Saturday, September 3, 2011

Life as an ant-person

Here in China the term "ant-people" ( 蚁族) has become popular in recent years to describe a certain demographic in Chinese society: the masses and masses of young people, often university graduates, living in cheap and overcrowded accommodation on the outskirts of big Chinese cities and shifting from one job to another.

Although I am certainly not part of that demographic (I have not heard of any "foreign ant-people" yet, although one day soon it may start happening), my current accommodation is making me feel like the definition fits me and my flatmates rather well. I am living in a flat on the 14th floor of a high-rise in Haidian district. The flat is one of the old-style Chinese ones, with no living room, but just a small kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms. It is facing a large junction, so that there is quite a racket from all the engines and hooting down below, especially when the windows are open. My flatmates are two young men, a Chinese and a Japanese, who work here. As is normal in this kind of place I didn't know my flatmates before moving in, and indeed I never even met them before signing the contract. There is also no suggestion that we should get to know each other.
There is an abundant number of flats of this kind around in Beijing: relatively cheap flats where young working people live, often for relatively brief periods of time (but it can be years). The atmosphere is almost like a hostel, so that although you share the same kitchen and bathroom with the others, you do not necessarily get to know them or ever feel that you are actually living together. There is normally no such thing as a living room, or if there is it goes unused, since people spend their free time surfing the internet in their own (often tiny) bedrooms, and do not feel that the rest of the flat is really their home. In fact, it is normal to lock your bedroom whenever you go out, since you are basically sharing a flat with strangers. Another feature of these flats is that while people keep their own bedrooms clean, there is no agreed rotation for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, so very often they are simply not cleaned, or cleaned only very rarely.

Last year I stayed in another flat of this kind for a few months, and there were two Chinese girls living there who never took the trouble to introduce themselves to me a single time while I was staying there. There were also three rather nice young boys from Guanxi province who were sharing a bedroom, and they invited me to chat and drink beer in their room a number of times.

Life for most of these young people (who are usually university graduates and work in offices) in a place like Beijing is often stressful and not much fun: they earn comparatively little money, they live in cramped and not very high-quality accommodation, they sometimes work overtime for no extra pay, and they have to commute for ages in unbelievably crowded buses and subway trains. Most of them come from other parts of China and make the long journey home only once a year, for the Spring Festival. Except if they go to some park in the weekend, the only scenery they ever see is a concrete jungle of high rises and more high rises, cars, people and polluted air above.
Most of them will also readily complain about how in Beijing 压力太大(the pressure is so great). Because of the stress and the pressure of living in Beijing, most of the city's locals have apparently migrated to the extreme suburbs outside the fifth ring road, where life is still comparatively less stressful. Within the fifth ring road, where the city proper is located, there are now only two million native Beijingers, and eight million waidiren, or outsiders.

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