From Streets to Pages: Inside the Life of a Beijing Courier
Editor’s note: During Lunar New Year in 2020, Hu Anyan, who was unemployed at the time, passed his time at home by writing and regularly posting his stories online. Among these tales, “My Year Working Night Shifts for Deppon Express,” was a hit with readers.
The story and other jottings by Hu have been compiled into a book titled “Beijing Courier,” which was published earlier this year by Insight Media. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, was far from Hu’s first foray into writing. He first picked up the pen in 2009, and, in the more than a decade since then, has moved from one city to another doing all kinds of jobs, including working as a security guard, bakery apprentice, convenience store clerk, bike salesman, and online store employee. This eclectic work history has led him from Guangdong province to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, to Yunnan province, to Shanghai, and finally to Beijing, where he worked as a courier.
Hu candidly shares that he turned to reading and writing as a way to escape the bleak reality. But he has come to realize that life is too short to live in bitterness. His written recounts of these varied job experiences reflect his positive attitude toward life and the world around him. They tell the story of an individual choosing to find meaning in the constraints and, at times, arduous existence. Ultimately, Hu’s book tells a lesson that happiness is less about the absence of hardship and more about seeking significance in the minutiae of everyday life.
The following is an excerpt from “Beijing Courier”:
Gaoloujin, a village on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, has a total of 16 buildings. Numbers 1 through 7 are for villagers who’ve been relocated back to their original place of residence, while numbers 8 to 16 are for newcomers from other regions. It’s easy enough to deliver packages to the former, as the elder members of these local families are typically at home throughout the day. Even on the rare occasions when they’re out buying groceries, I can usually leave their packages on their doorstep or in their power hub. The villagers form such a tight-knit community that no one — not even someone handing out pamphlets — would dare go anywhere near a package for fear of alerting hawk-eyed neighbors.
In contrast, the newer residents are a far more mixed bunch. Most of them are young migrant workers who live together as roommates. They all go out to work in the daytime, leaving no one to answer the door. With little neighborhood connection and lots of non-residents coming in and out at all hours, delivering packages here is a risky business. The first time I went there, a coworker working the same route asked me to deliver packages to buildings 8 through 16, while he took care of numbers 1 through 7. Every day, I was rushed off my feet delivering packages to three separate areas: half of Gaoloujin, a nearby residential complex called Xincheng Leju (New Town Joyful Dwellings), and a film and TV studio. By the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted.
Gradually, I grew bitter about my job. I soon realized that some areas were easier to deliver packages to than others. This leads to a sort of competitive game among coworkers, with some snatching up easier assignments, leaving the rest with the harder ones. New recruits are always stuck with the worst assignments, prompting many to quit after only a few weeks on the job. Those who have worked their way up are assigned to easier areas, making them more likely to stick around, while their former assignments are passed onto fresh hires.
Usually, people aren’t too picky when they first start, but they gradually become aware of the disparities. This change in attitude can occur in as little as a month or two, or even faster. If things don’t pick up for them soon enough, workers will throw in the towel. This means that each team is half made up of veteran members hellbent on staying and others changing from one shift to the next.
On one hand, I feel that quibbling with my partners over assignments is beneath me, but on the other hand, I don’t want to work with people intent on taking advantage of me. If I were to finish work later than them, all while earning less money, I’d become frustrated and resentful — and that in turn would make me indifferent about my job. Much like the fish in the ocean’s depths are all blind, and animals in the desert can go days without water, my resilience is a result of my environment rather than something I was born with. The truth is that, at first, my working conditions left me irritable and reckless. I couldn’t live up to my own expectations, nor did I want to. There were times when not caring so much about my performance helped alleviate my dissatisfaction. For example, I once cursed out a woman I’d never met before. I remember it so vividly because it’s something I hardly ever do.
Generally, when we deliver parcels to small residential communities, we don’t bother removing the key from the ignition when getting off our delivery trike. Doing that hundreds of times a day would be a huge waste of time as no one in these communities would think of stealing such a vehicle. One day, as I was carrying a box of packages up a building, I happened to glance out from the second floor just in time to spot a middle-aged woman placing a toddler in my driver’s seat. He had both hands on the handlebars, pretending to drive. Realizing that all that separated them from disaster was a gentle twist of the grip, I dropped the box and rushed downstairs. Around the same time, one of my coworkers forgot to put the handbrake on and the wind sent his trike rolling straight into a sedan. He had to pay 1,600 yuan ($220) in compensation. I couldn’t help but imagine the consequences had that little boy accidentally twisted the throttle. If he’d hit the car in front of him, I’d never have been able to cover the damages. He also might have run over a pedestrian or, worse, fallen off and been crushed by the back tire. The mere thought sent shivers down my spine. I roared at this woman, and all she could do was look at me with this dopey, sheepish expression. I still remember telling her, “For children to be so brainless is one thing, but their guardian, too?!” I had actually borrowed that line from a movie starring Ge You, a famous actor in China.
For couriers, paying compensation is par for the course. Most of the time, it’s due to lost packages, but there are other circumstances. One time, a guy working for Yunda Express was speeding around Gaoloujin on his trike. When he had to swerve abruptly to avoid a pregnant woman, his trike flipped, shattering the windshield. Though the woman and her unborn baby escaped unharmed, the incident left her shaken. After paying 2,000 yuan in repairs and compensation, he decided to call it quits. I recall the anguished look on his face when he recounted the incident. I imagine he wasn’t any less scared than she was. The highest and most absurd compensation I’ve ever heard of involved an accident at the Fangheng Dongjing complex on Linheli Road, when a courier broke a pipe or a fitting while jamming mail into a fire hydrant, causing water to gush out and flood the elevator shaft. He had to cough up 30,000 yuan in damages.
In contrast, I’ve been pretty lucky during my six months working for Company S. Not only have I not lost any packages, I haven’t had to compensate anybody either. There was just one time when I delivered a box of room-temperature fruit to a woman living at Gaoloujin. When I knocked, she yelled for me to leave them on the doorstep. This request is quite common, as some people have pets they need to scoop up in their arms before answering the door or are cautious about opening the door to strangers, especially if they are single women. I can of course understand their concern, even though I doubt anyone would try to pass themselves off as a courier and commit a crime in a place like Gaoloujin.
So, I left the package just as she asked, only to receive a call moments later from its recipient, telling me that she refused to accept it. I explained to her that requesting me to leave it at her doorstep is considered accepting the package, and I had already sent a notification in our delivery system. Once that notification is sent, it can’t be undone. She said, “How can this service be so impersonal? How can the notification not be changed if it’s only been two minutes?” I replied, “I couldn’t even change it a second later, let alone two minutes. If you think you might want to reject a package, you have to inspect it when I deliver it. Otherwise, how can I know that you haven’t tampered with it?” What’s more, even though I didn’t say anything at that moment, it had actually been 20 minutes, not two minutes as she claimed.
She began to make a scene, asking me how I could have accepted the delivery on her behalf before she had a chance to check the contents. Her behavior, with her petulance and illogical arguments, infuriated me to the point that I figured I’d be better off paying for the package rather than wasting any more time dealing with her. I therefore shelled out several tens of yuan (I can’t remember the exact amount, but it was for a box weighing a couple of kilograms) to return her package to the sender. When I went to pick it up, she’d placed it back by the doorway, but it was evident that she’d opened it and resealed it. Throughout the entire ordeal, I never once saw her face, as she was intent on protecting herself from the outside world, yet she was the one who extorted money from me. I hardly know what to say to such a person.
There was another time when I made an elderly person in their 60s or 70s wait by the side of the road for almost three hours. What’s worse is that I don’t recall feeling an ounce of guilt.
For various reasons, many people don’t like to leave a complete address on their order form, which complicates my job. Once, a recipient at Gaoloujin hadn’t specified the building or door number, just the name of the complex. I called him five minutes before I was due to arrive and he told me that he didn’t even live there — he just went to the market there every day for groceries. He told me he was just about to leave home and would arrive in half an hour, requesting that I wait. But my trike was loaded with an entire morning’s deliveries and I couldn’t spare five minutes, let alone half an hour. I told him to call me when he arrived, but after starting my round at Gaoloujin, I completely forgot about him.
During the whole time, he didn’t call me once. It was only after I had completed my deliveries for the morning and was waiting to receive the next load that an old man standing by the side of the road, next to the market, called out to me. With his wispy white hair and thick eyeglasses, he must have been at least 70. He asked, “Young man, are you with Company S?” I told him I was, a little impatiently. By that point, I already had a hunch about who he was. I hurriedly took his package from my trike and handed it to him. “I waited for you here all morning! How come you never waited for me?” he complained. I was stunned to realize that he’d waited for almost three hours. I retorted, “How come you never called?” He replied, “I couldn’t reach you.” Indeed, it was hard to get a hold of me because I had no signal in most of Gaoloujin’s elevators and corridors. When I had called him earlier that morning, the anxiety from navigating morning traffic may have made me sound less friendly. Moreover, I always find people who don’t provide a complete address profoundly annoying. If you’re so concerned about your privacy, perhaps you should avoid using an express delivery service altogether.
That said, I didn’t realize that the recipient was so old. I explained to him that, with so many packages to deliver each day, I couldn’t afford to wait for anyone. Perhaps he hadn’t heard me clearly, but he replied, “It’s outrageous. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that the customer is God?” I was dumbfounded for a second, but then instinctively snapped back, “But usually, there’s only one God. Do you have any idea how many Gods I’m serving in one day?” This made him laugh. In the end, he wasn’t really angry — he was simply trying to provoke a reaction from me. He turned out to be quite the joker himself, slightly shaking his package before telling me in a comical whisper, “I asked you to meet me here because my wife didn’t want me to buy this.”
Company S also often receives packages ordered through TV infomercials. Some customers order clothes, and upon receiving them, they make you wait around while they try them on. If the clothes don’t fit, they reject them and expect you to fold them and put them back in the box. Naturally, we’re not paid for any of this. Once, I delivered a peculiar item that resembled a cross between a teapot and an electric kettle, containing a dozen or so fragile, intricate components individually embedded in Styrofoam to prevent breakage. After unpacking everything, the recipient decided that they didn’t want it after all. I spent half an hour painstakingly repackaging everything. Because of these unfortunate encounters, I loathe TV shopping.
On another occasion, I delivered a package that was clearly purchased through one of these infomercial companies to a sweet old lady at Gaoloujin. She’d bought an English-speaking robot as a present for her grandson. She wanted to open the package and test it but couldn’t figure out how it worked. So, I patiently waited alongside her as she read the instructions even though it wasn’t my responsibility. I noticed that the product itself and its packaging and instructions were crudely made, likely some knockoff from Huaqiangbei, an electronics market in Shenzhen. At most, it was worth a few hundred yuan, but I saw on the order that she had spent over 2,000 yuan. The old woman didn’t seem happy with her purchase either, primarily because it looked much smaller than it had on TV. Although I didn’t think it was worth what she’d spent, I felt it wasn’t my place to intervene, so I simply told her, “When it comes to technology, bigger doesn’t mean better. Sometimes, the smaller it is, the more it’s worth.” She was clearly still on the fence and called customer service while I waited. No one picked up her call. She hung up and dialed again. In that split second, I caught a glimpse of her phone screen and saw the number had been flagged as “sales fraud.” Then, I overheard the person on the other end trying to coax her into making a payment, claiming that if any issues arose, she could call back for a refund.
She hung up, though she didn’t appear any more at ease. She seemed flustered and, perhaps out of apology for making me wait, turned to me and said, “I’ll pay. If I’m not satisfied, they’ll give me a refund anyway.” Suddenly, I felt sad, though I couldn’t explain why. She was clearly better off financially than I was, but it was more a matter of principle than one of money, even though I personally wouldn’t be happy about wasting that much. I mustered the courage to say, “Once you pay, they might not be as accommodating.” She looked at me in astonishment, likely assessing my intentions. I explained, “I don’t think this robot is worth more than 2,000 yuan.” She sighed. “I don’t think so either, but I’d feel bad about making you come out here for nothing.” “It’s fine,” I reassured her. “I’m just a courier. It’s not like I’ll lose any money.”
Truth be told, if she had bought it, I would have received a 0.02% commission, but it would never have been worth the regret.
This article, translated by Lewis Wright, is an excerpt from the book “Beijing Courier” by Hu Anyan, published by Insight Media in March 2023. It is republished here with permission.
Editors: Xue Ni and Elise Mak.
(Header image: Couriers work in Beijing, Dec. 20, 2022. Hou Yu/CNS via VCG)