沿海务工者 – Coastal workers – English

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Xue Liang is a boy of an age similar to mine. He’s not tall, and loves to joke a lot; as soon as he speaks a huge smile appears on his face. His uncle, sitting opposite him, calls him “brother Liang”, indicating no interest in family hierarchy. The uncle and the nephew are sitting on a train heading from Chengdu to Fuzhou, making fun of each other during the whole journey. They would never stop talking about different topics, making the passengers around laugh.

The uncle of brother Liang is a middle-aged man with a wrinkled face and calluses on his hands. From those details it’s clear that he is a hardworking man. During the conversation, he told me he left Sichuan in 1998 and went to work. He worked in a coastal region, changed jobs few times, but his main job during those years was in Minnan in a stone factory.

Uncle likes to smoke. He smokes one cigarette after another, and once meal time arrives, he doesn’t buy a meal box from the dining compartment workers. Only when Liang is with his uncle does he drink baijiu (rice wine) and eat roasted peanuts and cured sausages. These things are all brought from home and seem simple, but yet very practical. The snacks are all products of Ziyang village in Sichuan province and ought to be quite flavorsome. The cured sausages were prepared specially by Uncle’s dearest old mother for her son’s long journey.

Whenever Uncle drinks he always talks a lot. He started talking about a fight he had with someone from Anhui and Fujian, along with some other people from other provinces. He even talked about taking advantage of someone once and getting into a gang fight. Later when he went to his local police station, all he did was use his guanxi (connections), pay a small fine, and the matter was settled.

Aside from them, the others traveling with Xiang include his aunt, cousin (paternal aunt and uncle’s daughter) and his cousin’s wife. They all work in Fujian province of China’s southeastern coast. Uncle’s house is in Jinjiang and aunt’s house is in Luoyuan.

Uncle’s family also went to Sichuan many years ago for work. His daughter is thirteen now and has been studying in Fujian since she was little. She is more mature in appearance than other girls. Each year travelling back and forth from Sichuan to Fujian, their journey takes thousands of Kilometers. My hope is that this experience for her at a young age will aid in her admission to a good school. This journey of the heart is different than children of most other families.

“She has been attending school in a different province since she was little. Since she’s been with us, she’s now in middle school. I think she could take the college entrance exam in Fujian, and if she can’t pass, then we’ll send her home to take it. Studying here in the coastal regions is naturally better than in Sichuan. The education system here is really good…” When I asked Liang’s uncle about how to do well on the exam, he replied that, your expression should be relaxed and normal. Perhaps he didn’t know about how unreasonable the exam’s restrictions are with the household registration system. Or it could be that for them, this was their reality and they just had to accept it. Moreover, there are many officials throughout China who are still using ‘technicalities’ of the household registration system, or ‘intense’ debate and discussion. In this era of globalization, China has many greedy and ‘naked’ officials—those whose family members have gone abroad—who act for the personal gain of their children by sending them abroad. While at the same time this enables their children to avoid the entrance exams altogether, most Chinese families still regard the exam as a prestigious pathway.

There are many workers who have gone out from their hometowns on the train; they have been away from town and country for many years now. During the annual Spring Festival, the rural-urban townships don’t like the workers returning home, from east to west, to celebrate with their families. After all, one’s crazy parents and the local ‘left behind’ children are awaiting them in the countryside. At the same time the couple struck up a conversation, they began sharing a story with me. That guy’s wife is a real talker. She began rambling: “My husband has an older brother who studied at Chongqing University. After he graduated he went to Hubei for work and returns home to see his two brothers every year. On the contrary his younger brother looks a little old for his age because he does hard labor to make a living. His older brother always relied on his intellect to make a living and naturally looks younger than his brothers. Our two children have also been away for a few years. In fact, these past few years they bought a house in Zhongjiang county but haven’t furnished it yet. My baby is at our hometown studying. Getting an education is one’s best way to find success.”

There were also two middle-aged guys from Sichuan. One was from Jiangyou and the other guy came from Qianwei. They were talking about some taboo topics in front of a few younger girls. They told me about how they lived a ‘life of pleasure’ which indeed meant that they had found some ‘mistresses’, or prostitutes.

“Many of those ‘mistresses’ were actually from Sichuan. In some places, there would be many women on one street and all of varying degrees of attractiveness. Where you go to get drinks, there are others who have gone through a disciplined training (these places depend on them) so that when you end up drinking with these women, you don’t mention her inebriated speech. Naturally, you’ll end up going to an even more expensive bar.” That guy from Qianwei shamelessly talked about his experience looking for prostitutes.

On one side, the guy from Jiangyou also talked about his time after work seeking prostitutes. Sometimes he would take a motorbike and take his customers to go ‘consume’. I jokingly called him a ‘pimp’ and he didn’t even sound disturbed by my remark. The guy from Qianwei talked about the time when looking for a prostitute, making it sound interesting. He also mentioned to me that he currently works at Fuzhou, rents his own home, and lives independently because he occasionally brings home a ‘mistress’ to stay the night. After these two guys finished telling their stories, the female passenger remarked that, in that case, then their hard earned wages have merely been squandered.

These are just a few stories of wage laborers and their families. I wish that all of my long distance train rides could be like this, then I could really gain a close understanding of the workers and their experiences who come from different places other than Sichuan. Sichuan is China’s most important exporter of wage laborers. Every migrant worker supports a family, and every family experiences different and unusual circumstances unfold.

During the journey, everyone calls each other ‘fellow countryman’. After the train arrives at Fuzhou station, I bid farewell to these migrant workers. The time was five o’clock in the morning and still dark out. The station was full of people running wildly asking if you need a ride. I waited at the bus station for the first bus to the Normal University and ran into the couple from Zhongjiang. They were in a hurry to catch the earliest bus to Luoyuan. We greeted each other and wished safe travels. They dragged their luggage off towards the road outside the station and disappeared amidst the bustling traffic and pedestrians…

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org