I live near the Li Shui Qiao subway stop in northern Beijing. Subway line 5 was built just before the 2008 Olympics to make this expansive, polluted city easier for tourists to navigate. The other day, a taxi driver told me that, leading up to the Olympics, the government taught local Beijing citizens how to properly queue up in lines so as to make Beijing more hospitable to foreigners. All taxi drivers were taught two English phrases: “The pollution is very bad today.” and “Tomorrow the air will be cleaner.”

I teach English at a Chinese school near Tiananmen square, so I take the subway to work each morning. Every day on my way to the subway, I stop at my favorite street food stand. The lady who runs it is probably in her seventies. I practice my new Mandarin phrases with her and she occasionally tells me what the weather is like in her hometown of An Hui. (Most street food vendors are migrants from other parts of China.) Each street food vendor has their own specialty—hers is a large pancake, sprinkled with spices and crunchy fried dough, which is folded upon itself and eaten in the form of a sandwich. These pancakes are the most popular street food in Beijing. She spreads the batter out on a large griddle with a small hand trowel using her left hand while she sprinkles spices onto the pancake with her right. She does this so many times throughout the day that when she is making change for larger bills with her right hand, her left hand continues to ceaselessly turn in the air from muscle memory. I remember reading somewhere that when convicts were shipped to Australia, some of them had their left legs shackled to cannonballs to prevent them from jumping ship. When they arrived at their port and their legs were freed, their left legs continued to jerk towards the sky for many weeks afterwards whenever they walked. Even though my street food lady is not a convict, she does live in a kind of cage.

She lives on the far side of the train tracks in a small shanty town of corrugated metal shacks. When I leave my apartment, I am able to cross the train tracks using a pedestrian bridge that the government built to make it easier to reach the subway. The bridge is regularly cleaned and painted, and it has a rotating collection of hanging propaganda signs that encourage people to do their civic duty. The signs say things like: “United by one heart”, “Bells ring for the Chinese dream”, and “Help each other, watch safely!”  There is no pedestrian bridge from the shanty town, so every morning the citizens of the shacks climb the steep embankment and cross the tracks to begin preparing their street food for the day. 

The other thing about my street food lady is that she died last week. When she was crossing the tracks at 5 AM, a train struck her. There are streetlights which illuminate the pedestrian bridge, but the government didn’t put any lights down by the shanty town. No one is supposed to be living there, and the government doesn’t want to encourage squatting. The shanty town also has no propaganda signs. If there had been signs, then there would have been lights too—a government mandate says that all government signs must be properly illuminated at all times.

I read about her death in the China Daily newspaper. Ordinarily, the paper would not report on the death of a street food vendor. However, the clean-up caused a brief disruption in the train service, and the newspaper column was assuring readers that the line was back up and running now. The column was on the back page which reports local Beijing news. Her death was written about right next to a column by the China Daily food reporter—he reported on how popular street food is for tourists who visit Beijing.

About the author:

Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia. She currently lives and works as a writer in Minnesota. Her work has been published in Goats Milk Mag, JMWW Journal, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and Zoetic Press, amongst others. She enjoys reading, podcasts, and long, slow films. Find her on Twitter @ZaryFekete.

Feature image by Bianca Bonifacio on Unsplash