I live near the Li Shui Qiao subway stop in northern Beijing. Subway line 5 was built just before the 2008 Olympics in order to make this expansive, polluted city easier for tourists to navigate. The other day a taxi driver told me that, leading up to the Olympics, the government taught local Beijing citizens how to properly queue up in lines in order to make Beijing more hospitable to foreigners. All taxi drivers were taught two English phrases. “The pollution is very bad today” and “Tomorrow the air will be cleaner.”
I teach English at a Chinese school near Tiananmen square, so I take the subway to work each morning. Every day on my way to the subway I stop at my favorite street food stand. The lady who runs it is probably in her 70s. I practice my new Mandarin phrases with her and she occasionally tells me what the weather is like in her hometown of An Hui. (Most street food vendors are migrants from other parts of China.) They each have their own specialty. Hers is a large pancake, spinkled with spices and crunchy fried dough, which is folded upon itself and eaten in the form of a sandwich. They are the most popular street food in Beijing. She spreads the batter out on a large griddle with a small hand trowel using her left hand while she sprinkles spices onto the pancake with her right. She does this so many times throughout the day that when she is making change for larger bills with her right hand, her left hand continues to ceaselessly turn in the air from muscle memory. I remember reading somewhere that when convicts were shipped to Australia some of them had their left legs shackled to cannonballs in order to prevent them from jumping ship. When they arrived to their port and their legs were freed, for many weeks after their left legs continued to jerk toward the sky when they walked. Even though my street food lady is not a convict, she does live in a kind of cage.
She lives on the far side of the train tracks in a small shantytown of corrugated metal shacks. When I leave my apartment, I am able to cross the train tracks using a pedestrian bridge that the government built to make it easier to reach the subway. The bridge is regularly cleaned and painted, and it has a rotating collection of propaganda signs hanging from it in order to encourage people in their civic duty. The signs say things like “United by one heart” and “Bells ring for the Chinese dream” and “Help each other, watch safely!”. There is no pedestrian bridge from the shanty town…and every morning the citizens of the shacks climb the steep embarkment and cross the tracks to begin preparing their street food for the day.
The other thing about my street food lady is that she died last week. When she was crossing the tracks at 5 AM a train struck her. There are street lights which illuminate the pedestrian bridge, but the government didn’t put any lights down by the shantytown. No one is supposed to be living there, and the government doesn’t want to encourage squatting. The shanty town also has no propaganda signs. If there had been signs then there would have been lights too. A government mandate says that all government signs must be properly illuminated at all times.
I read about her death in the China Daily newspaper. Ordinarily the paper would not report on the death of a street food vendor, but the cleanup caused a brief disruption in the train service, and the newspaper column was assuring readers that the line was back up and running now. It was in a column on the back page which reports local Beijing news. Her death was written about right next to a column by the China Daily food reporter. He reported on how popular street food is for tourists who visit Beijing.
Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia. They currently live and work as a writer in Minnesota. Some places they have been published are Goats Milk Mag, JMWW Journal, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and Zoetic Press. They enjoy reading, podcasts, and long, slow films. Twitter: @ZaryFekete