When you think of China, what pops to mind? Superhighways. Bullet trains. Gleaming skyscrapers. Economic growth. A booming middle class. Opportunity.
My friends and I graduated from college five years ago, embarking on lives that we hoped would be full of promise, excitement and opportunity. We all went to Minzu University of China (formerly known as the Central University for Nationalities), a prestigious school in Beijing.
But now many of my friends find their dreams unfulfilled, and hopes for a better life slipping away. Each, in their own way, feels trapped, and their struggles reflect some of the toughest issues in China today: fierce competition in mega-cities, the declining appeal of once-coveted civil servant jobs, and the struggle of being gay in what is still a socially conservative society.
State-Owned Firm Employee: Only Those With Connections Get Ahead
Andy Wong hails from a farming village in eastern China. He did well in school, earning a law degree. He says his goal is to "either get rich or become powerful."
The 27-year-old works for a state-owned investment company in Beijing. Jobs such as his at Chinese state-owned companies are highly sought after because of the security and benefits.
But Andy is struggling to rise through the ranks in a society where guanxi - the Mandarin word for "connections" - and money seem more important than ever. More than half of Andy's co-workers arrived at the company through family connections.
"They don't need a master's degree and they get promoted quickly," Andy complains. "It's unfair."
His colleagues from well-connected families hire nannies for their kids and bring them to the fanciest restaurants in town. As for his own family, he's seen his 2-year-old niece play with mud in a yard, her chubby face reddened and chapped from playing outside in the sun and wind. The Beijing-born niece still speaks with a country accent because she's looked after by grandparents, who are peasants.
"She is no different from kids in the countryside," Andy recalls, his voice shaking.
In Beijing, a city of more than 20 million, wealth is more conspicuous than ever and Lamborghinis and Ferraris are commonplace. It's hard not to become jealous, even bitter.
On a freezing winter afternoon, Andy's car, a Chinese-made BYD sedan - it stands for Build Your Dreams - broke down at a busy intersection. The used car cost him a little more than $5,000 — a year's salary. He waited in the subzero temperature for 90 minutes before a tow truck arrived.
Andy was once filled with a sense that anything was possible. Now, his self-esteem has taken a beating.
"I feel very tired, very conflicted. I don't know what I want," he confesses. "I am lost."
"Looking at people around you, you feel you are good for nothing," he adds.
A growing income gap and rampant materialism have driven many young women to openly focus on finding rich husbands. Andy isn't rich, but he's honest and he works hard. His bosses like him, so they've introduced him to some wealthy girls. These women don't need money, they just want someone trustworthy.
"I often think: Why not find a rich girl? It's great. It saves you years of hard work," Andy says. He's thought about breaking up with his current girlfriend, who makes less than $500 a month as a secretary. Money would no longer be an issue, it's true. But at what cost?
The Civil Servant: Job Security, But No Mobility
Historically, government jobs have also been attractive because of their stability. However, the latest figures show a decline of 360,000 applicants in 2014 compared to the year before. Many civil servants are bored and frustrated.
That's the case for Dante Peng (a pseudonym), who enforces the one-child policy among the 5,000 residents in a county in central China. Among his responsibilities is collecting fines from couples who have had a second or third child.
Dante studied English at university; he was considered one of the lucky ones when he landed his position after taking the civil service exam. He spends most of his time in the office, occasionally accompanying higher-level officials playing mahjong. This pastime has become his biggest expenditure; he lost $800 in one month. His monthly take-home pay is $300.
The job has hardened him. The sympathy he once had for people whose children were forcefully aborted has evaporated.
"They are knowingly violating the law," Dante says sternly, speaking like the authoritarian official he's become.
After four years in civil service, he sees little upward mobility, and his work experience - punishing people for violating a widely hated policy - is hardly applicable elsewhere. So he feels trapped.
"I don't know what I can do if I leave," Dante says.
A Gay Classmate: Financial Success, Personal Anguish
Another schoolmate, Frank Lee (also a pseudonym), is doing much better than Dante and Andy professionally. He makes $30,000 per year, three times the typical local salary. But he feels trapped in another way, unable to share his true identity.
Three years ago on a trip back home, Frank was chatting with his elder brother over a few beers. The otherwise mundane conversation took a sharp turn at 3 a.m. when Frank confessed he'd ended a relationship with a girl for a reason he didn't want to share. The brother kept guessing for an hour and then suddenly shivered.
"I don't want you to say yes if I ask," his brother warned. Frank nodded. His brother froze and then wept.
His brother didn't eat for three days, and whenever homosexuality came to mind, he said he wanted to vomit. He told Frank to live far from their parents and that he felt ashamed to have a gay brother.
"He thinks I am dirty," Frank says.
Being gay is less difficult in China today. The government dropped homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 2001.
Still, attitudes have lagged way behind the West and most of Frank's friends are still in the closet.
One friend recently married a woman — she doesn't know he's gay — and has convinced himself that the charade is worth it in order to enjoy children and grandchildren in retirement.
Frank thinks misleading a woman into a sham marriage is unethical.
"I'll find a lesbian," Frank says. "We'll be mutually beneficial for each other."
Fake marriages between gays and lesbians have become very popular in China. People can even select candidates online - as they do on heterosexual dating sites.
China's mega-cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, are more gay-friendly than they used to be. Frank enjoys Beijing's gay clubs, but is careful to never hold hands in public with a boyfriend.
If China were different, he'd like to one day marry a man - as some people do in the West. But Frank thinks that will take at least another 50 years.