“You must have a really tough life in Beijing,” many people outside of China tell me.  I recently spent three weeks in the US on a business trip, and although I was able to buy anything I wanted (Life cereal! Mexican food!) it was a tough few weeks of working double shifts. Business in Beijing doesn’t stop when it’s late at night in the US, and in my job, I often need to make decisions real-time. Sure, I could drink tap water and see friends and family. The air was clean enough that I didn’t even have to consider whether it was anything other than “good” air quality, something we rarely see in Beijing. However, given the grueling work schedule when I travel, it’s relatively more difficult to be in the US–at least when home base is China.

But tough? Not a chance. I’ve written a lot about how modern China is, and how wealthy it is becoming. That’s one side of China. However, there is a significant disparity, and it’s illustrative of the direction that the US is moving. Glittering skyscrapers above and abject poverty below.

There is an elderly couple that is responsible for taking away the recyclables in my apartment complex. Anyone their age would be comfortably retired in the US – even living on Social Security and nothing else, an American retiree who is reasonably frugal doesn’t have to work. This couple lives in a single room in a low-rise, poorly constructed building in the old city. There is no indoor plumbing. They live surrounded by trash. It’s stacked floor to ceiling. Every day, they ride a three-wheeled tricycle around to nearby homes and apartment complexes, meticulously sorting recyclables, stacking them so high that the old man has to stand on the pedals to make the cart move, his wife giving him a booster push from behind and walking alongside as he pedals. Once a week, a large truck comes and takes away the recyclables, paying the elderly couple for their efforts. For all of this work, living among rotting yogurt containers and crushed water bottles and stacks and stacks of cardboard, they make about $350 per month.

This is actually a reasonable standard of living for China. This is Beijing, the capital, offering one of the highest living standards in the country. Here, there is reliable electricity, access to a community medical clinic, public flushing toilets with running water that are regularly cleaned (although from the smell, you wouldn’t guess), and good access to public transportation. You can buy a wide variety of consumer goods here. These folks, in the sunset of their lives, have it made. Sure, they work 7 days a week, but I’ll bet their relatives in the countryside congratulate them on their comfortable retirement.

There are jobs in China so awful that you can’t even imagine them. Like the fertilizer dealer. His job is to pick up human feces off of the train tracks with his bare hands. It comes out of the toilets when passengers flush, and is best collected fresh for sale to farmers. They use it to fertilize their corn and soybeans. Or the pig farmer, who lives in a festering landfill with his diseased, feral pigs. Sure, everyone hears about factory workers who spend 100 hours a week making iPads, but what about the water deliveryman, who has arthritis in his neck by the age of 35 from carrying 60 pound bottles of water up 5 flights of stairs on his head? You couldn’t pay Americans enough to do most of these jobs. In China, however, the worst jobs tend to be the lowest-paying jobs. In Beijing, the minimum wage is 1,160 yuan. That’s roughly $180 per month, and many workers don’t even make that much. Laws are sometimes followed, but as in the US, usually not if someone who is rich and powerful can get away with not following them.

The guy whose job is to pick up dead animals by the side of the road in Gansu somewhere, who has a frigid leaky shack to live in and a hole in the ground for a toilet, has a difficult life. I make less than I did in the US, but I live in a 3 bedroom apartment all to myself, have a housekeeper, a washing machine, indoor plumbing, and I get to take a shower every day. My life can at times be inconvenient. It isn’t difficult, and should never be considered difficult. Until you see the poverty most people around the world live in first-hand, most Americans can’t even imagine how much of a struggle daily life can be for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Learn to stop imagining. In a generation, given the current trajectory of the United States, this may become the American condition.