bags. The women who lived here supported themselves by collecting rubbish and then selling it. I often wondered where they were from, what had brought them together, and how they had come to end up there. In any case, it was wise of them to have chosen a relatively safe place for their shacks, just a shout away from the armed guards on the other side of the wall.
Among the scattered huts, the smallest of them stood out. The materials from which it was built were not different, but it had been carefully designed. The scrap-metal walls had been painted with a bright sunset, and the roofing felt had been folded into a castle-like turret. There were three small windows made from red, yellow and blue plastic bags, and a door made of coloured cardboard woven with strips of plastic sheeting, which would have no difficulty keeping out the wind and rain. I was moved by the care and attention to detail that had obviously gone into building this flimsy hut, and found the wind chimes made of broken glass tinkling gently over the door especially poignant.
The owner of this scrap castle was a thin, frail woman of over fifty. It was not only her shack that was unique; she too was set apart from the other scavenger women by her appearance. Most of the women had dishevelled hair and dirty faces, and were dreadfully ragged, but this woman kept herself neat, and her worn clothes were scrupulously clean and well mended. But for the bag she carried to collect rubbish, you would never imagine she was a scavenger. She seemed to keep to herself.
When I told my colleagues what I had observed of the scavenger woman, they piped up one after the other that they too had noticed her, not wanting me to feel that I was in any way unique. One of them even told me that the scavenger women were keen listeners to my programme. I could not tell if they were mocking me.
From the sidelines, Big Li, who reported on social issues, rapped his desk with a pen, a sign that he was about to give his younger colleagues a lecture.
‘You shouldn’t pity the scavengers. They are not poor at all. Their spirits transcend the mundane world in a way that ordinary people can’t imagine. There is no room in their lives for material possessions, so their material desires are easily satisfied. And if you take money as a standard by which to judge people, you will find that some of those women are no worse off than people in other jobs.’ He told us that he had seen a scavenger woman in an expensive nightclub, covered in jewels and drinking French brandy at a hundred yuan a glass.
‘What nonsense!’ retorted Mengxing, who worked on the music programme. To her, the difference in their ages alone meant that she never believed anything Big Li said.
Normally the most cautious of men, Big Li unexpectedly got the bit between his teeth and offered to make a bet with Mengxing. Journalists love stirring things up, so everyone else enthusiastically started pitching in with suggestions about what the stake should be. They decided on a bicycle.
To carry out the bet, Big Li lied to his wife saying that he would be doing some evening reports, and Mengxing told her boyfriend that she had to go out and research contemporary music. Every night, for several days in succession, the two of them went to the nightclub Big Li claimed was frequented by the scavenger.
Mengxing lost. Sipping whisky, the scavenger had told Mengxing that her income from selling rubbish was 900 yuan a month. Big Li said that Mengxing had been in shock for hours. Mengxing earned about 400 yuan per month, and she was considered one of the favoured employees of her grade. From then on, Mengxing was no longer particular about the artistic value of a job; as long as she could earn money, she would take on absolutely anything. Everyone in the office said that the loss of her bicycle had brought on this new pragmatism.
Despite having noticed the tidy woman who lived in the scrap castle, I had not paid much more attention to the manner in which the scavengers passed their days. Frankly, part of me shied away from them. However, after Mengxing’s encounter, every time I saw people scavenging I would try to guess if they were really ‘fat cats’. Perhaps the scavenger women’s shacks were just their workplaces, and their homes were ultra-modern flats.
It was the pregnancy of my colleague Xiao Yao that prompted me to get to know the scavenger woman. As soon as Xiao Yao found out she was going to have a baby, she started to look for a nanny. I could understand her starting her search nine months in advance: finding someone reliable to look after a child and do the housework was no easy task.
My own nanny was a kind, honest and diligent nineteen-year-old country girl, who had fled alone to the big city to escape a forced marriage. She had some native intelligence, but it had never been given the help of education. This placed all sorts of obstacles in her way: she could not tell one banknote from another, or understand the traffic lights. At home she could be reduced to floods of tears because she could not get the lid off the electric rice cooker, or would mistake gourmet pickled eggs for rotten eggs and throw them in the bin. Once, she pointed to a litter bin by the side of the road, telling me in all seriousness that she had put my letters in that ‘postbox’. Every day I would leave careful instructions about what she should and should not do, and would telephone regularly from the office to check that everything was all right. Fortunately, nothing ever went terribly wrong and she and PanPan had a very loving relationship. There was one time, however, when I had been unable to stop myself being angry. It was winter and I arrived home after my programme to find PanPan, then only eighteen months old, sitting in the stairwell of the fifth floor, dressed only in a thin pair of pyjamas. He was so chilled by the bitter cold that he could only cry in faint moans. I hastily gathered him in my arms and woke the sleeping nanny, reproaching myself for not being able to give my child the time or care a mother should.
I never discussed my own childcare difficulties with my colleagues, but I heard plenty of horror stories from other people. The newspapers were full of them. Careless maids had let children fall from fourth-floor windowsills to their deaths; others, ignorant and foolish, had put children in washing machines for a wash, or shut them in the fridge during a game of hide-and-seek. There were cases of children being kidnapped for money, or beaten.
Few couples were prepared to ask their parents for help with childcare, as that would involve living under the same roof. Most were prepared to have their lives made a bit more difficult in order to avoid the critical eyes of the older generation. Chinese mothers-in-law, especially the traditional or less educated ones, were legendary for terrorising their sons’ wives, having cowered under their own mothers-in-law in their time. On the other hand, a woman giving up her job to be a full-time mother was impracticable, because it was next to impossible to support a family on an average single income. House-husbands were unheard of.
Listening to Xiao Yao’s pleas for help to find a trustworthy, affectionate and cheap nanny, Old Chen responded flippantly, ‘There are so many women around picking up scrap, why don’t you ask one of the poor ones to work for you? You wouldn’t have to worry about her running off, and you wouldn’t need to pay her a lot either.’
People say that men are good at seeing the big picture, and women are good on detail. Like all generalisations, I have never believed this to be true, but Old Chen’s throwaway remarks amazed me with the kind of genius-bordering-on-idiocy that you sometimes find in men. I was not the only one who felt this way. Several of my female colleagues were also beside themselves with excitement: ‘Yes! Why didn’t we think of that before?’
Confirmation of Chairman Mao’s famous words – ‘A single spark can start a prairie fire’ – swiftly followed. Choosing a scavenger as a nanny became a subject of fevered conversation among my female colleagues for several days. Since all their children were of different ages, they thought they might find someone they could share. They made detailed plans about how to supervise and assess her, and what kind of rules to set.
Soon after, I was asked to attend a ‘women’s meeting’ in the small meeting room next to the women’s toilets. No sooner had I sat down and asked uneasily if they had not called the wrong person, than they announced that I had been unanimously chosen as their representative to pick a nanny from among the scavenger women living by the radio station. In a militant manner that brooked no argument, they set forth the criteria that had led them to choose me as their representative. This was the first time my female colleagues had displayed any approval of me. They said that I appeared sincere, that I had the human touch and common sense, and that I was thorough, thoughtful and methodical. Despite suspecting them of ulterior motives, I was touched by their estimation of me.
Over the next few days, I started inventing excuses to go over to the scavenger women’s huts. But the results of my observations were disappointing: looking at the women rooting around for salvageable rubbish, it was difficult to imagine them as caring, reasonable people, let alone think of inviting them into the home. They wiped their snot on to anything within reach, and those who had children tucked them under their arms to leave their hands free for picking rubbish. With only a piece of paper to shield them, they relieved themselves by the roadside.
The only scavenger woman worth considering was the owner of the scrap castle. In her daily activity, she seemed to display kindness, cleanliness and warmth. After several false starts, I worked up enough courage to stop her on her way home.
‘Hello! My name is Xinran, I work at the radio station. Excuse me, but may I have a word with you?’
‘Hello. I know you. You’re the presenter of
Words on the Night Breeze
. I listen to your programme every night. What can I do for you?’
‘It’s like this . . .’ I, the radio presenter who could talk endlessly in front of the microphone, suddenly grew so incoherent that I could barely follow my own babbling speech.
The scavenger lady was quick to grasp what I had in mind. She replied calmly, but decisively. ‘Please thank your colleagues for their good opinion of me, but it would be very hard for me to accept their generous offer. I like to live an unfettered life.’ She swept away all the persuasive talents my colleagues had seen in me with one quiet sentence.
When I reported back to my colleagues, they could not believe their ears. ‘The great radio presenter can’t even talk a scavenger round . . .’
There was nothing I could have done. The look in the scavenger lady’s eyes prevented all argument. I felt that there was more than simple refusal in her expression, but did not know what.
From then on, observing the scrap castle and its owner became part of my daily routine. One evening in the second month of autumn, I finally got another chance to get close to the little hut. After I had finished my programme, I walked past the scavengers’ shacks as usual. When I passed the scrap castle, the faint sound of singing drifted out – it was the Russian folk song ‘Grasslands’. I grew intensely curious. After the Cultural Revolution, China had been through another Cold War with Russia, so not many people knew this song; even fewer knew it well enough to sing it. My mother had studied Russian at university and taught me the song. How had the scavenger woman come to know it?
I drew closer to the scrap castle. The singing suddenly stopped, and the specially designed window opened silently. The scavenger lady, dressed in a home-made nightdress, asked, ‘What is it? Do you need something?’
‘I’m . . . I’m sorry, I just wanted to listen to you singing, you sing really well!’
‘Really? Xinran, do you like that song?’
‘Yes, yes! I like it a lot. I’m very fond of both the words and the tune, especially late at night. It’s like a perfectly composed picture.’
‘Can you sing it?’
‘A little, not well. I can’t seem to convey its flavour.’
‘You radio people are funny. You make words live, but can’t sing. What’s the flavour of a song then? Sweet? Sharp? Bitter?’
‘Excuse me, but how should I address you?’
‘You all call us scavenger women, don’t you? I think that’s a good way to address us, so just call me Scavenger Woman. Scavenger Woman is just right for me.’
‘Isn’t that a little inappropriate?’
‘Don’t worry about it, Xinran. Just call me Scavenger Woman “A”, “B” or “C”. It doesn’t matter. So you were just listening to me singing to myself. Was there nothing else you wanted?’
‘No, I was just passing on my way home after the programme. When I heard you singing that Russian folk song, I thought it was a bit out of the ordinary. Excuse me, but may I ask you how it is that you know it?’
‘My husband taught me the song; he studied in Russia.’
The Scavenger Woman did not say much more, or invite me inside her castle, but I did not mind, for the Russian song had given me a small key to her memories.
After our conversation that night, the Scavenger Woman did not show any particular warmth when she saw me again. My mind was buzzing with questions: Her husband had been a student abroad, so how had she drifted into this life as a scavenger? Her speech and gestures were so refined – what sort of family did she come from? What kind of education had she had? Did she have children? If so, where were they?
Not long after that, as New Year was approaching, I went on a reporting trip to Beijing. A friend at Radio Beijing suggested a visit to the Lufthansa Centre, a shopping mall that sold famous foreign branded goods. I spotted a box of Russian liqueur chocolates. It was expensive, but I decided to buy it anyway. My friend tutted at my ignorance: the best liqueur chocolates were Swiss, who had ever heard of Russian liqueur chocolates? But I wanted to buy them for the Scavenger Woman. I felt sure that someone who could sing a Russian folk song so well would appreciate them.
BOOK: The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices
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