In late July, I and about three dozen of my classmates from Zhejiang Normal University traveled 2,000 kilometers from our campus in eastern China to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in the country’s far southwest. Once there, we were faced with a challenge unlike any we had ever experienced: Arriving with just 50 yuan ($7.50) in our pockets, we had to survive in the unfamiliar city for 15 days. Fortunately, in the 17 summers our school had run this program, none of the approximately 600 participants had ever failed. This year, too, proved to be no different — but make no mistake, those two weeks felt like a real-life version of “The Hunger Games.”
This year’s participants were chosen from a pool of over 500 applicants — for some masochistic reason, we actually competed for the honor of being poor and hungry — all of whom were either second-year undergraduates or first-year grad students. We were told that in order to survive, past participants had resorted to everything from washing dishes and cars, to shining shoes, to delivering water, to performing in the streets. Some had even managed to get jobs on construction sites, where they found themselves hauling concrete and lugging sandbags around. While the school does send advisers to watch over us, they tend to take a noninterventionist approach, only stepping in when necessary to ensure our safety.
Unfortunately, no one seems to have given any thought to inflation and how it has given the 50-yuan stipend less spending power over the years. Whether due to the organizers’ optimism or to simple inertia, there have actually been no changes to any of the rules since the inaugural program in 2000: 50 yuan, 15 days, zero assistance. In addition to food, each participant must pay 20 yuan a night for a place to sleep. This means you have two choices: Either find a job within the first two days, or live with the shame of being the first and only dropout in the program’s 18-year history.
We adopted a “street-sweeping” approach to job-hunting, targeting office buildings, back alleys, and malls, but we were rejected wherever we went. In addition to the implicit requirement that we find work within two days, we were also burdened with restrictions and rules that make it exponentially harder for university students such as ourselves to find willing employers, as their initial interest would quickly turn to disappointment when they found out we were in school.
Back on campus, we live relatively carefree lives. In addition to the 1,000-yuan monthly allowance my parents give me, I also have a part-time job that pays me 400 yuan per month. The most affluent member of my class has monthly expenses totaling 20,000 yuan or so. Of course, some of my classmates come from much humbler backgrounds: Instead of receiving monthly allowances from their parents, they are expected to send a portion of their own money earned from part-time jobs home to support their families.
Living within one’s means involves a series of conscious choices, especially when it comes to food. Whenever my classmates and I felt our stomachs tightening, we’d start to get nervous. Some worked four jobs a day, only sleeping for a handful of hours each night. Others, in an attempt to save on food expenses, would eat no more than a few pieces of steamed bread in a day. In an attempt to minimize her expenses, a second-year psychology student haggled with a street vendor selling steamed buns for 1 yuan each. Eventually, the boss agreed to cut the price in half for her.
There were those who, after spending three days as salespeople and passing out flyers, managed to find work as basketball coaches. Others opened their own small businesses on WeChat, a popular social networking app, and sold Yunnan specialties such as dried-flower cookies. There was even an English major who made money from correcting clients’ pronunciation of English online. There were also those who found themselves on the second day with just 2.2 yuan in their pockets, facing imminent defeat. Yet we all persevered. Some of us could have easily used Alipay or WeChat Wallet, two ubiquitous mobile payment platforms, to quietly receive a few yuan from our friends, but no one wanted to cheat.
In those two weeks, every job I did was one typically performed by individuals at the lowest rungs of society, and many involved things I never thought I’d do. While manning a row of telephones, I gained a deep appreciation for just how robotic, boring, and hopeless a job can feel. Yet there really are people who spend years answering and transferring calls, or bouncing from one menial job to the next. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.
I sold newspapers, though few people in China read them these days. But once they heard about our mission, many of the city’s residents were happy to buy a paper just to help us out. Businessmen who clearly had no need for a newspaper paid for a copy to help us scrape together enough money for breakfast. Some elderly residents, too, purchased papers, though we doubted they could read the small print.
We often found ourselves crossing paths with the chengguan, the city management officers in charge of keeping order on the streets. They could have put up a fuss about some of our more unorthodox sales tactics, but instead they turned a blind eye. Some, we noticed, were even actively kind, warning unlicensed street vendors that they should close shop and go home early the next day to not be caught and fined during a routine street-clearing operation.
But not everyone we met in the city was so caring. On one rainy Saturday in Kunming, as my classmates and I were waiting to be paid, I spotted a middle-aged woman with the biggest eyes I had ever seen. I imagine her socks must have been soaked through, and she had wrapped her feet in plastic bags before jamming them into her shoes. “Next time I see you tracking in this much water, you can just get the hell out,” I overheard the person in charge tell her. She just laughed nervously and wrung her hands.
There was one participant who went to see a doctor and got cheated out of 1,000 yuan by someone selling fake medicine. Another turned his back for a second to try and sell a newspaper and had his phone stolen. As for me, toward the end of the program I tried to buy some Kunming specialty foods as gifts for my parents and almost got ripped off to the tune of 300 yuan.
According to our university, this “urban survival” drill is intended to help students adapt to both the competitive and cooperative sides of modern society, while also giving them the chance to experience living in the real world and finding a job. The university was concerned that its original curriculum had become removed from the realities of life, and that many graduates were leaving school unprepared for or maladjusted to what awaited them.
I believe that the great strength of universities lies in giving students the freedom to make their own mistakes. This was our first time stepping down from the ivory tower, and we suddenly found ourselves on the lowest rung of the social ladder. We quickly had to put aside our pride and conquer our fears. Yet after two weeks of hungry bellies and anxious minds, we had all survived. At the end of the program, the whole team together had earned a surplus of nearly 12,000 yuan, which we donated to underprivileged classmates who will begin school this fall. My parents never had the opportunities I’ve had in my life, and having now walked many, many miles in their shoes, I have a much deeper appreciation of what they must have gone through so that I can be where I am today.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and David Paulk.
(Header image: Two students rest on some steps during Zhejiang Normal University’s urban survival program in Kunming, Yunnan province, July 28, 2017. Courtesy of the university)