A Story Rarely Told: Migrant Workers in China
I met Kenny in a shitty van driving across Jiangxi province. It was early February and cold and the van had no heat. I’m going to call Kenny Kenny, even though the other day he said he was changing his English name to John Rambo. I told him that I would never call him John Rambo and he accepted that without much dispute.
Kenny and I talked in the van from Nanchang—Jiangxi’s capital—to whenever he got off, Kenny in the passenger’s seat, me behind him. On a few occasions, the driver, between cigarettes, contributed his thoughts. The driver—he said that he always wanted to go to the US, because he wanted to see the giraffes. The middle part of America is full of giraffes, he said. When I questioned the veracity of his assertions, he asked me what part of the US I was from. When I told him I was from the northeast, he asked if I had ever considered that maybe I’d just never been to the parts of the country with all the giraffes. He was certain about the giraffes—he’d read about them online. He offered Kenny and I a cigarette each. I took one, because I was cold. Kenny refused, because he is a Buddhist.
Kenny is a bit part in the China machine. He is a migrant worker, one of literally hundreds of millions in China. He is from a small village in Jiangxi and now works as a cook in Beijing. Over the years—four now—I have met countless guys like Kenny, the human face of China’s urbanization policy—the most epic social engineering project in the history of humanity. There were the guys who worked at the sushi spot in the Chifeng Road subway station when I was a student in Shanghai. They were from Jiangxi, too. Back then, we could hardly speak to each other. My Chinese was shit and they didn’t speak English. I invited them to my school’s going away party and one of them, Cao Long, got plastered at the open bar and shouted “Fuck You Elephant!” in English many times—I never had the opportunity to learn why. Before I left, they commemorated me with a roll—The Tyalor Roll. When I lived in rural China, I saw the other side of the rural-urban migration pattern. The void. Empty homes, “left-behind” children, a massive demographic hole. Only over Chinese New Year would the village fill up again.
Last year I lived in a “small” city in Jiangsu province where I became close with a group of guys cooking at a halal restaurant near the university where I was working. They all came from the Western province of Qinghai—2,000 kilometers away—and were part of China’s Muslim minority. Their restaurant was patronized by exchange students from Arab and Central Asian countries and the a smattering of locals. Xiao Ma, Lao Zhu, Lao Ma, Lao Ma’s wife—they cooked from 10 to 10 every day of the week. They ate at the restaurant. They lived above the restaurant. I used to play pool with them after they got off work. They all smoked cheap cigarettes. Heavily. Some drank, others were more Muslim-by-the-book. I visited Lao Zhu in Qinghai earlier this year—he had gone back home, ostensibly to get married, but it didn’t work out. And he couldn’t find a job. I spent a night in his village. His parents were incredibly generous. Conditions were harsh— harsher—in many ways—than 12 hour shifts at the restaurant. In some ways, I suppose, easier.
Kenny messaged me on WeChat when he saw that I had moved to Beijing. Kenny gets off work at 8:30. We met outside of a subway station on the west side of Beijing. I asked him if we were going to eat at his restaurant. He said he’d prefer to go to McDonald’s. It was chilly—late October—and McDonald’s had heat. Kenny ordered a soft serve cone. I ordered a double cheeseburger. We sat in the warmth and chatted. Kenny, like me, is 28. He lives next to the restaurant with 7 other guys from the kitchen staff. Four to a room. He is looking for a wife. He sought my advice, because he had never had a girlfriend before. He doesn’t care if she is beautiful or rich or whatever. Just a nice girl, a simple girl with good karma, he says. Because he’s a Buddhist.
Most of his extra money goes to building a house back in his home village and the occasional soft serve cone. He’d like to go back home someday and live in that house, with his simple girl with good karma. Is it realistic, though? Maybe in the next life, but he hopes sooner.
I told Kenny about a dating app called “TanTan.” The Chinese version of Tinder. After we parted, he downloaded it. He’s been using it for a few days now, sending me pictures of his conversations. He says most of the girls don’t seem to have such great karma.
He just called me, in fact. He’s going on a date with an artist tomorrow night. After work.
One of the biggest laments I have about the country I have chosen to call my second home is the lack of honesty in art. There was a brief period in the late 80s and early 90s when Chinese art was momentarily more open. Farewell my Concubine, To Live, Suzhou River—all of my favorite movies come from this era. They are real stories about real people in Chinese society. That was a short period.
It is too hard—too sensitive—to tell this story honestly. There is too much hardship and too much apparent unfairness in the story of the rural-urban migrant worker. But it is, more than any other story, the story of modern China. A legitimately beautiful, intense, metaphorical, tragic, whimsical story. These are the “low labor costs” that built the Chinese manufacturing complex. These are the hundreds of millions that built the high-speed railways, that feed the white-collar workers, that sweep the floors. Art, in the absence of intimate human interaction, is the only thing that can humanize statistics like hundreds of millions. It is a shame that these stories which, are far from tragedies, but more simply the unknown parallel reality of the man in the street, cannot really be told. Without someone to tell the story, I guess assumptions are all you are left with. Like giraffes in the Kansas.
It’s partly a sad story but partly not. Every compromise includes an element of tragedy and loss. The low pay, the hours, the social status, the struggle. It all must be viewed through the lens of the alternative. The alternative being the village in Yunnan or the sparse, harsh mountains that Lao Zhu left—and returned to—in Qinghai. No jobs, no income, no movie theater. The biggest difference: in one world you live for today, in one for tomorrow. The truth is, all—almost all—of the hundreds of millions do indeed have a choice.
The story of these friends I describe—the lives they leave behind and the spots they carve out in the urban shadows—are so evocative of what China is today. A relentless, mythical hustle. By no means Sisyphean. 1 out of 1.4 billion trying to squeeze through the subway doors. Looking for a crumb off the pie. It’s so hard to see them, they seem endless. Tiny pieces of the puzzle. But they are there. They have to be, otherwise none of this would be. Would their story exist without China’s? Would China’s story exist without theirs?
No, definitely not.