Back to the USA: Thoughts and the future

Giving the final presentation

I am sitting writing this post not from my dormitory room in Shaoyuan at Peking University in Beijing, but from my home in suburban Washington, DC. I arrived back in the United States on Thursday, December 15th after about 17 hours of air travel.

My final week in Beijing was spent on writing a summary paper on my independent study, this project, to find some conclusions about the project and, in turn, demonstrate what I had learned over the past 3-½ months. Although in that paper I did make conclusions about Beijing’s migrant worker population, especially in terms of filial piety, a recurring theme here, education, and the adjustment from rural to urban life, I find a different purpose in the stories I have told in the past semester.

Yes, we can draw conclusions about China as a whole through these experiences. However, a part of me also says that instead of limiting our view to one nation, we should put these stores in context of the world’s workers. Look at these stories and compare them to your own country or community. I hope that they can serve as a tool for inspiration and action.

Along with my arrival, back in the United States comes the end of this chapter in the Pillars in Motion project. Although I will no longer be able to directly interview migrant workers, I hope that this blog can remain a place for discussion and the sharing of information. It is also my hope that the stories collected here can remain as somewhat of a historical record of the conditions of a few individuals in the Beijing of 2011. China (and our globe) is going through massive shifts very quickly, and the sociopolitical landscape displayed in these individuals’ lives may be quite different in a few years.

It has been an extraordinary opportunity to write about these workers over the past few months and it is an experience that will shape my worldview for the rest of my life. Before I wrap this post up, I just want to throw in a few acknowledgments:

This entire project would not have been possible without the help of my graduate research tutor/advisor, Ren Xiaoshuai (Helen). Helen was vital in finding interviewees and translating, as well as providing background research. If Peking University is supposed to have the best Chinese students, then Helen is proudly carrying that legacy!

Additionally, I want to thank all of the Pitzer College in China program staff for approving my crazy idea of a project, as a blog about migrant workers is far from standard ethnographic research.

My biggest thanks to my friends and family: from all of you on the Pitzer in China program with me, to those of you in Claremont and Washington, DC, your support helped me through every day of my experience.

Finally, I thank you, the reader, for taking the time to read these pieces. I know that time is valuable and the amount of information to consume is endless, so I will be forever grateful for you taking the time to read these works.

As I end this chapter of the project, a quotation comes to mind that my core course professor at Peking University, Lan Laoshi, would often cite during his seminar:

“Respect Complexity” – David Brinkley

 Interviewing migrant workers, and indeed, being in China, provoked more questions than provided answers. Instead of finding that frustrating, we might come to accept this inherent complexity and, in turn, relish it.


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Barbershop: Small business success and the migrant worker

Mr. Z

When most people think of China and its often-controversial communist government, the last thing on their minds is small business. However, in reality, small family owned businesses play a central role in China’s cultural and economic life. These businesses come in all shapes and forms: restaurants, markets, and, of course, barbershops.

Pan Wei, an outspoken “pro-China” professor of political science at Peking University, remarked during a recent lecture that over 90% of the businesses in China are family owned. While it is debatable what constitutes a family business, the fact remains that in any city in China, there are many more shops that are owned by locals rather than large corporate conglomerates.

About a ten-minute walk from the iconic west gate of Peking University, one young man is continuing this tradition of family business and entrepreneurship. Mr. Z is a hairdresser originally from Zhangjiakou, a city in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing. He has been in Beijing for six years, since 2004.

After middle school, Mr. Z began hairdressing. He worked at this job and, after two years, saw that it could a be decent career opportunity. Since then, he has worked in five or so different shops around Beijing, Up until recently, he had spent the majority of his time at a shop at the south gate of Peking University.

Mr. Z learned haircutting through apprenticeship. In the beginning, he actually paid a shop to be an apprentice. For the first six months, he received no pay for the work he did. It could have been much longer than this period of time, but the owners saw his talent and began paying him sooner.

Z graduated high school at age 17, and, not attending college, his parents offered him financial support. He expressed great enthusiasm in his parents support, suggesting that the familial bond is strong. This support culminated in opening his own barbershop with a friend on National Day of this year. Mr. Z says it took seven years of conceptualization and planning to open his own shop.

His shop is tiny and tucked away, but customers seem to be quite enthusiastic about Z’s work. He says that much of this early success comes from repeat customers following him to the new shop. Naturally, this loyal following keeps him busy; the new shop is open from 9:30 am to almost 11:00 pm each day, with some nights not ending until 2 am. If a customer shows up near closing, Mr. Z and his three employees accommodate them. Z and his wife work so hard in the shop that they do not even have time to cook their own meals, resorting to many of the food stands and restaurants surrounding the shop.

The Shop

Even with the recent opening of the shop, his eyes are already on the future. He says that he cannot see a career change occurring until he is 30, and being 24, that is some years away. Z says that he will only change jobs if the money is good. His parents are “peasants” who farm in his home village, and he cannot yet provide for them. That said, if he had money he says he too would live a simple lifestyle.

Family pressure is also high. Being newly married in September, both sets of parents are hoping for grandchildren. These family expectations, combined with the stresses of opening the new shop, leave few moments for reflection and relaxation.

It seems that, at times, the entrepreneurial spirit in China is more focused than in America. Curiously, however, Mr. Z contrasts this with the better wages in the United States; “America is good because hairdressers get paid well,” he remarks. Even so, because of traditional values and high social mobility, young people seem more motivated to work and rise up in Chinese society.  For Mr. Z, his small haircutting business is a means to an end.

It is easy to assume that migrant workers who come to the city work low-paying jobs with little self-determination, but migrants like Mr. Z show that stereotyping China’s “floating population” as menial is shortsighted.

This group can make a large impact, not just in supporting the country’s growth, but in defining it.

Down in the Dump

Yours truly with “May”

Across from one of the supermarkets at Peking University, a brick warehouse houses a number of large trash dumpsters.  However, it also houses a family.

Inside the smelly building, a mother, father, young daughter and grandfather live their lives. They are not squatting in the trash facility; in fact, this is their home and stepping stone to a chance at a better life.

The “Lu” family, originally from Shangdong province on the eastern coast of China, moved to Beijing in 1996. Like many other migrant workers, they were also farmers. Due to only 7% of China’s land being arable, they found themselves without a consistent source of income.

Inside the trash facility, there are two small rooms beside the dumpsters. One is a kitchen, while the other is a small multi-purpose room used for eating, for the grandfather to sleep, and to watch TV. As the family crowds into the small room to discuss life in Beijing, the daughter tries out her English, better than one would expect for a young Chinese girl.

As farmers, the Lu’s knew that it was going to be difficult to stay in their profession. A neighbor soon introduced the idea of moving to Beijing, and the couple set off. After arriving, they began to work at Peking University. The couple started as gardeners on the campus and over time shifted to various positions. Today, the mother is a cleaning attendant in some of the dormitories, while the father is the head of the trash center.

Finding affordable housing in Beijing is very difficult, even more so when you are a migrant family with a young daughter. In a good turn of events, the rooms they now live in are provided as part of the compensation for work at the University. Although the rooms are small and, from the outside, few would assume that a family with child would inhabit such a place, they call it home.

The daughter of the family, “May,” was not born until after the migrant couple arrived in Beijing. This makes for an interesting comparison between the impressions that the parents have of Beijing in contrast with the child. May’s mother sees living in Beijing as a practical issue, as do many other migrants. “Staying at Beida is better for making money,” she says pragmatically. May, on the other hand, sees being in the capital city as a matter of pride, “Of course I like Beijing! I am Chinese!,” says the eighth grader.

Today, the family says, life is much easier than in 1996. In the early years, wages were very low, making only 1,100 RMB in one month, housing not included. Hours were also very intense; because May was not in school yet, it was a juggling act between work and child rearing. Now, the family makes approximately 1,500 RMB per month. Although this is still a low salary, it includes housing, taking away a big part of the stress that comes from trying to find a place to live in the city.

Life in Beijing for this migrant family is a balancing act. Now in eighth grade, May has high hopes for her future. She spends about nine hours each day at a public middle school, about six bus stops away from the campus. Previously, she was in a migrant primary school, but with her successful studies, she is now able to go to a public local school. She is visibly motivated as she continues to persevere with using English. She claims she wants to study hard, go to a good high school, and go to an even better college. With the parents getting older, they look towards her success as well.

Although the Peking University job has provided a good opportunity for the family to live and work in Beijing, this opportunity has its limits. At age 50, the policy is that the couple must leave their jobs on campus, losing both their housing and employment simultaneously. This is not retirement; they will receive no compensation, pension, or otherwise when this day comes. The mother speaks fondly of moving back to Shangdong to continue a farmer lifestyle, but whether this plan will work out, they do not know.

The Lu family may be in an actual dump, but this does not overshadow that moving to Beijing has given their family great chances for success. From the motivation and successful education of May, to having consistent work and housing, the gamble for the Lu’s paid off; Beijing has been a city off opportunity.

So while students who walk by the trash center may not be aware of May and her parents, inside is a friendly and compassionate family who work hard to both improve the Peking University campus and their own livelihoods. It just goes to show that even if you are down in the dump, quite literally, you can still have a positive outlook. And that’s something that all of us, including the migrant workers in China, could use.

Reflections from the field: Indifference

I spent much of my time in the past week writing a paper based on My Country and My People, a book about Chinese culture and society written by Lin Yutang 1935. The book has rather controversial views, both from its place as one of the first books about China that was written for a Western audience by a Chinese author and its age.

For our paper, we were expected to compare and contrast Lin’s views on a number of topics with our experiences in China during the past semester: what we “read, felt, saw” etc. Although I picked a few topics from the book to write about, one struck me most:


In his text, Lin basically argues that Chinese people are indifferent, especially towards politics, as a “survival-method.” This, considering China’s 5000 year history, makes some sense. Although it raises questions about the nature of universal human rights and multiculturalism, a passive view towards government is not the worst thing imaginable.

However, what is of concern is the way that indifference seems to have spread as a social value throughout Chinese society.

When I have spoken with many Chinese people about my independent study of migrant workers, they seem a little surprised. They have a look in their eyes which reads “Why, that’s interesting, I didn’t even think about them.”

This kind of indifference does not make the average Chinese citizen unaware, but I believe it reveals a systematic desensitization to the workers. Now, hailing from a very labor-aware campus where substantive interactions with staff come frequently, I am certainly biased. The complete lack of interaction with workers in China, nevertheless, is stunning. This is not to say that the Chinese people are rude, but it does say how society has compartmentalized the working class.  I would even argue that this effects the self-esteem of workers themselves. For example, when I offered a simple xie xie ne (thank you, in Mandarin) to a worker, the reaction I received was one of shock. I received a quick bu kechi (your welcome) back. This may be because a laowai (foreigner) spoke Mandarin to them, but after talking with students, I believe that the reaction came from an expectation of not being thanked for work. Their level of work is so low, that we do not thank them, nor do they even expect thanks, for their work.

This phenomenon is certainly not unique to China; indifference in the United States, especially to workers, is also an issue, but it is more unexpected here. Under Mao, the working class was considered glorious. Lin wrote of the social classes in China falling into a distinct order:

1. The Scholars

2. The Farmers

3. The Artisans

4. The Merchants

Today’s order is quite different, if not almost completely reversed. In modern China, the merchant class, which we can rename as “The Businesspeople,” are at the top of the heap. Farmers have been moved to the bottom spot. Is it a coincidence then that most of the migrant workers I have met started out as farmers?

A shift in the social classes combined with a new level of social indifference will have far-reaching implications for China’s future. As social mobility grows, traditional Chinese values are threatened by consumerism. Collectivism challenges individualism. Allegiance to the nation dwindles in favor of allegiance to the self.

I am not saying that all of these things are happening right now on a grand scale: that is too vast a generalization. But, there are questions about indifference arising each day. Most recently, Little Yue Yue, a Chinese girl, was run over by a truck and then left on the street while 18 people passed by, in almost a Kitty Genovese-like fashion. This and other events have prompted the Chinese government and people to ask:

Have we become too indifferent?

The treatment of migrant workers may be a good thermometer for that very question.

Smiles and apples: Positivity and reliance in Beijing

Apples from the Feng’s stand

Fruit stands are a ubiquitous fixture in cities around the world, and China is no exception. When exploring Beijing, one will see dozens upon dozens of fruit-selling businesses in all shapes or forms. Some will be on the backs of pick-up trucks. Others sell on the sidewalk. Outside of Peking University, a couple works diligently to unload crates of fruit from their van. A woman in a white apron bags up produce while bantering with customers, a wide grin across her face.

Mr. and Mrs. Feng came to Beijing in 2002. Originally from Jiangsu province located on the southern coast of the country, the pair moved to the city, like many other migrant workers, after farming was not providing enough income to support the family. The transition to Beijing life, however, was more difficult than they expected. Later that year, they were forced to return to Jiangsu as the SARS epidemic struck terror into people across Asia and the world.

SARS was only a small setback to the family’s larger plans for success, and in 2003, they returned to Beijing. With no specific job prospects in site, the family began selling street food in various night markets across the city. In 2008, they changed their business and decided to start selling fruit.

On this cloudy day in Beijing, the couple had many customers to attend to. About a block away from the west gate of Peking University, the Feng’s set up their business on the sidewalk. Crates of fruit line the pathway, passersby stopping to examine the brightly colored produce. Business is booming, but that does not mean they can relax and let the fruit sell without encouragement. About15 feet away is another, competing, fruit stand. Although on this day the customers seem to prefer the Feng’s goods, the public is fickle; their warm personality and cheerful manner certainly helps.

Beyond selling delicious fresh fruit and finding work, the family had a much more practical reason for coming to Beijing: the children. In China, the concept of devotion to the family is more than just an idea; it is a concrete part of societal values. Mr. and Mrs. Feng have two children, a son and a daughter. It is these children that much of their future rests on.

The son, 23, works in a library nearby, trying to bring in some money. He is not a large fan of Beijing, and, according to his parents, wishes to move back to the countryside. Their daughter, 21, has a very different mindset. Working as a hairdresser in Beijing, she very much would like to stay in the city. For now, this is where money and possibility resides.

When asked if they wished to return to Jiangsu, Mr. and Mrs. Feng said that while they like Beijing, they would be very happy to go back to a farmer’s lifestyle at home. The chance of this occurring, however, also comes from the children’s actions. “We would maybe go back once the children are married,” explained Mrs. Feng. Beyond basic aspects of filial piety, even the relationships of children can be determining factors for parental decision-making.

This puts a sizable amount of stress on the couple; at the moment, they are working to support the family. On a good day, the Feng’s pull in about 200 RMB, but there are many other conditions that can impair sales, from bad weather to slow crowds. Therefore, they will continue to work hard and expect the children to do the same.

One thing that we can all learn from the Feng’s is optimism and positivity. Even in a difficult situation, relying on the decisions of children, Mr. and Mrs. Feng radiate positivity. From the smile with which they greet customers to the hearty laughter coming from friendly conversations, being migrant workers in Beijing does not stop their enjoyment of life.

The children may get married soon, or they may not. For the time being, the Feng’s will continue to set up their stand by the University, brightening even the smoggiest of days with sweet fruit and good attitudes.

Filial piety: Successful children, successful life

For Chinese children, the expectations are high, but not for the reasons one might think. Of course, there is the distinct belief in the concept of face and honor in Chinese families, but a more pragmatic reason exists for the intensity:

Filial piety.

Mr. Yang is a former real estate worker living in Beijing. Retired at 57, he spends most of his days now relaxing in a sizeable apartment, free from the fear of finding a next meal, slaving away in a factory, or struggling to find employment. Mr. Yang enjoys this comfortable lifestyle due to the good fortune of and hard work put in by his son.

In China, there is a deep connection and bond between elders and youth, specifically parents and children. Chinese children are expected to meet very high expectations, earn top marks, and keep positive “face” for the family. Some may remember the major commotion in the Western world caused by the publication of Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, in which she described herself as a strict Chinese mother who placed great restrictions and held high expectations for her daughters. While Amy Chua may be a Yale Law Professor, a lot of these parents are average people who are relying on their children to offer them support in later years.

Filial piety is a concept first introduced by Confucius, and is therefore engrained in society. China even goes so far as to make this reverence or support to parents an actual law. For Mr. Yang and the many other parents of China’s youth, the goal is not just self-actualization for the child, but the creation of a family safety net.

Mr. Yang is originally from Fujian province, working for many years in a car factory. When he was fired from the company, he struggled to find a job in his home province. His son, however, was having much more success. A bright young student, his son was accepted to Peking University. In 2002, Mr. Yang moved to Beijing, to hopefully find work and be closer to his son at the University. After coming to Beijing, he found a job working real estate, managing a number of apartments. When asked whether he liked Beijing or Fujian more, Mr. Yang responded “Fujian for the weather! But the jobs are in Beijing.”

Mr. Yang’s son successfully graduated with a degree in international relations from Peking University, and, with his solid command of English, started his own company. Now, his son’s company coordinates study abroad experiences in the United States for Chinese students. Even with the heavy government taxes on business, his son has been quite successful. This came to its most important moment when, after seeing his father put many hours into work, Mr. Yang’s son asked him to retire. Now, the son provides the equivalent of the Mr. Yang’s old salary, and he no longer has to work.

As Mr. Yang retired at a comparatively young age, he still has a sense of independence, even if his son is providing income. Although both in Beijing, they live their lives separately. His son bought him a house in Beijing, and he says that even if his son did fail, he could keep working on his own.

The motivations for migrant workers to move are more than just self-support in the moment, but also for the long-term. Mr. Yang is a good example of how the Chinese culture puts pressure not just on the individual successes of children, but the successful support of the entire family. China, at least in its history, has had a distinctively collectivist culture. From the founding of the Communist party to a general sense of nationalistic pride, success in China has long meant pleasing others. Even with the large number of family businesses and entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes many Chinese youth, the wellbeing of those who provided these opportunities, parents, remains paramount.

As Mr. Yang speaks, he has a distinct confidence, proud of both his and his son’s accomplishments. It has been a long road to a comfortable life of retirement and prosperity, and much of that burden was and is that of his son’s.

Perhaps the rest of the world has something to learn from the Chinese way. For now, it’s difficult to imagine many individualistic Westerners, including myself, embracing such collectivist ideas. One could argue that the value of filial piety forces children to relinquish their freedom to choose their path in the world—but then again, it is the parents who offer their children a chance in the first place. There is middle ground in this debate and for those who find it, such as Mr. Yang’s family, everybody wins.



“Hope” Elementary: A future for Beijing’s migrant children

At an elementary school only ten minutes away from some of China’s top universities, 76 students squeeze into a cramped classroom.

Tucked away on an urban dirt road among vendors and food shops, this school for migrant children, the name roughly translated into English as “Hope Elementary,” is worlds apart from China’s modern development and new wealth. In a neighborhood of mud and shacks, it is unsettling to see skyscrapers in the distance. Instead of the extravagance that characterizes much of China’s recent construction, the school is a monument to frugality. A utilitarian metal gate protects the institution and leads to a crowded concrete courtyard filled with energetic children laughing and playing.

These are some of the children of the city’s migrant workers; as many Chinese come to major cities in search of work, children often join their parents. However, due to the country’s strict housing registration system, the hukou, migrant children are restricted from attending public schools in provinces which are not their own. Therefore, these children rely on a number of privately run schools to get any shot at a formal education.

Liang laoshi (the mandarin word for teacher), the headmistress of Hope Elementary, founded the school in 1997.  After migrating to Beijing from her hometown, she struggled to find a job and began working with her uncle selling vegetables. At the market, Liang met the farmers whose produce she sold and heard about the struggles their children faced. Inspired by the children’s needs and in search of a better job, she founded Hope Elementary with the goal of providing better opportunities for the migrant worker community. Without this school, many of the children who attend would be unable to gain any sort of formal education.

The school's gate

The school's gate

Maintaining the school is a daily struggle for Liang laoshi. Living in a small room in a corner of the school, she works diligently to keep the school’s facilities and finances afloat. Watching her interact with the students in the courtyard, she radiates positivity and care for her pupils. Beyond observing, Liang laoshi spends a great amount of time teaching classes, working with foundations to earn extra support, and supervising her 14 teachers and 20 staff members. This brigade of faculty and staff act as mentors to the 620 K-6 students enrolled at Hope Elementary.

Students at the school study a standard curriculum that includes instruction in Chinese, mathematics, the sciences, and English language. The day runs from 7 am to 3:30 pm, during which time the school becomes alive with passion. Even with these difficult conditions, optimism is high. The classrooms are crowded and resources are scarce, but students and faculty display a general sense of happiness about the work. In one classroom, students put together costumes donated by a local NGO. In another, students recite English phrases; activity abounds.

One of the largest issues for Liang laoshi and the school is financial support. Because the school is private, it charges tuition, as it receives no direct government support. When Liang laoshi founded the school, tuition was about 275 RMB per semester, but with skyrocketing rent, students must now pay 1,000 RMB for each semester. This fee includes textbooks, but does not include food or transportation. Considering that migrant workers often make only a little over 1,000 RMB per month, education is an investment. In the past year, the school has been able to rely on foundations and NGOs to provide basic school supplies, but it is impossible to meet the needs of students through these donations alone. Although there are quite a few schools for migrant children in Beijing, there is little cooperation between them.

For students who successfully complete their education at Hope Elementary, the future becomes much brighter. Through cooperation with the government, students who finish are allowed to transfer into one of Beijing’s public middle schools. Of the 50 students in grade six last year, only two were unable to take advantage of the transfer option.

Liang laoshi watches her school

Even with the optimism and high spirits at Hope Elementary, Liang laoshi has many improvements and goals for the future. Although proud of the school, she notes that the facilities could use improvement. Many of the classrooms are too small for the number of students and the lack of a playground means that there is no safe place for students to exercise or blow off steam. Advocacy organizations, such as Compassion for Migrant Children, finance some of the school’s projects, such as its library, but long-term improvements will require greater support. She also speaks passionately about starting weekend classes to provide resources to student’s parents, many of whom lack a formal education.

The students of Hope Elementary face much adversity, from the limited resources of the school to stressful, and sometimes even abusive, lives at home. However, the opportunities that schools such as Hope Elementary offer for migrant children can tip the odds in the child’s favor for a better future. Visiting Hope Elementary acts as a reminder that China is still a developing country: even with great financial centers such as Shanghai and stunning displays of modernity like the 2008 Olympics, many Chinese are still without a basic education.

For now, Liang laoshi and her school will continue to provide opportunities for these migrant children, reminding China’s government, people, and, indeed, the world that although these young people are often overlooked, they are not forgotten.