Thursday, May 14, 2009

The story of one of China's million migrant workers


The main reason why I moved to China was to learn Chinese. After having traveled to China (for work) and felt the frustration of not being able to communicate well with the Chinese people I interviewed during my trips (I always had to use a translator and I felt I never got any ’real’ answers… almost as if my questions got lost in the translation), I felt that I wanted to learn the language in order to really be able to understand the country/ the culture/ the people.

After almost 2 years of studying I feel I am maybe half way. And really, what a difference it makes just because I am now able to ask those questions myself. I almost feel as if I am getting 'the other side of the story' now when I can (pretty much) communicate with anyone, without having to use a third part. 

Yesterday me and a Chinese friend went for a foot massage. As always when I go for a massage, I almost enjoy talking to the masseur more than the actual massage. This time was no exception. The young boy rubbing my feet was from Shaanxi and was over the moon when he realized how well we could actually communicate. I told him about where I am from, and what my country is like (and for once I didn’t hear things like: ‘ah your country is so good. You guys have so much money’) and he seemed genuinely interested. What was more interesting, however, was to hear about his life.

He’d grown up in a very poor family in Xi’an of Shaanxi. He had to drop out of school at a very young age in order to work and support the family. He headed straight to Guangzhou and the factories where he worked for 6 years, not returning to his family even once (!). Then, the financial crisis resulted in him being laid-off, and he had to go somewhere else in order to find a new job and keep the money coming.

He ended up in Suzhou and found a job as a masseur at the spa where I had gone to. He works there every day, 7 days a week, 8.30am-10-11pm, and then he has a few hours of free time. He said that after work he enjoyed going to night markets and that he rarely went to bed before 2am in the morning, only to get up 4 hours later.

One could think that he told his life story with a depressed, sad voice, but actually, it was quite the opposite. He was positive and happy and said he was lucky to have found a job. He also said he thought sleep was overrated and that he didn’t need so much of it.

The Chinese girl that I had come to the spa with (who is a complete opposite to this migrant worker from Xi’an: her parents have bought her a flat where she can live without wasting a penny) was listening to the boy’s story with moderate interest. Once he had finished she said:

-Only 4 hours sleep? I couldn’t do that. I need at least 8.

And the boy replied:

-When you are under a lot of pressure you can definitely do with only 4 hours.

The thing with the boy’s life story is that it is definitely not unique. Millions of Chinese migrant workers share similar experiences. Still, I cannot help but feeling for the boy. It’s a strange feeling, something between admiration and sadness. I’m sad that he has to live so far away from his family, but I admire him for all the work he’s doing just to support them.

Also, hearing a story like this really makes you ponder. There he is, having almost nothing, being far away from his family and STILL smiling and feeling happy/lucky in life. And there I am, complaining about trivial things such as the heat and about my boss spitting too much… I know the contrast is too big to even be compared but I don’t know. It still gives you something to think about. And that’s kind of nice.

22 comments:

Colleen said...

That is an amazing story! How cool that must be to be able to communicate so much better!

Annie said...

In China I met plenty of young guys who work 13 hours 7 days a week. There were a lot of them in beauty salons...the hairdressers & the masseurs...their situation sounds really sad, but I also felt that they were happy with their lives like the young boy you described.

flyingfish said...

One of your best posts, Jonna!

I think we all experience the complex mixture of feelings you describe so well when we think about the lives of some of the people we encounter here. (With me it's the ayis in particular, as I've mentioned in my post "The Heart That Must Not Be Lonely.")

I am very happy for you that you have made such great strides towards being able to really communicate with Chinese people and hear their stories in their own language. I think it was a very wise goal for you to set, both professionally and personally, and it is great to hear that all your hard work is paying off.

But it is not just a matter of hard work. You really have the gift of communication. That's a very different thing from a facility with language itself. I mean, it's kind of a "tongues of men and angels" thing, isn't it? You can learn to speak all the languages you want, but still you will never hear people's stories unless you ask for them.

Your sociable curiosity is a wonderful gift. You are lucky to have it, and I am happy to see you using it so well.

Johnnny said...

I admire you for getting to the halfway point of learning Chinese in about two years. Learning new languages opens up new worlds.

Ramesh said...

Oh absolutely. The migrant worker is one of the true heroes of China. All of China owes a deep debt to these hardy souls - all 200 million of them.

Very nice post Jonna.

Lilly said...

Even though the boy is apart from his family, he mat be happy because family members thank to him. I have heard that the more you feel being loved, the happier you are. You can overcome difficulties.

Bekah said...

What a lovely post. Hearing someone's life story like this really makes you stop and appreciate everything you have just a little bit more than you did before hearing the story.

Magnild World said...

Thanks for sharing the story ....Sometimes I also keep complaining on my life but actually I know my situation is much more better than the boy. I think we must learn to appreciate....

Hang said...

I know how hard those migrant workers work. Hard life, but they stay positive. The story reminds me of my first year after graduation. That winter was so cold. For some days, I stayed in a room of -13 degrees centigrade. When I was sleeping I could not feel the cold. Because I was tooooo tired to feel anything after work!

The Casual Observer said...

I grew up on a farm. My parents (as well as the kids) worked long hours, the work was back-breaking, it seemed like it was always either very cold or very hot, and the pay was awful (it was a small farm - too small to really achieve any economies of scale necessary to be very profitable).

I put myself through college and got a nice office job where the hours are normal, the conditions are great, and the pay is much, much better than what my parents ever made.

I am incredibly happy to have this lifestyle - something that might be taken for granted by people who grew up seeing this as a typical life.

Not exactly the same as your story, but perspective is an amazing thing.

lideting482 said...

So many foreigners can recognize the role of migrant workers to the China's economy! I hope Chinese urban residents can also recognize.

When I see the venders in the night market, I really admire the courage of migrant workers who leave their hometown and work in a strange city thousands mile away.

They always have ways to survive, no matter how hard their life can be in a strange city, they can always stay positive and decide to stay.

They are easy to feel happy because what they want is much less than what their city counterparts.

Brad F. said...

Really interesting story Jonna. It's almost shocking how different the work/life conditions are in Asia, compared to Europe and the US. I'm constantly surprised.

waitingkitty said...

Thanks for the great story! Makes my day! :)

Dangerous Des said...

Let's cross our fingers and hope he gets a better situation before he is old and worn out from working too hard all his life. A bit of hard work and sacrifice never hurt and is actually good for a person, but keeping that positive spirit and high energy will become difficult the older he gets. When you're young, everything is an adventure, but when your joints start to ache... well...

Anonymous said...

You are quite right Jonna, speaking their actual language at some level of fluency makes a huge difference.

Do you ever find speaking "their" language seems to gain you instant repoire? That's been my experience when I speak Cantonese with people from Hong Kong/China, and Mandarin with those from China (as pitiful as it may be). It's like they trust you more and they often open up to you more too.

You're also spot on about the lad who did your foot. It's hard work, with low pay and long hours, yet they are the lucky ones. I know this 21 yo girl from China who does a great massage here in Singapore. Works almost similar hours to your new friend. In all honesty, she looks more like a clubber than a hard working girl, but there she is, toiling away at least 6 days a week.

If you have an opportunity, keep track of your new friends Jonna. It'd be interesting to see where they are in 10 and 15 years time, and what their views to life are then, having busted their asses off during their youth.

Hope you had a good day and if your throat gets hoarse from all that shouting...err...reading, try some warm honey milk :)

Adrian

laala said...

What a lovely, inspiring story. :)

Anonymous said...

Jonna, you are a good human being. Your compassion for the less unfortunate migrant workers is recognized here. When I was growing up in the countryside of China in the 70's, my life was much worse than that of the boy in your story. I am actually glad to read that there are still resilient, hard working, go-getters in China today who are willing to work hard and make it on their own. After the single-child policy since the mid 70's, most Chinese kids today are wussies. They can't stand any hardship, let alone having a positive attitude or plan to overcome them. Whenever I visit China in recent years, I can always come across some young folks (usually kids of friends in coastal cities) who are whining, lazy, and clearly lack of work ethic. I admire the work ethic of migrant workers. One time I tipped a migrant worker 20 yuan for his help to deliver a TV to our condo. He was very puzzled at the tip and didn't know why I would do that. He took the tip after I explained why I wanted to tip him. The next day he delivered another TV for us (the first one had a problem), I gave him another tip. He was in tears and said how could a customer be so nice. He refused to take the tip the second time but we insisted he take it. I also got to talk to him a little and found out that he only spent 1 yuan a day on a piece of steamed bun (mang-tou) for breakfast. He ate lunch at his boss's store and nothing for dinner. He spent 100 yuan a month on a rent (living in a shack somewhere with other migrant workers). He sent the rest of what he made to his family back home. He said he could make 800 yuan more by working in a coastal city than his small mountainous hometown in Hunan. I know for a coastal resident in China, 800 yuan a month isn't a big salary to yearn for. Who would have thunk that a communist country could produce such a drastic financial difference among its citizens?

Pete In Syracuse said...

The line "Give us this day our daily bread" resonates in our minds as we go through our day in comfort and with little effort. Then to run into someone who is living that verse and is joyous about it just blows our minds. Like you say Jonna it puts our everyday complaining to shame. I agree with the others that say you have the gift of communication. You balance talking with listening and do a good job of it!....pk

Jonna Wibelius said...

Wow, I am amazed by the response to this story.. I wasn't expecting that. Maybe I should start publishing more of my 'chats' with migrant workers.. I really enjoy listning to their stories. They are so hardworking that it almost makes you feel ashamed. Especially when I compare their lives with my comfortable, student life...

My friend Rocky at the gym (alias 'the Hunan boy') that I often mention in my post is also from a small, and quite poor country town...(shuang xi -that I went to visit when I was in Changsha earlier this year) he's probably one of my best friends here in China. Always so happy and positive no matter what goes on. It's hard not to feel inspired by such a person (even though we don't always share the same opinions...)

Flyingfish and Pete -thank you kindly for your nice comments related to communicating. I have always enjoyed listening to other people (sometimes even more than talking on my own), and being curious by nature makes me ask a lot of questions.. Combined with my passion for writing I guess that works quite well for this kind of blog :)

anonymous -I agree with you that the one-child policy has resulted in a lot of spoiled Chinese kids... sometimes spoiled to the point that it is a bit scary... but at the same time I wonder how China would look wihtout the policy. It is hard to generalize here because China's so huge and there are a lot of kids who are really hardworking, meanwhile others are really lazy and have a quite bad attitude. What amazes me is the confidence of a lot of young people here. They are university graduates and ready to take over the world! They want a good, well paid position straight after graduating.. when I graduated I was willing to take any job with the slightest connection to my industry, and my salary was far from great.

Naresh said...

I am from India the situation here is also more or less same. I have seen people living in metro city and cant afford to get i very small house even if they work for their entire life.

regarding working timings i have a friend he works from 9am to 10.00pm seven days a week in a medical store but the good thing about him is he can take some extra money from accounts(his boss doesn't care about it as he wants 7 days work otherwise he will get huge losses :)

DaveNYC said...

Jonna,

I agree that speaking the language gives you insight to a whole different world. You hear the feelings expressed thru those words with emotions something which can not be interpreted thru a translator.

Thanks for the great post. Stories like this are inspiring. Provides us (me at least) a sort of wakeup call to reflect on how good we have it and quit whinning and complaining about little things in life which may be so minor in which is nothing to complain about.

NavlGazr said...

Jonna,
Love reading your blog. This one is an excellent, thoughtful one that I really relate to. I live in HK and will be moving to Nanjing this summer, Been taking chinese for almost 2 years here, but need immersion to progress at a decent rate. Same reasons as you, want to really talk to people. I am glad you have a heart for the people. Me too.