by Somath Duong
Oakland, CA

Paper chasin' within the rap and hip hop world refers to the process of gettin' money. The paper part is short for money because well... money is made from paper, riiight..., and chasin', well, that's the act of pursuin' somethin'. So if you add it up, paper chasin' is the act of tryin' to get money. This lingo is used in many rap and hip hop songs. If you don't wanna believe me, just listen carefully to a rap song, not Will Smith off course, and you'll hear it. Most of these songs are about the hardships of paper chasin'. And it's true, paper chasin' is hard work. It's hard whether it's sellin' drugs or playin' the lotto or workin'. Gettin' money is hard, period. One of the hardest wayz of paper chasin' I've ever seen, from first hand knowledge, is the actual act of paper chasin'. And I say this literally. What I'm leadin' to is, well... the actual pickin' up of paper (cardboard). What I'm referin' to is the reasons and behind the scenes aspects of chasin' paper as a form of paper chasin'.

You know how you be drivin' sometimes on I- 80, bumpin' some Nelly, and you see this phat truck full of cardboard comin' at cha. And it's alwayz surrounded by a thick *bleep* cage. If you live in Oaktown (Oakland), I know you must've, cuz, they everywhere, takin' over. Well, all I know is that I have and I've always wondered what they were doin'. I mean, come on, there's gotta be a reason, right? Bein' the curious type, I decided to investigate this phenomenon. The thing I found most intriguin' was that the drivers of most of these trucks were Khmer, just like me.

At first, I was kinda afraid to step up and ask the drivers about their profession. I didn't want to be all up in their business. But soon my curiosity took over; besides, they seemed like good, hardworkin' people. When I did talk to them, I told them how I didn't understand why they would work so hard at somethin' that seems so tedious and endless, especially when they couldn't possibly benefit that much. Man did they prove me wrong. It's not just something they do on the side, like picking up cans to sell, but it's a part of their lives. It can be the difference between spam and ham.

So, here's how the "Paper Industry" works. ("Why is it an industry?" you might ask. Read on and you'll find out.) Anywayz, here's the run through:

  1. You need to get a truck. It doesn't need to be new, just as long as it doesn't consume too much gas.
  2. You need to install a cage all around the pickup bed. This is where you store your cardboard. (You can build your own from wood or you can go to a metal shop and buy one, but buyin' one costs extra).
  3. When actually collecting the cardboard, you should start small. Go to local stores or just anywhere you can find the cardboard. After a while, you can move on to factories, malls, etc. Hopefully you will begin to build up a clientele.
  4. After you've gathered enough cardboard, that means your truck is filled to the top, take it to a recycling center. The recycling center will pay you around 75 to 135 dollars per ton depending on the season (or as I like to call it, the ups and downs of the paper market).
  5. Repeat this process as much as you can. The more paper you get, the more cash you get.

From the above description, it might seem that anyone can do it, but it is actually a very hard and cut-throat business. The gathering of the paper itself is hard. It is back-breakin' work. You have to make numerous trips up and down the truck to stack each piece of cardboard. With each piece of cardboard weighing only 3-5 pounds, imagine how many trips you would have to make to get one ton of paper. There is also a lot of competition. For example, the trucks are gettin' bigger and bigger, with people shellin' out more and more money for more advanced cages. People are also wakin' up earlier, tryin' to get the most and best cardboards. Man, I've heard that in some cases there have arguments and fights over certain disputed paper territories. People are even finding loopholes in the actual industry. Some people are starting to spray their cardboard with water so that the cardboard can soak it up and gain more mass, after all, the price depends on weight not volume. This might not seem like a big deal to you but every little bit more counts.

Some of you readin' this might be laughin' and makin' jokes about the paper industry, but that's cuz you don't understand the reasons behind their actions. The paper industry, at its core, is a means of survival. A lot of the families that are involved in it are obviously low income, so this is a convenient way for them to make extra cash with the benefit of working around their own schedule. And also cuz there's no culture or language barrier that they have to work through like with a regular job. Most of the time, these people are just workin' hard for their kidz in hopes of a better life for them. In a way, these paper chasers are pioneers with the resourceful nature and determination to live despite the many constraints on them. For some, these constraints can be the barely livable wage of federal aid such as AFDC and Foodstamps. For these people to improve their life they have had to improvise around their situation. In fact, there are people who would consider the paper industry a demeaning line of work, but if you talk to the paper chasers you will find that most feel no shame, only pride, because in the industry they depend on themselves and no one else.

Now you guys all know the real deal behind paper chasin'. So next time you see that truck rollin' by, don't point and stare but give the driver some props. Not only are they workin' hard and helping themselves, but you are also reaping the benefits. Their tremendous recycling effort is improvin' the environment and savin' the earth. In fact, all you youngsters readin' this should probably give a shoutout to all the paper chasers out there. This very article wouldn't even exist without the paper industry...after all, the paper this is written on is recycled.

© 2002 Khmer Institute. All rights reserved.