Delivering the milk a good insight into life outside my own world
It's been a while since I was awake and out on the streets at 3am, so you can imagine my hesitation when a colleague suggested I help delivering milk in the wee hours.
I tell you what, it was a nice wake-up call in the end – mind the pun – in terms of getting out of my own little world, even just for a few hours.
I remember when I was a little kid and the milk truck used to come down the street every day after school.
It must have been about 4pm, if I had to guess. The music it blared was so exciting – I can't remember the tune now, but I'm pretty sure if I heard it again the memories would come flooding back as bright as day.
Mom would always give me 50 cents to buy my very own pint of milk, which you'd leave on the doorstep inside yesterday's used and cleaned bottle for a replacement.
This might sound unbelievable, but I didn't know milk was still delivered from door to door today, in 2021.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned Shanghai alone has hundreds of milk delivery men and women running around every neighborhood – even your neighborhood! – while you're still asleep, placing fresh milk and yogurt of every variety into little heat-resistant boxes for the city's residents to wake up to in the morning.
My work experience started when I stumbled into a local depot near my house at 3am on the dot. You've probably never noticed, but these milk depots – usually just a walk-in room with a roster and a huge fridge – are dotted all around the city.
Chen Jingjun is the head of this depot and all its crew, and he's been delivering milk in Shanghai for more than 20 years.
Despite my half asleep demeanor – or perhaps in spite of it – Chen was bright and vibrant. "Andy, is it?!" he chirped out with happy eyes and a definite smile hidden underneath his mask. "Here's your uniform!"
Pretty soon the team started to arrive, taking huge, pre-prepared baskets of milk and yogurt out to their cute, three-wheeler bicycles with what looks like a huge, square refrigerator on the back.
"Actually, that's not a fridge," Chen told me when I asked. Apparently it's just a heat-proof box – the produce is kept cool inside with frozen ice cubes.
Pretty soon we were off, peddling towards Chen's first housing complex.
When we arrived he started pulling bags of orders out, almost instinctively.
I struggled to keep up as he ran from door to door, up and down stairs and through pitch-black alleys, to deliver completely unique orders to little blue, heat-proof boxes screwed outside apartments who have signed up.
Each has a unique key, and each has a unique order, but Chen has no problem at all knowing exactly which key is which and which order goes where.
Some orders need to be hidden in communal cupboards or under tea towels in communal kitchens, as per the client's request. Chen never misses a beat.
"I've been doing this for a long time," he laughed. "It comes as second nature now."
By the time it got to about 5am, and the sun was about to open its weary eyes, Chen suggested I head back to the depot and have a rest while he delivered the rest of the orders.
I knew it was because I was holding him back, and I could imagine with his professionalism that he must have been feeling a bit uncomfortable knowing some people may end up getting their morning dairy fix late.
When I got back to the depot I remembered Chen said the giant refrigerator needs to be cleaned out every single day, so I decided to grab some cleaning gear and give it a shot myself. At least I could contribute something to the team.
After that I sat outside as the morning sun beamed between the central city buildings and the world started to come to life.
"I bet these people don't know how hard Chen works while they're still asleep," I thought to myself.
But now I do.