How I Met A Member Of The Bang-Bang Army
“You need some help?” a voice behind me asked. I did in fact need help moving my new desk from the sidewalk, up the hill, and to my apartment. But after a day of jostling through Chongqing’s crowded streets and haggling at the second-hand furniture market, my bad mood prevented me from acknowledging anyone, especially a stranger, on the street at this time of night. "Hey," he persisted, “you need some help?”
Trying to inch the desk up the steep slope toward the complex gate, I quipped a terse but false denial: “No, this isn’t a problem.” After a few seconds, I succumbed once more to its awkward weight, having moved it a mere two feet. I cursed myself for choosing a desk made of solid wood, and imagined the ease of carrying one of the flimsier pieces I had passed over in its favor.
Once again, the stranger’s voice interrupted me from behind: “Come on,” he said, “it’s too big. I can help.” This time, he positioned himself at the opposite end of the desk, squatted down, and counted to three. Too tired to object, I followed his lead and hoisted the desk into my hands. “I live on the ninth floor,” I said to the short, lean figure peering at me from across the desk. He nodded in assent, then slurred out his fee in a thick Chongqing accent: 10 yuan, about $1.50. On instinct, I rejected his proposal and offered him half. And perhaps on instinct, he agreed.
Piqued by the novelty of his first encounter with an American, he asked a lot of questions as we maneuvered the cumbersome desk up nine flights of stairs and through my narrow apartment doorway. Are there heavy desks in the United States? How do you move them? How much do they cost? What do Americans eat? Is there any rice? How much is a plane ticket to China? How long is the flight? Are there really cowboys in Texas?
In the weeks following our midnight encounter, I noticed that my mysterious helper and I frequented the same strip of tattered shops and restaurants on the street below my apartment. I learned that his name was Mr. Zhang, and realized that nothing about me intrigued him more than my nationality. He often asked whether “my America,” as he phrased it, had this or that fruit, vegetable, or dish; whether Americans preferred apartments or houses, the countryside or the city; what kinds of jobs and professions Americans had; and always, how much things cost and how much people got paid.
Mr. Zhang, for his part, made about 12 yuan a day, or about $1.75. He saved half for his family, whom he had left to find work in the city. He ate steamed buns for breakfast and a big bowl of noodles or rice for lunch and dinner. If he earned more than 15 yuan in a day, he treated himself to a few ounces of homemade liquor infused with Chinese medicine at one of the local restaurants. He slept at an unmarked guesthouse, in a tiny room shared with four other people, for one yuan per night.
He told me he owned one pair of long johns, two T-shirts, two sweaters, one pair of pants, one jacket, and one pair of shoes. Without a shower, he bathed by ladling cold water out of a bucket and pouring it over himself. He drank boiled water and smoked Mountain City cigarettes, the cheapest local brand.
In Chongqing, a city of over 12 million people, thousands of migrant workers live and work exactly like Mr. Zhang. Called the bang-bang jun, the “pole army,” after the bamboo poles they use to carry goods throughout the city, bang-bangs come to Chongqing from the surrounding countryside to find work. Without city residence permits and without the advantages of education or political clout, bang-bangs live among the shadows of society, largely ignored by the city’s legal residents.
I grew more and more intrigued by the little man with the crew cut and Mao-era jacket, and in an attempt to get to know him better, I always approached him armed with a pack of cigarettes—valuable currency in any social situation in China. We always had something to talk about, but Mr. Zhang was a practical man and, like his questions about life in America, focused on practical matters. He wasn’t interested in baring his soul.
Perhaps the differences between us were too vast. His main concerns for the future dealt with immediate issues like the price of food and cigarettes, while I constantly wondered about the direction of my life, and for that matter, of the world. And even despite my relatively sparse living conditions in China, I owned far more than Mr. Zhang—including a heavy, wooden desk from which I could sit and muse.