Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Migrants in the Big City

There were two every-day experiences I had in Xi'an that I'm going to try to describe below. Both stories involve observing migrant workers in Xi'an. The episodes were nothing out-of-the-ordinary from every day life in China, but they struck me rather deeply.


During our last week in Xi'an, Qian and I went out to eat with one of her old 同学 (classmates) and her classmate's husband. We had a wonderful seven course meal of 川菜 (Sichuan cuisine) together. The restaurant was 热闹 (lively), the conversation was flowing, the classmate's husband and I downed a few beers each, and all of us were content.

Despite being relatively early, just a little before 8:30PM, our friends had to go home since they had their three month-old baby at home with its grandma. We walked outside the restaurant, which was near the long-distance bus station in the 明德门 section of Xi'an, and determined that we needed to ride bus 18 to get back to Qian's parents' apartment.

We stood at the stop waiting for bus 18 for several minutes. One usually doesn't have to wait more than five minutes for a bus in China. So as we continued to wait and wait, I went over to the bus map/schedule displayed at the stop. I saw that the bus had stopped running at 20:30 and that it was now 20:38. I told Qian and her friends that we'd probably missed the bus. Unfazed, they suggested that we wait to see if there was one more bus on its way.

The sun had just set and the energy that permeates Chinese nights was building. The ground we stood upon was filthy, both from litter and from spilled oil from the motorbike repair shops that dotted the neighborhood. The air smelled of 孜然烤肉 (cumin and assorted herb-flavored BBQ meat skewers) and I could see groups of people eating food and drinking beer in half-full 川菜饭馆 (Sichuan restaurants) the size of rental storage spaces.

The area where we were standing was gritty, if one is being generous, or rundown, if one is being less charitable. We were on the edge of 八里村, one of Xi'an's biggest 城中村 (city villages). Nearly every store front around us had a neon flashing sign displayed out front with the characters 住宿. These characters were advertising a temporary place to live. 住宿 are kind of like a hotel. They are very cheap and of a very low standard, though. A middle-class Chinese person is not going to stay in a 住宿. The people in these 住宿 next to the bus station are migrants, hence their close proximity to the long-distance bus station.

8:44... 8:46...

As we stood there, I became less engaged in the conversation. Maybe I was growing tired of trying to keep up in Chinese. Maybe I was getting impatient. I stood a bit apart from them as they continued laughing and talking.

I turned towards the busy street in front of us and saw two young men speaking with a 电动车 (an electric motor bike the size of a Vespa) owner. The two men had obviously just stepped off of the long-distance bus in Xi'an. Each carried over-sized plastic rucksacks full of who knows what. Each appeared slight in physical appearance; they looked like thirteen year-olds in eighteen year-olds' bodies.

One sported an unsightly, thinly-grown mustache that was more a result of not shaving than a fashion statement. The other wore a loose-fitting suit that hardly fit his under-developed body. I could not figure out how old either of the two men were. I suppose my guess would be twenty-two years old, but that would be give or take five years in either direction.

It's normal for entrepreneurial-minded 电动车 owners to wait next to bus stops offering rides. The owners of these vehicles will exhort those waiting for the bus to quit waiting and just jump on the back of their vehicle. That's exactly what this 电动车 owner was doing with the two men. The 电动车 owner had a strong physical appearance and sported a 板寸 (a squarish haircut popular amongst middle-aged to older Chinese men).

8:48... 8:50...

I couldn't really hear what the two men (were they brothers? cousins? friends?) and the 电动车 owner were saying. Maybe they were speaking a dialect, maybe it was the noise on the street, or maybe my Chinese just isn't that good. But I wasn't processing what was being discussed. I didn't have to comprehend every word to know that the 电动车 rider was trying to convince them that they'd missed their bus, that he knew where the two guys wanted to go, and that they should jump on his bike.

There was a bit of resistance from the two men. They didn't want to pay this guy if they could just spend a couple RMB and get on a bus. They talked amongst themselves. They stared into the distance hoping to see that last bus roll in front of them. You could tell that they were helpless, though. Just as a salesman about to complete a deal, the 电动车 owner was dominating the conversation. They only lasted a few more moments before finally conceding. Their defeated body language showed that they didn't know their surroundings and needed to be taken away.

The men grunted a few noises to each other and then began handing their bags over to the 电动车 owner, now their ride. The thin man somehow lifted the bag that looked to be as heavy as him and put it on the front, flat platform that was between where the driver of the vehicle sits and the handle bars. It took several seconds for them to figure out how to get the huge sack loaded and balanced onto the bike. The man with the moustache then loaded his smaller bag on top of the first. The gaunt man then jumped onto the back of the bike. The driver took his position. Then the moustached man got onto the very back of the bike, nearly hanging off the edge of the bike, sandwiching his gaunt friend between himself and the driver and the driver between the gaunt man and the cargo up front.

电动车 are electric. They are not powerful. They are smaller than a motorcycle. It was quite a sight seeing this thing loaded up with three passengers and a significant amount of cargo up front.

The driver silently turned on the vehicle and it slowly started to pull away. After getting the bike's momentum up to a few miles per hour, the driver was in complete control.

Off into the night they went. I can only guess where those two men, fresh off a bus from the countryside finally in the big city, were heading and where they ended up.


The next night after seeing the scene described above, Qian and I ate dinner at her parents' house. We then set out to the heart of the city for drinks just inside Xi'an's South Gate.

We headed out of her parents' apartment at about 7:45PM. It was a hot evening. We debated whether to spend the extra 1 RMB each to ride on an air-conditioned bus or whether we'd tough it out on the normal, open-air, bus. We decided that we'd just take the first one that came.

K800, the air-conditioned bus, came first. We boarded it to find that much of the bus was empty. We had seats to sit down upon. Air-conditioned buses are usually less crowded than normal buses because of their higher fare.

Qian and I sat across from each other on the parallel seats just behind the driver that are perpendicular to the rest of the riders, who are facing forward. I sat in the seat just behind the driver and Qian sat in the second of four seats on her bench.

I had my iPod Shuffle playing in my ears, which was often the case when out and about. Lost in the music, I took in the scenery we were driving by. I had to turn around from my seat to see the south city wall. I remember contorting my body to get a better view of the glorious sight that was the sun setting over one of China's most beautiful attractions.

As we moved along the outside of the city wall approaching the South Gate, the man sitting next to Qian in the first seat on her bench blurted out something to the driver. I hadn't noticed him before he made that noise. I was awaken from my aural and setting-induced trance and saw that Qian was sitting next to a shaggy man probably about thirty years-old (again, give or take) in the suit that every construction worker in China wears.

One of the first things I saw about him was that he only had four fingers on his left hand. That's not something I usually notice. I mean, who counts other people's fingers out on the street? I'm not sure how, given his clenched fist, I noticed this, but one of the first things I processed about the man was that he was missing a digit on his hand.

I missed what he'd shouted. I could tell it was something to the driver, though. The driver had apparently missed what he'd yelled too since all I heard from up front was a loud, "啥?!!" which is what a northern Chinese person slangily says for, "What?!!"

The nine-fingered man repeated himself. This time I caught it: "到交大电脑城了没?" or, "Are we at the Jiaoda Computer City yet?" I couldn't really make out what the driver said, but he surely said, "No, it's still several stops ahead" since the Jiaoda Computer City (a computer market) was still several stops in front of us.

The man paused for a few seconds. He put his weight onto his right foot and he held onto the support bar that was next to him. He was in between sitting and standing. He looked confused. After being in limbo for a few seconds, he stood up and started to walk to the back of the bus towards the exit.

Qian stopped him and said, "我们还没到。你还有几站。" or, "We're still not there yet. You still have a few stops to go."

The man then retraced his steps and sat back down next to Qian where he'd been sitting.

He spent the next several minutes, until we got off of the bus, holding onto the support bar that was next to his seat staring out the front of the bus perched between sitting and standing.

We got off of the bus before he did. I'll never know if he got off at Jiaoda Computer City or not.


I can't say exactly what the meaning of these two stories are. I'm not sure why they struck me as they did or why I'm sharing them on my blog either.

I suppose it's just that the "migrant story" in China fascinates me. Tens of millions of people every year move from farm to factory or city. Hundreds of million have done so over the previous decades and hundreds of millions will over the coming decades. It's a remarkable story.

I'd been wanting to write this post for several days. I was even more inspired to get it done after reading the following piece: How I was treated on the subway when I was doing fieldwork as a migrant worker, a blog article by Tricia Wang (h/t @niubi). Tricia is an anthropologist/sociologist doing research on migrant workers in China. It is a really nice supplement to this post. Her writing, about being perceived as a migrant worker on a subway, fits in nicely with what I tried to describe above.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Night Shots

Qian and I agree that the thing we miss most about living in China is the night life. I'm not talking about clubs or bars or concerts, I'm talking about life, masses of people, outside on the streets, outside of their homes, after the sun goes down.

It frustrates us that there aren't any night markets or shopping areas or places besides bars that draw Americans (or at least Kansas Citians) out at night.

I wish I'd taken more, but the following are a few of my better night shots from Xi'an:

The Bell Tower - The Bell Tower is the heart of Xi'an. It stands epically in the middle of the city, both symbolically and figuratively.

The South Wall Moat at Dusk - The City Wall is just over the trees on the right. A great scene at sunset.

Sky Streak - I tried getting a few photos of a guy selling little toys that shot into the sky. I enjoy the photos I was able to get.

Out and About

Fountain - Kept the shutter open for a second on a small fountain near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

Red Reflections - Another shot from near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

There were times during the day in Xi'an - on crowded buses or staring at smoggy polluted skies - that I didn't miss living in China at all. Night was a different story, though. Being back in America now, I already miss the night markets, old people dancing on the streets, and general laid back nature of life at night in the Middle Kingdom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Random Observations from Xi'an

The following are some random observations I wrote down while in Xi'an:

- I could see nine construction cranes from the bedroom we stayed in at Qian's parents. NINE! Every morning at dawn, the sounds of hammers started echoing throughout the apartment blocks. Construction continues at an amazing clip in the Middle Kingdom.

- Related to the new construction, scores of old 城中村 (city villages or "primitive" neighborhoods) are being torn down at an amazing clip. Although there haven't been western journalists writing about the destruction of neighborhoods in Xi'an (like there have been on Beijing and Kashgar), Xi'an's old-time, low-income neighborhoods are disappearing quickly. New apartment blocks and luxury shopping centers are rising up from their rubble.

- Xi'an (and China in general) has gone nuts promoting the 2011 International Horticulture Expo that is in Xi'an this summer. I got annoyed with the hype of this event and I was only there for three weeks.

Qian and I went to the expo with her family. It was lame. Three hour waits to get into a greenhouse or climb a pagoda. We ended up just walking around the giant park that had minimal items of interest. There are free parks in Xi'an more interesting than this 100 to 150 RMB per ticket event. All of Qian's family agreed with this sentiment.

The greatest irony is that this green expo is in one of China's most polluted cities. The day we went to the expo, the pollution and smog in Xi'an were at an unfathomable scale.

- After mocking Xi'an and the expo, I do have to say that the pollution in Xi'an is getting better. It's still horrific and surely unhealthy, but it's light-years better than when I arrived in China the first time in 2006.

- Like Americans, the Chinese are drinking lots of vitamin water. "VC," or vitamin C, is something the Chinese have gotten into.

- Groceries are damn expensive. We've all heard about inflation in China. I can confirm from the ground that it is bad. Qian and I calculated that for many items, including a lot of varieties of fruit, that things are cheaper in the US (after translated into US dollars).

- Chinese people are incredibly scared of eating hot pot at restaurants these days. I had to beg Qian and her family to eat a proper Sichuan-style hot pot meal at a restaurant. I'd missed the news from the US, but beginning last year, there have been a score of reports on the unsanitary conditions at hot pot restaurants. The one accusation I kept hearing from people is that the restaurants re-use oil from one table's pot and then give it to the next people who come in. Don't get me wrong, that's absolutely disgusting. I find it hard to believe that it's impossible to find a clean hotpot restaurant, especially given the scrutiny the restaurants are under these days, though.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Back in the US

After a missed flight and two delayed flights, Qian and I finally made it back to Kansas City last night 49 hours after our first flight in Xi'an. It was a huge mess. China Eastern airlines has very cheap fares, but I'm not sure I can recommend flying them to anyone.

I don't want to focus too much on the air travel though. We had a great three week trip in Xi'an.

We spent most of our time catching up with Qian's family and old friends. I felt over and over again that things in Xi'an were very 幸福 (xìng fú). 幸福 roughly translates to happy or blessed, but is even deeper than the English word happy (in my understanding of the word). Truly, it was special being back in Xi'an.

This is the first post I've done in a month. Blogspot is 100% blocked in China right now. I didn't set up a VPN before I went. I tried using proxy servers, but Blogspot is locked down even harder than sites like Twitter and Youtube.

Not being able to surf the internet freely was pretty damn annoying but at the same time it did keep me from using the internet as much as I might've otherwise. That is probably a good thing.

One of the only disappointments from the trip is that I never got my film SLR camera to work. It probably would've been a good idea for me to test that camera out before I went (sigh). I did take some photos with my digital camera, but not as many or of the quality that I was hoping for. Oh well.

I took several notes on things I found of interest while I was in Xi'an and have a few ideas swirling around my jet-lagged mind for posts. I'll try to get a few posts up here in the coming days.