February 14, 2018

Every Bottle Counts: For Elderly Immigrants, Recycling Replaces China’s ‘Bitter Labor’

By Janie Ziye Shen

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Every morning in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Chinese-born grandmas and grandpas stream towards a recycling center on 62nd Street. They carry bags or drag shopping carts overflowing with bottles and cans they have collected over the course of days or weeks, each redeemable for 3 cents.

While the first Chinese immigrants to settle in Sunset Park were Cantonese, since the 2000s an increasing number have come from Fujian province in Southeast China. Many older Fujianese emigrated with their grown children, arriving in New York City without knowing a word of English.

Back in China, they were farmers, and were used to hard work, or ku gong (literally, “bitter labor”).  In Brooklyn there is no land to cultivate and, for them, there are no jobs to be found. Rather than staying idle, many turn to recycling to fill their days. Collecting bottles and cans is a way for them to be productive, contribute to their families’ incomes, and not feel like a burden on their children. For these grandparents, every bottle counts.

 Grandmother Cheng stands outside the 62nd Street recycling center. Cheng moved to New York 10 years ago from Fujian. She has a daughter and son and three grandchildren, but none of them live near her.  She feels a lot of guilt that she is unable to take care of her grandchildren, a role most Chinese grandmothers are expected to take on. She also complained that she is not a good cook; being number five of seven siblings meant her older sisters did all the cooking. “Even at my age I still don’t know how to make  zhongzi  [sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves for special occasions].”

Grandmother Cheng stands outside the 62nd Street recycling center. Cheng moved to New York 10 years ago from Fujian. She has a daughter and son and three grandchildren, but none of them live near her.  She feels a lot of guilt that she is unable to take care of her grandchildren, a role most Chinese grandmothers are expected to take on. She also complained that she is not a good cook; being number five of seven siblings meant her older sisters did all the cooking. “Even at my age I still don’t know how to make zhongzi [sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves for special occasions].”

 Grandmother Cheng writes down the number of cans she has collected to remember and make sure that the recycling center does not miscalculate the numbers. "It's a tough job," she said. "My hands have bruises, and it's smelly. My kids don't want me to do it. They are ashamed. But they are working so hard, their lives are hard. I want to do whatever I can to help."

Grandmother Cheng writes down the number of cans she has collected to remember and make sure that the recycling center does not miscalculate the numbers. "It's a tough job," she said. "My hands have bruises, and it's smelly. My kids don't want me to do it. They are ashamed. But they are working so hard, their lives are hard. I want to do whatever I can to help."

 Another woman, Grandmother Chen, emigrated from Guandong, China to New York about 10 years ago. In  the past, she has worked as an elders’ aide, and now she takes care of her grandson, shown here. When she has time, she collects cans and bottles. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of," she said. "You’re working, not stealing. It’s good to be out. We have to think, plan strategically where to go, and what time. You use your brain and exercise.”

Another woman, Grandmother Chen, emigrated from Guandong, China to New York about 10 years ago. In  the past, she has worked as an elders’ aide, and now she takes care of her grandson, shown here. When she has time, she collects cans and bottles. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of," she said. "You’re working, not stealing. It’s good to be out. We have to think, plan strategically where to go, and what time. You use your brain and exercise.”

 Inside the 62nd Street recycling center.

Inside the 62nd Street recycling center.

 A woman pauses to take a break from her work in front of the recycling center. 

A woman pauses to take a break from her work in front of the recycling center. 


All photos BY: Janie ziye Shen

 

To produce this photo essay, which originally appeared in Feet in 2 Worlds (FI2W), researcher and photographer Janie Ziye Shen spent months getting to know some of the grandmas who recycle. Born in China, she is currently a master’s degree candidate in International Affairs at The New School with a research focus on refugees, migration, and mobility.  She translated the quotes in the photo captions from Mandarin.

FI2W IS SUPPORTED BY THE DAVID AND KATHERINE MOORE FAMILY FOUNDATION, THE RALPH E. OGDEN FOUNDATION, THE J.M. KAPLAN FUND, AN ANONYMOUS DONOR, AND BY READERS LIKE YOU.