Living on the Sidewalk

There is a couple with a cute little baby – about 10 months old, who run a cigarette shop along the route we take to get to class. There are a MILLION cigarette shops in Nanjing, more than there are Starbucks in Seattle. In other words, you can’t go 25 feet without tripping over another one! Which makes perfect sense since it seems like about 75% of the male population smokes (I have yet to see a Chinese woman smoke in public – there seems to be a cultural prohibition on female smoking in public… lucky for the women’s lungs!).

I am realizing though, that this couple actually live right behind their cigarette shop in a very small cubby hole. They do their laundry on the sidewalk by hand, and they also cook with a portable stove hooked up to a propane tank on the sidewalk. Their cubby hole, as far as I can tell, is about 10×10 feet, and consists of a place to sleep and a place for their things. They hang their washed clothes in the trees on the nearest street corner.

As we’re paying closer attention, and exploring more and more of this city, we’re realizing that many people live in this sort of fashion – shacks constructed alongside buildings or small cubbyholes in the back of storefronts or restaurants. People get very very creative and industrious here to make their homes work as adequate shelter. And wow, can they make do on very little.

I walked past today on my way back from having lunch with JM, and as usual, I exchanged greetings with the mom (we share new motherhood in common, which is a bond that crosses any culture I know!). They were serving up their own lunch from their porta-stove, and eating on their ‘table’, otherwise known as their cigarette counter.

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