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August 14, 2009

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Students learn to survive in the city with just 50 yuan in their pockets

IT might be mission impossible to survive in a big city like Shanghai for 15 days with only 50 yuan (US$7.35), but 21 college students from Zhejiang Province have made it happen.

Six boys and 15 girls, from freshmen to sophomores at Zhejiang Normal University, left their ivory tower to venture into the real world this summer - painfully so as they faced hard work, the cold shoulder, cunning bosses and financial struggle. They leave Shanghai tonight.

The unusual "Testing Viability" program has been an annual tradition since it was launched by the university 10 years ago with the aim of putting innocent young souls straight out into the cruel world and letting them know just how hard life can be.

Earlier versions have sent students to live in cities such as Xiamen, Fujian Province, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, Beijing and Tianjin. This year, they came to Shanghai.

The rules are simple. Each participant receives 50 yuan to cover 15 days in the city, to cover meals, transport and accommodation. This forces students to find jobs. Those who can't find jobs within three days are eliminated and sent back to campus.

Each one has a sealed envelope with 200 yuan inside to be opened in an emergency. But, at the same time, opening the envelope would mean the student has given up. In the past 10 years, no one has opened the envelope.

On the night of July 30, the 21 students, selected from 30,000 applicants after rigorous written exams and interviews and a two-week outdoor training course, arrived at the motel they had found on the Internet before the trip.

The place they lived in was a four-story, dilapidated-looking building under the pier of Yangpu Bridge in Yangpu District. Around it were a few dusty construction sites. It only took a five-minute walk from the motel to the ferry point by the Huangpu River, across from which was Pudong New Area.

The reason they chose it was because it was the cheapest place they could find in the city - 13 yuan a night, because it was so far from the city center and located in one of the city's poorest areas.

The motel was much more like a dorm, divided into girls on the second floor and boys on the third.

"It is better than we had expected," says leading teacher Shi Jia, who took part in the program when he was a student in the university six years ago. "They had hot water in the bathroom, and, wow, a TV and a mini library in the lounge."

Six people shared a room and on each floor there was a bathroom.

As soon as they reached the dorm, each student was required to turn over credit cards, any extra money and food to the two leading teachers. For the entire two weeks, college students could only count on a map of Shanghai and 50 yuan.

"We have to find jobs because rock bottom of possible daily expenses is 13 yuan if we don't eat anything," says 22-year-old Wang Chao, a second-year student.

It is always difficult to get things started and to "find a job is so damn hard."

The first day, as written in one student's diary, was spent getting in "millions of refusals and cold shoulders."

Wang and her fellow teammates set off to find jobs at 5am on the first day. In order to save the cost, the cheapest transport tool was foot. "A two-yuan bus ticket is too expensive. We have to save each coin," Wang says.

From 5am to 5pm, from the remote bridge pier to the crowded Wujiaochang area and then to busy Nanjing Road, they knocked on the door of almost every restaurant, small shop or supermarket, asking if they were short of hands and needed some temporary workers. Most of the time the answer would be "No."

"I've got a notebook to write down the employment information I saw along the road, and I would ask them again on my way back, in case some bosses changed their minds," sophomore Chen Mengna says.

When there is a will, there is a way. Through numerous refusals and attempts, most students found jobs, such as restaurant waitress, supermarket workers and shelf arrangers, English tutors for kindergarten kids, cage cleaners in pet shops and street vendors selling World Expo 2010 mascots, pencils, bottled water and newspapers.

To save money, the students never took the bus. They had to get up early in the morning and walk for at least two hours from the motel to the place they had found work. The ferry to Pudong was the most common mode of transport as it was only 0.5 yuan.

Free water

The three daily meals were three steamed buns, without any filling, one yuan for one bun. Each student carried a bottle and got free water in gas stations, supermarkets, hospitals and some public service institutions.

"Each noon, I buy a bun and sit in front of the gate of the KFC near my working site, and then kept hypnotizing myself - 'you are eating the fried chicken and the cheese hamburger'," says Wu Zhiyou, one of the boys in the team.

Li Yuanmei and Qian Yi found a job cleaning dog cages in a pet shop. The pay was 30 yuan a day per person. "I'm afraid of dogs, but I didn't want to be eliminated," Qian says. "I'm so grateful that I can get this job. I have to do it well."

The two girls gradually won the trust of the shop owners through their hard work. On the second day their boss taught them how to give a dog a bath, and on the third day the boss even gave them the shop key, telling them to open the door in the morning and walk the dogs.

Zhang Yibing and Guo Kaixiang found jobs in a supermarket. Zhang was asked to arrange the goods shelves in the stationery department and Guo worked as a hauler. The pay was 7 yuan an hour, which was quite high compared to other students.

"I swear that I won't mess up the shelves when choosing goods next time in the supermarket. Just to put them back in the right place can save a lot of trouble for a shelf arranger," Guo says. "And I won't be rude with the salesmen or the cleaners. They're doing their jobs and should be respected."

Zhang Dandan visited Shanghai as a tourist when she was in middle school. But this time she looked at the city in a much more different way with a deeper insight. "Shanghai is not only about towering buildings and bling-bling fashion people. It has another side, maybe poorer and bitter."

She found a job in a restaurant on the first day but on the second day she was fired because the boss hired a long-term worker. With the 20 yuan she earned the first day, the girl didn't know what to do next.

She wanted to go to Nanjing Road to see how the street looked today, but got lost. And then she wanted to see the Bund, but it was under renovation. "It was like everything was against you," she says. She found a quiet corner and sat sobbing for a while. Then she stood up and went out again to find new jobs.

Hu Yingjie and Liu Tiezhu were employed to do some odds and ends in an advertising company. Their main task was to climb scaffolding and put up posters. "The scaffold was swaying, like riding on a boat," Liu says. The only wish the two boys had was for a rainy day when they could work indoors.

Most of the students had part-time jobs as street vendors. They sold pencils, newspapers, toys and many other things on their way to and from work and during their lunch break.

They bought goods cheaply in bulk with whatever money they had in places such as Qipu Road, City God's Temple, the textile center in Pudong and the newspaper circulation center on Kongjiang Road.

Tang Lili and Xu Aoxue called themselves the "Newspaper Queens" as they found the newspaper business was quite good in Shanghai. "We can sell out a total of 60 Shanghai Morning Post copies in a morning, which was much more than we expected," Tang says. In the afternoon till 8pm, they worked in a cafe as waitresses. The pay was 20 yuan for eight hours.

"The experience gave them a much clearer picture of the enormous gaps between different people in society and the limitations of learning just from books," their teacher, Shi, says. "And what's more, they learn about 'no pain, no gain' and also learn to appreciate the help strangers give to them."

All the profits they made - 6,835.7 yuan - during the two weeks will be donated to charity.


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