Beijing Lights: ‘Nowhere is home, yet everywhere is home’

Society & Culture

"My whole life I will probably never spend a few dozen kuai on a restaurant meal, or get to stay in a hotel. But does that make my life incomplete? I don’t think so."

(Interviewee not pictured)

Beijing Lights is a column written by Huang Chenkuang, published by the Beijing-based literary arts collective Spittoon, in which she tells the stories of the marginalized from their point of view. We’ll be syndicating one column every month. This latest was originally published under the headline “Nobody is Born to be a Thief,” and appears here with slight edits.

Note from Kuang:

I met this homeless man near Chunxiu Road, where he was lying on a street bench with a book by the Chinese philosopher Féng Yǒulán 冯友兰 flipped to page 197, totally absorbed in the material. During our conversation, his references ranged from history to philosophy, and he easily drew quotes from philosophy masters like Wáng Yángmíng 王阳明 from the Ming dynasty.

He told me he got separated from his parents when he first visited Beijing in his early teens. As for some of my other questions — like about his name and other family members — he wouldn’t comment. When I went back to visit him on the second day, the bench where he sat was as empty as if he had never existed.

Male, 47 years old, nameless, homeless

My whole life I can only remember traveling on a train twice.

The first time was in my early teens, when I followed my father to Beijing. As soon as we stepped out of Beijing Station, we stepped into a sea of people. My father and I were squeezed apart by the crowd. I cried out for him but my voice was easily swallowed in the commotion.

I don’t even know where my hometown is. My father worked in all different places. When I was a kid, I followed him wherever he went. I only have the faintest memory of him saying the name of our hometown once while drinking, but I can’t recall what it was.

Just like that I was left alone in Beijing by myself. I had nothing in my pockets — not even an ID card or hukou registry.

One year, just before the annual National People’s Congress, the authorities were clearing Beijing of all residents without IDs. They sent me to Fuyang, a small city in Anhui, saying that they’ll help me get a hukou there.

Instead I was dumped into a juvenile detention center for the mentally challenged. There wasn’t a single normal person there, and every day people got into fights. I wanted to escape but couldn’t find a way out. So I started a hunger protest. By the seventh day, they finally let me go.

The second time I took a train was the trip from Anhui back to Beijing. Back then you didn’t need an ID card to buy a train ticket. Why did I go back to Beijing? I don’t have an answer. I guess I didn’t have a better option. Wherever I went didn’t make much of a difference to me.

I supported myself by working odd jobs on construction sites. In this kind of work it was common not to get paid enough, or on time. Sometimes after you’ve been on the job for a while, the boss just runs away and we had nowhere to receive our wages. When I had no money to buy food, I would go to the store and steal some. I knew it was wrong and it filled me with shame. But I was too hungry to care about my dignity. Nobody is born to be a thief or homeless.

I’ve only attended a few years of school, but I’ve liked to read ever since I was young. Because I earn so little, I really need to think it over every time I make a purchase. Also, for those of us working odd jobs, we never get to settle in one place. Books are heavy to carry around. So I’ll just read whatever is at hand. Newspapers, magazines, novels, I read them all. I’ve started to read philosophy in the last several years.

Another homeless man used his ID to register a library card for me at the street library. With the card, I can borrow two books each time. I’d like to read more Western literature so I can learn more about Western culture. Without a national ID card, my body is stuck here in Beijing, but my spirit can travel to faraway places with these books.

In the past, I’d rather starve to death or steal than forage for food from the trash. Now I don’t care anymore. I get three meals a day, all from the garbage can. You wouldn’t believe what people throw away. Full or half bottles of Maotai wine, cigarettes, milk, boxed lunches, milk tea, untouched take-out, pu-er tea bricks, chargers, power cords. Literally everything.

My whole life I will probably never spend a few dozen kuai on a restaurant meal, or get to stay in a hotel. But does that make my life incomplete? I don’t think so. I don’t crave food anymore and I’ve even started fasting now and then, sometimes for seven days in a row. I want to encourage everyone to stop wasting food. Even though China has developed and people don’t go hungry anymore, as long as there are still people in the world starving, we shouldn’t waste food.

I was introduced to Buddhism by an older fellow. I chant amituofo every day whenever I feel like it, as a way to pray for the wellbeing of all living creatures. I believe I’m connected with everyone else even though we might not know each other. For example the moment that these pedestrians walk past me, the connection between us has formed. Even if the connection is subtle.

I see myself as someone who has already died several times. Besides jumping out the window, I was once hit by a car. Its wheels almost crushed my head. The driver sped away after the accident. The policemen didn’t care either, as if my life wasn’t even a life.

I barely think about the past anymore, let bygones be bygones. I feel grateful for everything, even those who harmed me. I wouldn’t even call it harming. They are part of my experience, that’s all.

Don’t ask for my name. Is a name important? It is just a label. Call me Heart or Circle or One Two Three, it doesn’t matter. Asking where I come from is a meaningless question too. As the Buddhist tells us, “Human beings come from nowhere, and go to nowhere.” It’s the same for all of us — nowhere is home, yet everywhere is home.

Check out the Beijing Lights archive on Spittoon.