FROM THE DESK OF: Deo
New York has been like a tundra for the last couple of weeks. Just ice sheets and mounds of frozen snow on the sidewalk. The worst part is the wind piercing through my clothes no matter how many layers I wear. The thing about me is, when it’s cold like this, I get really nostalgic.
It was Chinese New Year last week—and during this period, I’m always reminded about that time I briefly lived in Beijing. This year, for some reason, I wondered about my old coworker Milly. Sometimes you meet people, and because of circumstance, you end up spending a lot of time with them. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, there will be a moment when you suddenly realize that you’re around a really good person. But, just as suddenly, and also because of circumstance, you lose all contact with this person like they never existed. I wanted to know whatever happened to Milly.
Usually, when I wonder about somebody, I just check their Facebook account or Instagram or any form social media and find out. But since she lives in Beijing, and none of those things are allowed there without a VPN, I couldn’t find out anything. It was like she completely disappeared from the face of the Earth. The only way for me to know how she was doing was to find her email address and ask her.
Let me tell you the backstory. Three years ago, I interned in Beijing for three months after I finished graduate school. From September to November, I was working for an international non-profit that planned an annual world environmental conference. That summer, before I left for China, I told the interviewer that I wanted to be challenged and do some meaningful work there instead of watching cat videos on Youtube. When I finally did get there, I wasn’t very thrilled when all I did was watch cat videos on Youtube. In the first week, I edited an old transcript of the previous year’s conference which I later figured out was already edited—they just gave me the task so that I will have something to do.
After a month of surfing the internet and not even bothering to do the work anymore because it was useless, I apparently passed some kind of litmus test. The boss finally gave me a real assignment, which was to start visiting foreign embassies and environmental organizations to formally invite them to speak at the conference. I was partnered with Milly, who until then hadn’t said a word to me.
Our first assignment was go to the Finland Embassy to invite the ambassador to speak at the conference. When we got to the Embassy, we asked the guard that we were there to speak with the ambassador. He told us that his office was not there, it was in one of the top floors at the China World Trade Center located in the Central Business District. We had gone to the wrong address. We decided to walk to the building as it was only about a twenty-minute walk from where we were. Halfway on our walk, clouds rushed in, a lot of clouds, and it started to pour down heavily.
We shared her umbrella, but I was still half exposed. She was wearing heels and clung to my arm to balance herself. When we finally arrived at the building and made it to the top floor, I felt self conscious about how I was half soaked. The view was spectacular. We sat in the conference room as the right side of me was still dripping and she explained her program and he explained initiatives that Finland had in Beijing. I sat there wet and taking notes.
The sun was out when we were back on the streets. We were supposed to return to the office, it was still mid afternoon, but she pulled me aside and told me, “Listen, we stayed in the Embassy till 4:30pm okay? I’m going home and you should too. Tomorrow, I won’t be at the office. You shouldn’t either. We both got rained on and have caught a cold.” I could sense some resentment in her voice, but I wasn’t sure. Maybe this was her way of getting even.
I didn’t go in the next day. I toured the city. When we got back to work the day after, she had told the boss exactly what she’d planned to say. He had no choice but to believe it. I didn’t have to explain anything. Later that afternoon, the Ambassador called and agreed to speak at the conference. From then on, we were the team, visiting Embassies and environmental organizations every week.
The boss didn’t like that we didn’t come back after we went out to Embassies. He started having us driven around just to make sure that we would get back in the car and back to the office. Coming back from the French Embassy, she told me how much she hated the boss and how much she wanted to get out of there.
She had been lied to. She was lured from her previous job with promises to be paid a lot more money. When she started working, the boss changed his mind and she was only paid 1400 yuan a month, equivalent to $214 dollars. In the U.S., there are laws to prevent these things from happening, but she couldn’t do anything about it there. The boss had political connections (the President’s brother was the funder). She was paid this despite the fact she was the only Chinese staff who could speak fluently in English and that she did most of the work. She was now struggling because of what the boss did. She kept pitching plans to me on how to make extra money. “Okay how about this, you buy a lot of iPhones and then we can sell it here.”
“I’m not getting enough nutrition now. I can’t afford any vegetables.” She used to say.
In our car rides, she would confide in me that she made a mistake taking this job and that she needed to change her life. She was in her thirties now and in China that is too old to be single. She should be married, but it’s too late for her. In China, nobody wants to marry someone in their thirties. She also wanted to buy a house, but that is also not possible, first because of the money situation, but also because she’s not originally from Beijing and that only Beijing-born residents can buy a house there.
We started eating lunch together everyday. She told me she chose her own name and that it was Milly because she loved Minny (Mouse) and that it sounded the same.
In November, a new intern, Tom, joined us along with new staff Triston and Niyao. They all would explain to Tom and I that this was not normal. We were in a very corrupt organization. We learned that the turnover rate was 100%—nobody had lasted longer than six months. The boss recruits people by promising them money he won’t give.
One of the new staff, Triston, came from a very rich family. He didn’t need the job, he just wanted the experience. He used treated us to hotpot dinners. When the boss didn’t give him his money, Triston called his family and threatened the boss that he will be sued. The boss knew how powerful his family was and so he paid him. The other staff weren’t so lucky. One of them didn’t have that kind of safety net, so he couldn’t do anything except punch the boss. He was fired.
Despite all of that, my experience was still amazing. Getting to travel with Milly and seeing all the Embassies in Beijing and planning a world conference was a lot of fun.
Earlier this week, I found her email address and wished her a Happy New Year. She told me it had been a very long time since I left. She updated me on her life. She now works for a local NGO in the field of green education. She tells me her work is busy, but meaningful—much better than the one we worked at. By the way, she added, she’s also married now—with a guy who works for the Ministry of Environmental Protection. They have a new house, and if I ever visit again, they will invite me over and cook me dinner.
I’d like to imagine that meal having a lot of nutritious vegetables.