When it rains or snows in Tangjialing, the dirt-covered streets become slurries of mud. On work days, legs and purses spill out the doors and windows of crammed buses.
To save her $300 a month salary as a data entry clerk, Shang Meirong showers only once a week in the winter and three times a week in the summer in Tangjialing’s communal bathhouse, which costs 70 cents per use.
“I don’t sweat that much in the winter and it’s not cheap, so we shower when we need to,” says Ms. Shang, a petite 22-year-old from Cangzhou, a city two hours outside Beijing.
The competition for jobs is fierce. Nearly 70 percent of high school graduates are expected to enroll in university this year, according to state media, compared with 20 percent in the 1980s. There are more college graduates than readily available jobs - a once unthinkable situation.
“Trying to find a job that pays enough to survive is much harder than I imagined,” says Ren Yanguang, who makes $150 a month as an intern at a local software company in Beijing, where the average income is four times that. “It’s frustrating because if I don’t find a job soon, then I’ll have no choice but to leave.”
Most Tangjialing dwellers, Mr. Lian says, come from farms and small cities and don’t want to return, fearing the boredom or being labeled failures.
“It sure sounds good if you’re a parent and you tell the whole village your son is working in the capital,” Mr. Lian says. “And it’s a huge deterrent because they want their family to be proud.”
For Mr. Liu, the computer engineer, coming to the capital city was a chance to live China’s version of the American dream. In his final year at Northeast Petroleum University, he rebuffed his parents’ efforts to get him a cushy job at a state-owned company back home in Jixi city. “I came to Beijing because I wanted freedom from them, too,” Mr. Liu says.
He wound up in Tangjialing late last year, about eight months after moving to Beijing. The village is near the software park where he landed a job, and he recruited two college classmates as roommates.
For about $90 a month, they got one of the better rooms, furnished with a queen-sized bed, two desks and a small wardrobe. It has a bathroom and, unlike the cheaper apartments, a small window that lets in slivers of light. They have attached a lounge-chairlike folding bed to the mattress in case someone rolls over or wants to spread out.
“When I first got here, Tangjialing felt claustrophobic with people living in such close quarters, but I got used to it and it quickly became home,” Mr. Liu says.
On the evenings he and his roommates aren’t clocking overtime, they grab dinner together - often instant noodles but sometimes stir-fried shredded pork and vegetable dishes bought nearby.
Entertainment is mostly chatting online with friends or playing computer games. Without much money, Mr. Liu confesses on his blog, life in the big city can be quite dull at times.
After taking a new job selling computer hardware in April, Mr. Liu’s $30 share of the rent allows him to set aside much of his $400 salary for a nest egg that he hopes will help him start his own software company one day.
“I always ask myself if it’s worth it,” he says. “When I was in school, this isn’t how I wanted life to be, but I chose this path so I can’t look back.”