Seen/Unseen

My life as the local foreigner (part 4)


When I first arrived in Shanghai, I was shocked at the ease with which people threw their trash on the floor. Food wrappers, spent cigarettes, and even chicken bones were left on streets or subway carriages. Despite the pervasiveness of the practice, it was rare to see garbage piled up in any one place.

Where did all the droppings of uncivilized society go? Was it the work of diligent elves or perhaps the thousands of public workers hired by city governments all across China?

Walking around in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, I constantly ran into public workers sweeping the streets, washing down trash cans, or taking care of the insane amount of planting along sidewalks.

From the early hours of the morning until late at night, it was impossible to not run into one. One could find them doing a variety of tasks, from weeding the lawn to replacing concrete pavers.

It was also quite common to see the workers doze off in the middle of the day.

Who could blame them for being tired when their job was to fight a fruitless war of cleanliness against a public that held no responsibility for the public realm?

And despite all the good that they did, no one seemed to ever acknowledge their presence. The haughty public looked down on them as if society could function without their existence.

Everyday, we take the work of public workers for granted. Imagine what our cities would be like if there were no one to sort the garbage or no one to clear the vomit from the drunk who had one too many the night before?

It is an unpleasant, thankless job that no one wants to do.

And they do their job, rain or shine.

We think so little of them in our daily lives even though they are the ones that make our cities liveable.

For a moment, think about the work they do for us, the public, even though we so rarely acknowledge of their existence, much less thank them for their work. Perhaps next time, when you see a public worker, you could give them a small token of appreciation.

A smile or a nod, perhaps even a word of thanks. They are not invisible elves but workers that deserve to be seen.


Part 4/7 of My life as the local foreigner, a series of photo essays exploring my time working abroad in China. To keep up to date on my latest adventures, follow me on Instagram.