Building Dreams in Beijing

By Janelle Clausen

BEIJING- Gao Yanwei works as a waitress nine and a half hours a day, six days a week, serving countless tables with a smile so she may change her destiny. Nearly every day she walks to her job at the Inner Mongolia hotel from her and her husband’s tiny one room apartment. It costs about 500 RMB- almost a week of her salary. There’s no kitchen or bathroom- just a bed for the two of them. But they know there will be more for them when they return home to Hebei province.

Gao is one of the 250 million migrants, often working in construction, service, retail and other industries in China, seeking their fortunes in big cities all across the country. They face myriad challenges, from discrimination to homesickness, bad living conditions, low wages and the inability to get government help. But to Gao and countless others, it’s worth it: they hope their big-city jobs might help them fulfill big dreams.

She and her new husband (they met at the hotel restaurant and married back in May) aspire to open their own restaurant back home. Gao knows that a luxurious restaurant would not be successful because of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. The government crackdown on lavish official banquets would discourage people from ordering lobster, for example, which costs more than $100, or Chinese liquors, which can cost more than $1000 a bottle. And so they have decided to open a diner-style restaurant instead.

The couple thinks they can use the skills they have developed during their time in Beijing to run their business. Her husband, a chef at the Inner Mongolia hotel, plans to handle the food. Before her work at the Hotel’s restaurant, Gao worked as a secretary at Foxconn, a global electronics manufacturing company, for a year. Her experience will translate to running the front desk. Six years of working at the Inner Mongolia’s restaurant have prepared her well for waiting tables at her new business too.

Four years ago, this all might have been different. Gao had the opportunity to work with the wife of John Woo, a famous director in China and known in the United States for “Faceoff” and “Mission Impossible II.” Mrs. Woo took an interest in Gao at the hotel and wanted to hire her as a personal assistant. She chose not to go. Gao says she doesn’t regret staying—especially since she is focusing on the future now.

Gao is already thinking about her long term dreams. She is hoping to give birth next year, in the Year of the Goat, which according to the Chinese zodiac, will bring good luck. They will move back home to Hebei, where their family and friends can help out—and they can start their new business. All the hardship they endured in Beijing will have been worth it.

“I will not let my kids walk the same path I took,” Gao says.

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