Mr. and Mrs. Old Man River are my 1st floor, downstairs neighbors.
Of course, that’s not their real names. It’s really Mr. Zhen, age 84, and his wife, Ms. Wu, age 60. (In China, the wife keeps her maiden name. The children take the name of their father.) But as a term of endearment, I use Old Man River, or River for short.
I’ve known this elderly couple for over 7 years. When I first came to the school, I lived directly above them. Their daughter is a teacher at our college and since these are the faculty apartments, they were all living there together. When I first arrived, there were 5 of them in their dingy 3-room apartment: Mr. and Mrs. River, their adult daughter, her 4-year-old son and the father. A very tight squeeze but Chinese are used to these kind of living arrangements, including the shabby conditions of these on-campus living conditions. Mold growing from the dank concrete walls, leaking toilets, wires dangling from ceilings – not very conducive to healthy living.
Now, it’s just Mr. and Mrs. River living there together.
Their daughter and her family privately bought a brand new, fancy apartment off-campus which they enjoy to the fullest. They invited the grandparents to live with them but they refused. This is their home along the Yangtze River. To leave this place and live clear across town without easy access to their friends or familiar surroundings is not to their liking.
And so they have remained in the tiny, dark school apartment with frequent visits from their grandson and daughter, usually on the weekends.
A Happy Competition: Recycling
What keeps these two busy?
Well, both the Rivers are experts at collecting recyclable materials.
This is one of the greatest pastimes of many elderly all across China. Finding plastic bottles, glass, cardboard, paper, rubber and Styrofoam, collected from trash heaps, trash cans and directly off the ground, is a great way to make money. Recycling venders for all sorts of materials make weekly or monthly pick-ups in their trucks after being called by locals. They weigh the carefully packed items and pay X amount per pound, depending on what the current rate is for what material. University campuses tend to have the most customers for this kind of money-making project, mostly because there is a wealth of recyclables to be found due to student consumption of bottled drinks not to mention discarded books and papers, especially at the end of the school year.
So as on any Chinese campus, we have a very healthy competition going between the elderly on who can collect the most stuff to make the most amount of money.
Early Morning Ventures Provide Fruitful Findings
I would have to say Old Man River and his wife provide very stiff competition for these recycling “contests.” They are both up early morning (6 a.m.) and quite late at night (10 p.m.) to get the best selections from what the campus dumpsters and grounds have to offer. Early morning is the best since students stay up late, strolling around the campus at night while eating snacks and enjoying drinks, the remains of which are left strewn everywhere. Students in China are horrible at throwing things away in the proper receptacles. They just don’t do it. They are used to tossing their trash immediately on the floor of classrooms, dormitory hallways or outside on sidewalks and grassy areas. Education on environmental responsibility is growing in China but is still a new concept for many in the countryside. Their feeling is it’s the duty of workers to pick up trash so why should they bother lending a hand? This of course leaves our recycling clans quite happy as they can spot discarded items a mile away without digging through the filthy trash cans. Thus early morning ventures, which Mr. and Mrs. River participate in daily, are very fruitful.
Old Man River’s Recycling Heaps Bring Great Rewards
Before leaving for the Luzhou airport a few weeks ago, Mr. River had compiled all his recyclables in neat, tidy piles outside our building. He was busy with his Chinese calligraphy brush, dipped in dark ink, marking the stacks with the poundage after weighing them using his traditional Chinese scales. He carefully recorded on lined paper each category on a piece of paper, the amount designated per pound, his weighed amount and the price he should be paid.
As I dragged my suitcase up the outside steps of our building on my journey to the States, the recycle truck was already parked in front of me. The driver was busy reweighing and adding up my neighbors’ amounts while the two of them looked on to make sure the numbers were accurate.
Looking down on all the collecting the couple had accomplished in 2 weeks was quite inspiring. One of those bagged piles could be attributed to me and my Diet Coke fetish. I always make sure the Rivers get my plastic Coke bottles and cans to add to their stash. This is my way of contributing a few dollars to their bank account every so often, something they are always appreciative of.
I did take a peek at the total this time around: 269.30 yuan ($44.88).
Not at all a bad haul for such diligence.
My Small Town’s Recycling Fever Falls Flat
Back in the States, I watch as so many in my small town set out huge garbage bags full of paper, glass, plastics and cardboard to be tossed into our town’s landfill.
My mother refuses to add to that heap so we have a 4-station recycling area set up in the garage. When her small bins get full, she loads everything into the car and drives over to the nearby city (Terre Haute, 15 miles away) where Indiana State University has a wonderful recycling center for the community to drop off all their materials. When I’m at home, we usually make at least 2 runs to the center before going out to eat at a local restaurant
There is always a great feeling of accomplishment after emptying all these items into their separate bins, seeing all that would have been polluting the planet had we not bothered.
I can only imagine this is the same satisfaction my neighbors must get after every pick-up from the recycle guy. Not only are they making our campus more beautiful by their efforts, not to mention getting plenty of exercise in doing so, but bringing in spending money for themselves.
Sure, dependence on adult children to supply their monetary needs is very acceptable in this culture but it’s still nice to know that, at ages 84 and 60, their ingenious self-sufficiency is still hard at work in their lives.
And on that last note, here’s wishing you Ping Ahn (Peace) for your day, with a gentle nudge aimed in the recycling direction for those not inclined to do so. (Hint-hint!)