The post 80s generation

The true story of a soy sauce man

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A typical work day for Li the soy sauce man

During the Spring Festival, I took a trip across a large part of China, with short stays in three prefecture-level cities: Xingtai in Hebei, Mianyang in Sichuan, and
Rizhao in Shandong. This article is the first of a series depicting my firsthand observations of these lesser known Chinese cities.

Li, the central character, is a former-classmate of mine who has been a traveling salesman for a Guangdong-based soy sauce brand.

See also Part II of The true story of a soy sauce man, and the companion video.

Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi is known for being the cradle of the Chinese communist revolution. During my stay there from 2004 to 2008, I often heard locals proudly referring to their city as the "city of heroes". Though I had reservations about such a cliché, nothing prevented me from exploiting this soft spot to gain local favors. It seems to me, flattery is always the first strategy to find friends.

But my friendship with Li the soy sauce man did not start with flattery.

Our first encounter was on a scorching September day, typical in Nanchang, a city that is called one of China's "four ovens" (四大火炉). We were inside a small branch of the Construction Bank, crammed in with hundreds of freshmen who needed to deposit their tuition fees. In the midst of a cacophony of hundreds of dialect-tinged human sounds, I was attracted by an overpowering voice with a distinct Sichuan flavor.

"What are you talking about? You should know that the comfort of home does you no good. For a real man, home is wherever he is... Explore the big world, that is exactly why I am here! ..." A bespectacled student, rather tall, passionately admonished his sad-looking and much shorter friend. His speech went on and on, and I decided that he was either a self-righteous hypocrite, or a bully who derived great pleasure from making other people feel miserable.

So that night, after a disorienting day of lining-up for various registrations, university-issued items and what must be the most pompous of speeches, we were allowed to retire to our designated dormitories. Exhausted as I was, I didn't even notice that there was another person on the opposite bed busily setting up a mosquito net. When he first spoke out, I recognized him instantly: Oh no, not the preacher boy!

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Our graduation photo: Li is second from left in the second row

As if my first impression of Li wasn't negative enough, a string of incidents in the following days deepened the chasm between us. The reasons, like most things that make people dislike each other, were not important: To me, Li had too little self-control over food: he ate too much and the noises he made when eating made it hard for me to concentrate on my reading. When he spilled some grease from one of his snacks on a book I lent him, what started as a small row spiraled into a full-scale cold war.

But time did the magic. I guess by the end of our time together as classmates, we both had became mature enough to put things into perspective and got used to each other's different approaches to life. But it was one day last year when I received a unexpected phone call from Li that I realized we were after all real friends. I was excited to be in touch again. Last year when he asked if I could accommodate him for the October holiday, I said it wouldn't be a problem; when I learned later that he couldn't make it, I told him I might be able to visit him soon.

At that time I had little idea about his whereabouts and what he did except a vague idea that he worked for a soy sauce company and traveled a lot. Through our few brief phone conversation, it seemed he always called from a different city: Foshan, Taiyuan, Tangshan, Shijiazhuang. This even lead me to adopt a new way of greeting him: Where are you this time?

The last time, he told me that he was in Xingtai, Hebei Province, a city that I had difficulty to pinpoint on a map despite once learning the name in my middle school geography text book.

On January 28 this year, I got up early and took subway to Military Museum, which is north of the West Station. A motor tricycle driver took me to the station for five yuan; that was less than half the fair of a taxi ride. While I was waiting for the train, a shocking scene unfolded in front of me: a man was held against the wall by another. At moments the man seemed trying to break himself from the aggressor's grip, but all his effort didn't amount to much. While I was there he never cried out for help. It was like watching a terrible violent movie with sound turned off. My high spirits about traveling to a new place were dampened a little.

It took five hours to get to Xingtai. I received a message at the platform from Li telling me to wait for him to pick me up. Out of the exit gate, taxi drivers were touting services to the arriving travelers; it reminded me of TV programs showing North American grizzlies catching salmon during the breeding season. It was obvious that these drivers had it tougher than their colleagues in Beijing, who never have to bargain for 10 minutes about five yuan.

Li looked a little fatter; other than that, nothing had changed. He appeared as cheerful as he used to be and he was laughing as always. After measuring me up, he told me "You haven't changed at all". I told him that I had been commissioned to write a story about his life as a traveling salesman and make a short documentary about it.

Li was cool with the idea. After all, he had been one of my two avid cheerleaders for my endeavor in making short videos when we were students together. My other supporter insisted that we should make a porno with him being the leading male role. Li never went that far, but did volunteer for my experimental efforts. This time, he agreed to let me follow him on his daily routine in Xingtai and document everything I saw - a big favor given how often I meet people who shun a video camera.

We did not have long to make the video: after I arrived, Li told me he was about to quit the job. I asked him if it was because of money.

"It wasn't about money", he said, "I am just tired of this way of life". He longed to return home.

A flashback took me back to the very first day we met and his speech at the Nanchang bank about the high adventures that he dreamed of. Even during the last days at university when we didn't see each other around that often, he once told me how excited he was about the prospect offered by his job to see a bigger part of the country. So what happened during his one and half years of working experience?

Li was hired in the winter of 2007 by a Guangdong soy sauce company. The news that a soy sauce company went to the university for hiring didn't inspire much enthusiasm among the students. Soy sauce, a condiment made mainly from fermented beans, is such a common item that in Chinese language, the reference "油盐酱醋茶" (oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea) usually carries an undertone of exasperation regarding the mundanity of daily life.

Like other daily necessities, the virtue of soy sauce is often under-valued for the same reason King Lear was enraged by his daughter's comparison of him to salt. How much angrier he would be had his daughter told him: "Daddy, I love you as much as soy sauce"!

So for a while after Li got hired by the soy sauce company, within our small living quarters where such information travels fast through gossip, people joked about the "soy sauce seller". Innocent as the joke appears to be, there is a well-concealed sense of contempt: traditionally soy sauce was sold by street peddlers, not well-educated university graduates. What a waste!

I have to say most would-be graduates have similar self-images when it comes to career choices. Most want to land white-collar office jobs, ideally in one of the big cities, for one of the top 500 multinationals. They want to look as posh as the actors in any Korea soap opera. If that is unobtainable, stable employment within the state system is also welcome. For many students, teaching at a school or passing the test to be a public servant means guarantee of a permanent contract as well as considerable protection from the uncertainties of the market economy.

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A university job fair at my university in 2008
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Students waiting outside of the job fair to submit their resumes

But Li had his own mind. In the summer of 2007 when the bullish stock market seemed on steroids, everywhere you went, people were talking about stocks. Even in our class, professors gave their insight into the markets. With no independent means, Li gambled his total tuition fee on stocks. He got lucky: by the time the university angrily called his unwitting parents and threatened to demerit him, Li had made a handsome return enough to buy himself a brand new mobile phone.

In September 2008, Li went from Nanchang to Foshan with the work contract he had signed nine months previously. But he didn't start working right away.

In the first days of his employment, Li practiced goose-stepping and standing erect in the scorching sun under the instruction of PLA soldiers. Such practices were supposedly ordered by the past leader Deng Xiaoping, who was aghast by the liberal bent of the university students expressed in the famous June and believed that military training would instill discipline into them and correct what must be personality flaws. Now, this type of military training has become so popular that even corporations have adopted it to train their new employees.

Right after the "military training", Li and the other new employees started to toil in the production lines, no different from the less educated "ordinary workers": brushing bottles, loading trucks, sealing cartons. This was supposed to serve two ends: to shed the university graduates' sense of entitlement associated with their better education, and to eliminate the feeble ones who were not ready for hard work. After a month of intense labor, classes were set up where corporate values and marketing were the two major subjects. "They want to implant into you the faith that the company is the greatest and that you should feel privileged to be part of it and should do everything to glorify it"

Two months later, with a mind deemed proper for work, Li was sent to the company's Tangshan office with another three newbies, they were put under the charge of the senior people already there and were supposed to put what they learned in books into practice as well as acquire skills from their more experienced colleagues.

- to be continued

There are currently 2 Comments for The true story of a soy sauce man.

Comments on The true story of a soy sauce man

yummy.....soy sauce......

Li is the soy sauce king!

I have fond memories of Nanchang - in fact given a choice between living in Nanchang or Guangzhou, Nanchang would win hands downs.

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