February 14, 2018
Every Bottle Counts: For Elderly Immigrants, Recycling Replaces China’s ‘Bitter Labor’
By Janie Ziye Shen
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.