Migrant Workers Going Home

Right now, about 1/6 of Chinese are travelling – on their way home to spend the Spring Festival – the Chinese New Year with their families. This has to be the largest seasonal migration in the world.

The majority of those people are nongmin gong, peasant workers or migrant workers, those originally from the countryside who have come to the city for better pay and a better life. For many of them, this is the only chance in a year to visit home. What keeps them going in their tough life in the city is the idea of enjoying the Reunion Dinner at home with family – the traditional time and important occasion for the family to celebrate the lunar New Year together.

Yesterday at my fancy resort in Phuket, I watched CCTV’s reports about the plight of migrant workers going home. One young man said he had queued for four days for a train ticket going back to his native Hubei province. As he was being interviewed, talking about how he had not been able to go back for three years, tears sparked in his eyes. In the end, he managed to get a coach ticket.

This year measures have been introduced to ease the traffic flow. Extra trains, buses and flights have been added. And people now can now buy ticket on line but this new policy makes no difference for many migrant workers who don’t own a computer or have the skill to get online.

Another equally poignant story was about thousands of migrant workers going home in their in their motorbikes. Some teamed up with their friends or relatives; some had to travel for several days. But nothing was going to stop them. There was one thing in their mind – going home for the Spring Festival.

Some got lucky. In Shanghai, quite a few large factories hired coaches to drive people home and drop them. Thanks to labour shortage in Shanghai and also coastal areas such as Shenzhen, factories have tried harder than ever in accommodating and helping the workers in the hope of retaining them. Some factories offer them iphones or other bonus to allure the workers back.

The migrant workers live separate lives from the urban population. The Spring Festival is the time the city people realize the importance of their poor rural cousins. In my neighborhood – where many migrant labours congregate – is rather quiet right now. A lot of breakfast stalls disappeared, restaurant, shops and news stands closed. No one came to deliver the milk or water; and no one collected rubbish. Many domestic helpers have also gone home, leaving many families struggle with their daily grinding. Migrant workers have effectively taken over the service industries in the city. They are the unsung heroes of our society.

My helper Xiao Yu has also gone her home in Sichuan, by taking the train for 29 hours without a seat. I’ve told her to take her time as I’d like her to spend decent time with her family.

I watched the news and felt guilty. Ever since I left home in the end of 1990, I have only gone back four times for the Spring Festival. I find the overwhelming crowds off-putting: anywhere you go, it is infested by thongs of people. And my family has never pressured me. If I bothered to try, it wouldn’t be too hard – wouldn’t be hard as Xiao Yu’s 29 hour seatless train. I’ve called home and promised to be there next year.

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