inside thoughts on China and beyond

Migrant Workers and The China Dream (part 2)

Chunjie is a moving business in quite the literal sense of the word: everyone is moving, and most are moving home. And like all previous Chinese New Year holidays, records are broken. Now, an estimated 200 million trips will be made -all in about 2 weekends. Should be enough to topple the earth, if you ask me. And this time, Da Erzi joined the crowd. 

“Like my dad long ago, I carried my duffel bag and left,” Da Erzi told me, while squatting on the sidewalk and working away a large bowl of spicy noodles. “I would find work in the city. I wouldn’t look back, but I would remember. Just like my dad.”

“I saw him leave. My dad. It now seems so long ago. Don’t know how long. The sky was grey and a haze covered the fields, like the day I left. Like everyday actually. I had just come from our small rice paddy then, chasing the geese to the pond. I remember it well. I knew dad would leave. He’d left before in the past, but now it would be for a long time, he had said. Until next Chunjie. Mum started to shout again and the room had become tense and unbearable. I had fled outside. How long is until Chunjie? I wondered, but didn’t ask. I had no idea, back then.

“Now I know: it is long; very long. Each day, waiting for dad to see him return from the fields and walk onto our trashing floor -the half open cement courtyard in front of our thatched roofed farmhouse- each evening was a long time for me. I wanted to play. He wanted to rest. But now he had left far beyond the horizon of my experience. Far beyond where I was allowed to go. Past Xiao Ping’s home and beyond the Bamboo Sea. It is dangerous there. Never go there, Ugly Boy, or the devil will get you! And that’s where he went. Not the devil; my daddy. Was he going to kill the devil? He carried his usual red-white-blue duffel bag on his back with thin straps over his shoulders. I waved but he didn’t look back. Grandpa was somewhere behind the house with the pig. Mama had cried when papa said goodbye and ran in to the bedroom. Dad didn’t return that day, nor the next day. Nor the next. Had the devil taken him? Not long after, my mum left too. Working in the big city, with daddy.  ‘We do this for you’, she kept telling me. ‘Be  a good boy -always help your grandpa.’ ‘Don’t forget to feed the geese.’ ‘We do this for you.’ How could this be?”

For Da Erzi, this was more than his young mind could possibly comprehend, but each year, 50 million new mum-and-dad migrants join the forces of modernity and move away to the city, and for China’s new leaders, this is not enough. Leave urbanization up to them and 6 of every 10 people should be living in the city, preferably by the end of this week. It just can’t go fast enough. As a matter of fact, president Xi’s Chinese Dream, now aggressively promoted on big billboards along every construction site and street corner, is paid by it. We do it for you -so they say- and that is surely true for certain segments of the population. The constant stream of new and fresh workers, whose simple dreams and high aspirations are easily satisfied with low wages, help to keep Chinese products cheap and attractive. It makes you wonder though, doesn’t it, who will be left to till the land and feed China?

migrant family waiting at the station during Chunjie

Not Da Erzi, and surely not his parents. All who are capable leave the countryside, with the blessings and the needed borrowed capital of family and supportive villagers, all hoping for a high return on their investment, leaving behind mostly elderly far past the strength of their life, innocent kids too young to move away and barking dogs. And increasingly more abandoned farms. One perception of countryside life, sadly enough, is still a hard reality: it is synonym for backwards, stupid, poor, hopeless; whereas living in the city means you are intelligent, alive, promising, advanced, and (becoming) prosperous. And with the continued emphasis on urbanization, the gap will only grow wider. Education in the countryside is inferior and chance-less and only few make it to university.  Most won’t even see the inside of a high school. Health care isn’t much better. Basic facilities -drinking water, electricity- are unreliable and unfortunately, local authorities aren’t any different. The romantic notion of ‘life in the countryside’ is nothing but a Western luxury. Although cities expand and the rich from the city move to the quiet and cleaner suburban areas, claiming more and more arable land, local farmers do not benefit. Instead, they are often expelled from their land and stuffed away in small apartments where they can still grow some vegetables – if it comes with balcony. Then why not leave when you can? And Da Erzi decided that he could. At 16, he had nothing to lose.

“There I stood. My t-shirt stained with the normal white line of salt that always appears after an afternoon working in the fields. Chunjie had come and gone. And so had mum and dad. We didn’t play anymore. The short moments that they were back, they always gave me gifts. I always gave them trouble. I shouted at them but in my heart I wanted to be with them. I had told them once, the first time they returned, but they explained that our hukou didn’t allow me to live in the city or go to the better city school. They gave many other reasons I didn’t really understand. But they assured me -again- that they did it for me. ‘Be strong, Ugly Boy.’ ‘Don’t you like your new toy?’ ‘Help your grandfather.’ ‘Be good at school.’  And that was it, really.

“Years passed. I worked hard but stopped going to school. Mother and father both scolded me after I failed the middle school exam. But where were they, when I needed them most? I looked at the fields. With grandpa I had turned the land but with the passing of years, more and more had remained untouched. It was too much. I saw grandpa carrying buckets of manure to the far end field. He seemed older and each day only ate a little rice and the same veg. His dream, that of a socialist and caring China, was scattered and nothing but dissolution had replaced it. Not so long ago he was beaten up by the chengguan when trying to sell veg from his tricycle along the sidewalk of a busy new neighborhood. They had taken his tricycle too. He now spend his days sitting in the shade of the wall that was erected by a developer who had taken some of our most fertile fields -along with that of many neighbors- and would turn it into a holiday resort at some point in time. I looked at the fields and I decided to go. It was too much; for grandpa, and for me. Give me one reason to stay. Too much trouble and no future. And so I left. I did it for him. For grandpa. I won’t look back, but I will remember.”

Comments are closed.