inside thoughts on China and beyond

Migrant Workers and The China Dream (part 1)

Things aren’t always as they seem. Especially when it involves my son. Just when I was mesmerizing about the fate of the migrant workers whom are the embodiment of China’s ambitious urbanization plans yet unwelcome and marginalized by every city, Asher came home. All fired up and ready to talk. That doesn’t happen to often so the migrant workers and their urbanization have to wait a while. So tell me, Asher, what’s up? 

“The sky dad!”

Okay. Funny, very funny – where was I… migrant workers, yes, so….

“It’s a Mercedes, dad. We now have a Mercedes!”  he explained with one of those high pitched voices that still needs to find its final tone before settling in. His eyes glittered and for a moment I could just see a Mercedes reflection in them. Apparently, my work had bought a new company car. Not that I knew, or cared, because I don’t like to be chauffeured around and hardly see the company car. Asher loves it – and which boy his age wouldn’t- and uses it twice a day. And so he was chauffeured home today in the new car. A Mercedes Benz. “A real one, daddy. A real Merc– and a big one too!”

That was yesterday, and knowing my son, I could of course have made a phone call to confirm his claim. And I should have. But I didn’t. I decided to have a look for myself. Not that I care, of course. My driver and a Mercedes? It leaves me cold. The thing is though: I have always found it difficult to control my curiosity. So I decided to leave home just after 7 this morning and for once not take my own car. I wanted to see this Merc! I zigzagged my way through row houses and villas to the edge of the compound. The absence of high rise here is special -it brings along an absence of the for China so usual crowds and noises- and I always feel tranquilized when walking through this China Dream made real. Row houses are rare in China and considered luxurious and the parked cars I passed on my walk are a confirmation of it: Rolls, Ferrari, Jaguar, Maybach, Lamborghini. And usually they stand in packs of two, neatly side by side in front of the garage to ensure visibility, and, with a bit of luck, some decent jealousy. What use if it can’t be seen?

I now follow the high fens that surrounds the compound and separates it -and us- from the real world. Razor blade wire  loosely mounted on top and each pole a security camera and infrared sensor. There is simply too much to begotten inside here, and too little on the other side there, to leave to chance. Somewhere out there someone is in front of far to many CCTV screens, sleeping. But it is how it has to be: the rich are secluding themselves while still wanting their wealth to be seen, the poor are out in the open with nothing to show. Mei banfa. And me, well, I am a neutral observer, or so I tell myself. I do live here but the car I park in front of my house is a shamble, really, and I would surely have parked it in a garage, if I had one. Which I don’t. But, well, I do have a real Merc waiting for me by the gate. With driver. Not that I care, of course -I’m just saying.

I slung my work over my right shoulder: my backpack with a laptop, an iPad and some pens. I’m not sure about the pens, but they used to be there. No paper -that’s called progress. On the other side of the fens is the public road, running parallel to the one I’m on. It is less narrow but more busy, while an open sewage runs alongside, steaming its warm vapors in the morning coolness. Some laborers are on the sidewalk, also on their way to work -on the other side of the fens. A disorderly gang of migrant workers. We walk along side each other and they too, carry their tools over their shoulders: shuffles, slash hammers, large saws, drills. No paper either -lack of progress, obviously. Two roads, separated only by a fens; one for all and one for the happy few. I look at them, they look at me; so close, yet a world apart. Out of reach and beyond understanding: I know nothing about their lives and they have no idea of mine. That’s just how it is in the China of today. Mei banfa.

They keep to the sidewalk and chatter freely in a dialect I can’t place. Sichuan is such a mix of ethnicities and tongues that at times it seems Babylon, before they all scattered across the world. The Sichuanese, however, are scattered and a large majority of China’s migrant workers are from here. A diaspora of their own. In search for more, they leave their farmlands, their wives, their kids, their ancestral homes, and now they live and work on some construction site nearby. Ten in a room. Bunk beds. Working from dawn to dusk. Building high rise; building residential estates and shopping malls; building cities. Building tomorrow’s China, brick by brick.

China’s urbanization, it has to be said, is not such a chaotic movement of masses as, say, in India or Bangladesh, where the man on the street is driven by the urge to survive rather than the desire to prosper. In China it is structured and controlled, the primary tool for modernization. But at what price? Where will we plant the rice when so much arable land has turned into cement jungles? And for the farmland that is left: who will remain to plant and harvest the rice?

When I reach the gate where the driver will pick me up, I am lost in thoughts searching for answers, not for a Mercedes. But there is no Mercedes -yet- anyway. The migrant workers nearly reach the gate and will continue on and stop being part of my life. But wouldn’t it be something if my Merc would pull up right now and I would get in, in the right-back seat in full view of the migrant workers and, well, just for once, wouldn’t that be a show! Not that I care, of course. A klaxon sounds nearby by and yanks me back to the real world. Someone in a secondhand van is waving at me. He looks much like my driver, I give you that -but, ha, in a van like that!?

“Hey, Steven, are you standing there for the rest of the day or are you getting in?” It is my driver.

“Where is the Mercedes?”

“This is a Mercedes.”

He proudly smiles and points at the star on the steering wheel. Well, it sure is, and a big one too -an 11-seater. When I slide open the side door and struggle my way in while trying hard to be invisible, one of the migrant workers looks over with an ear-to-ear grin, elbowing his mates. “WaiguorenHELLO!”


2 responses

  1. Great story. Great details.

    Now your driver can start running a jitney service on the side for all those walking migrant workers. 😉

    January 21, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    • He sure could; but, knowing the car now, I think the migrant workers are probably better of walking anyway…

      January 22, 2014 at 9:13 pm