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.


Ramesh said...

Everyday happenings very nicely written Mark. The migrant story is truly one of the most fascinating events in the world of the last 20 years. Having lived in Guangdong for a little while, I saw the full force of this. Simply amazing. China owes so much to these migrant workers and yet treat them like dirt.

Mark said...

This post is far different from what I usually do. Thanks for the encouraging words, Ramesh.

You definitely were in a migrant capital being in Guangzhou. One of the interesting developments of the past few years is that migrants don't necessarily have to go to Guangzhou or Shenzhen or Shanghai now to find work. With the development of provincial interior cities, such as Xi'an, many don't have to travel as far as they used to years ago.

I agree about the migrants being treated poorly. They're the ones falling the furthest behind now as the price of everything - from vegetables to apartments - skyrockets.