The Sucidal Migrant Worker and Me – just published in Italian magazine East

One evening this summer, my Ayi (domestic helper) burst into the house with great excitement. “A man got himself drowned in the canal! The policemen have just fished his body out.” Shit! I said to myself, it must be that security guard Mr. Lu I had met the night before. He did it after all. “What kind of man, tall or short? Did you see?” I asked eagerly. My Ayi shook her head. “I tried to take a peek at the body but too many people are crowding around it.” I quickly dialed Lu’s number. When he answered it with his slightly hoarse voice, my heart that had leapt to the throat returned to its normal position.

I had met Lu two days previously in a rather dramatic circumstance.

Late that night, after a big dinner at my house with my Italian friend Antonio, we decided to take a stroll along the canal that runs in front of the house. I live in Wine God’s Bridge Village in the eastern outskirts of Beijing, where many migrant workers originally from the poor hinterland congregate. Despite its name, our neighbourhood isn’t particularly poetic during the day as it is rather chaotic and the narrow streets that frame the low-rise houses – many of them simply constructed – are littered with rubbish. Still I am deeply fond of the area as it is lively and authentic. At night, the tree-lined path by the canal has a different feel, even with a hint of poetry. Peace reigns save the singing of frogs. And the water surface glitters in the lights cast off from an up-market compound in the opposite bank.

Antonio and I chatted as we talked the stories we were working on. Then we spotted a man, standing in the middle of the narrow path and straddling over his bicycle. What was he doing there, on his own and at such a late hour? I thought it was slightly strange therefore took a good look at the man. In the semi-darkness, I noticed that he was hanging his head, sniffing.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Where is your home? Maybe we can help you to get back?”

He raised his head just for a moment. I saw that his eyes were swollen and he smelt of alcohol. The man was in his middle 30’s, his compact body clad in a check-shirt. Judging from his dark skin and cropped hair, I guess he is a migrant worker.

“I don’t have a home anymore,” he said in a heavy voice and then bowed his head again.

“Well, where did you spend last night then?”

“In the street.”

He didn’t strike me as a beggar or homeless. I looked up at the dark sky. Lightening had started.

“Where exactly? Is it covered? It’s going to rain again soon.”

“I don’t care. I just want to find a quiet place to die!” As if he couldn’t bear the weight of the sentence, he bent further over his bicycle, his head almost buried in the basket.

Antonio and I looked at each other and inched closer towards him. “What happened?” I asked.

“A terrible thing. I can’t go back to go back to my home now. I can’t bear it. I just want to die.” Then he began to cry, in a controlled fashion at first but soon let go.

Did he lose his job? Was he kicked out of his house, or was he tricked in a business deal and lost his life savings? I tried to figure out the possibilities. “If you tell us what happened, we might be able to help you.”

He shook his head from side to side, weeping more violently, his whole body shaking.

We tried to comfort him but to no avail. After a while, a car turned up, beeping impatiently for him to get out of the way. We helped him to get off his bicycle and sit him on the curb of the pavement. After he calmed down, bitter words tumbled out in floods. His name is Lu Xiaoyu, originally from a village in Hebei. He had been working in Beijing for a few years, mostly as a security guard. However, ever since his girlfriend, a local Beijing lady, had left him ten days earlier, he couldn’t concentrate on his job or indeed on anything. He couldn’t bear going back to the flat they shared: some of her clothes were still there, her smell was still there and everything reminded him of her. “I don’t know many people in Beijing. She is the only thing I have. I just can’t live without her!” he kept saying. His tone was quite theatrical but his story sounded genuine and I felt his pain, especially as someone who shared the experience of being dumped. What really surprised me was how articulate this man was, even though he claimed to be uneducated. At one point, he recited Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi’s poem: “On high, we’d be two love birds flying wing to wing; and on earth, two brunches entwined together.” That was one of their love poems.

Antonio, who had been listening and nodding sympathetically, patted Lu’s shoulder and said in his strongly accented Chinese: “Pengyou, nihenghao! (friend, you are very good)”

This triggered more tears. “But no good if she doesn’t think so. I am willing to give her everything. If she wants my heart, I can open my heart and give it to her! But now I don’t even know where to find her.” He held his head and started to sob again.

Crying openly is not regarded as very manly in China. I guess that we are not in his circle or he was too heart-broken to care about his face. Life isn’t easy for the emotional and physically displaced migrants who often don’t have a support system in the city.

Just then, we heard a noise from the water: someone had just thrown a bottle or a brick into the canal.

Mr. Lu jumped up and listened, as if just waking up from a dream. “Is that me who has jumped into the river?”

I knew he was a little drunk. Still I thought the remark was so funny that I burst out laughing – I know I shouldn’t. Then I interpreted it to Antonio. We both tried to repress our giggles.

This obviously embarrassed him. “I am planning to jump into the river and die anyway,” he declared, turned around and charged down the slope towards the canal.

Antonio dashed after him and caught him before he reached the bank. “Pengyou, buhao, (friend, this not good)” He scolded Lu as he struggled to pull the depressed man up to the road.

As if this wasn’t dramatic enough, the rain started to pelt down. We couldn’t just stand here with Mr. Lu and get soaked but we couldn’t just leave a suicidal man on his own device. I decided to take him to a small hotel around the corner from my house and put him up for tonight.

Being dragged along by Antonio, Mr. Lu continued to talk in a slightly drunk but coherent way. When a flash of big lightening shot across the sky, he pointed at it and said: “See, that’s heaven – that’s where I am going tonight.”

At the hotel, I found a middle-aged man sitting behind a counter, his sleeveless T-shirt rolled up over pot-belly – Beijing men’s way to deal with the summer heat. He informed me that all rooms had been taken. When he realized that a foreigner had descended in his run-down hotel and holding a Chinese, he jumped up and demanded: “What’s the matter?”

I explained to him in a lowered voice that the drunken man was heart-broken and suicidal because his girlfriend had left him and wondered if he could kindly find the poor man a room for the night.

“Swindler!” the hotel man thundered, pointing at Mr. Lu with his sausage finger. “He must be. Tell him to get lost.”

Lu didn’t argue. Instead, he asked for some tissues to wipe his eyes.

The three of us came out to the street again. Now I really didn’t what to do. The rain had eased but it was still drizzling.

“You are kind-hearted people. You go. Don’t worry about me,” Lu said in a hoarse voice, his expression sober but sadder than before.

“We’ll go if you promise to back home and go to bed,” I said. I was exhausted and looking forward to my own bed.

He shook his head. “I can’t go back home. I can’t bear it,” he said, beating his chest. It looked like he was going to cry again.

Antonio decided to buy him some water.

“Where is he going?” Lu asked.

“To buy you some water?”

“Actually, if he insists in buying me something, could you ask him to get me some beer instead?”

“A few beer please,” I shouted after Antonio.

“Big sister,” Lu turned to me. “I hardly ate anything in the past ten days. Alcohol is the only thing that I can manage. It washes down my sorrow.”

Standing there, I thought about ways to cheer him up. “You said you are going to die today. Maybe let’s look back at your life. What did you really want to do when you were young?”

His swollen eyes lit up. “I was really good at singing and dancing at school, to be honest with you. If I had the opportunity, I might have become somebody.”

Antonio returned with a few bottles of beer and water. Lu took a bottle and said thank you in English. He gave a laugh at his effort. The two men clicked the bottles and drank directly from their bottles. After a few swigs, Lu’s mood visibly improved. He asked Antonio if he liked Michael Jackson. Antonio said yes. Lu then imitated a Jackson’s signature move brilliantly and effortlessly. We laughed and applauded, which seemed to please him.

“Why don’t you do a dance for us?” I suggested.

“Okay then. What would you like to see?”

I didn’t expect such an offer. Dance isn’t an area I know a lot about. The only famous dancer I know is Yang Liping, famous for her peacock dance. So I ordered it.

He solemnly walked to the centre of an open space in front of us, took a deep breath as if preparing for the transformation. Then he raised his hand, lifted up one leg and turned his body ever so gracefully. As I watched the man dancing energetically on the muddy concrete ground, I had this surreal feeling. The street had long been deserted; the hotel man and a few onlookers had gone home; the shops and restaurants shut and most of the lights off. Yet Lu performed, as if on stage, facing a large audience. He was no longer a suicidal migrant worker but a dancer who was able to move his body to resemble a peacock!

When he finished, we cheered heartily. “Bravo!”

Lu bowed and smiled. “Glad you liked my dancing. I just love it.” Then he took my hand and danced a fox trod with me.

I grabbed his hands and said: “Look, you are too talented to take your own life. Now go home and have a good sleep. Soon I want you to take me dancing at the square by Wine God’a Bridge.”

Lu nodded an agreement. “I go there dance often.” Everyday when the night falls, the square always bursts into life with music and ball-room dance.

With a wave of hand, he jumped on his bicycle and rode off, a smile on his face.

It was half past two in the morning when I returned home. We had spent almost four hours with Lu. I boasted in my diary that I rescued a migrant worker from committing suicide. Maybe he hadn’t really intended to kill himself but needed someone to talk to, to let out his grief and anger. I was glad that we were there for him.

The follow day, Lu called to thank me and apologize. “Did I scare you?” I said yes. Two days later, my Ayi (helper) burst into the house with great excitement as she just saw a drowned man being fished out of the canal. Could it be Lu? Truly scared this time, I dialed his mobile. How relieved I was to hear his voice! We met up for a chat and he told me more of his story. He had met his girlfriend, a laid-off worker-turned shop assistant at the square when they were ball-room dancing. One year ago, when she had moved in with him, her family strongly opposed it because he is too young, his status as a migrant way beneath a city girl and his job too low with little prospect of going far in life. He believed that her parents had orchestrated her desertion of him. If he could find her, he might be able to persuade her. But she had changed her mobile, left her shop and she had been stay with her parents. The idea Lu had come up with was to write her a heart-felt letter and beg her to return and send it to a magazine called New Life which she buys every week. I thought it was touching but not very practical. Still I offer to polish the letter when he got it done.

I can see the artistic temperaments in Lu, which probably didn’t make his life any easier. He reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s character in his classic Jude the Obscure, a working class young man who dreams to become a scholar.

I should try to find Lu a place where he can use his talent. After much asking around, I found a western NGO Huadan that helps migrant workers, predominately women, to gain confidence through acting. They have been in touch with Lu and are trying to find a way to engage him.

Otherwise, our friendship has not gone far. Once I was given some tickets for a singing concert, I invited him to join me and my two daughters. He sounded excited at first but declined in the end. More recently, when I invited him to come to my house for a dancing party, he hesitated. “Will there be Chinese or foreigners?” “Both,” I said. “I’ll pass it this time,” he said finally. “Teacher Zhang, you are too high-up for me. You are so cultured, you can speak foreign languages and have foreign friends. I am nothing.”

I didn’t try to persuade him as I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. It seems to me that he readily conforms to the social division as much as his ex-girlfriend’s parents. Or perhaps he is more aware of it after the unpleasant episode?

It often strikes me how the urban dwellers and the migrant workers live such a different lives with little interactions between them, apart from the superficial relations between the maids and their masters. I have not had great success in making friends with people from different social backgrounds ever since earlier this year when I moved from the city center to Wine God’s Bridge Village in the eastern outskirt of Beijing, where most of my neighbours are nongmingong – migrant workers, or ‘peasant workers’ as they are literarily called in Chinese.

One of my new friends is Mr. Lu Xiaoyu, a security guard working at an up-market compound in our district. The circumstance of our meeting was rather dramatic.

One late night this summer, an Italian friend named Antonio and I were taking a stroll by a canal that runs in front of my house, hoping to walk off the big dinner we had. It was quiet there save the singing of frogs from down the water. Then we spotted a man, standing in the middle of the narrow path and straddling over his bicycle. What was he doing there, on his own and at such a late hour? I thought it was slightly strange therefore took a good look at the man. In the semi-darkness, I noticed that he was hanging his head, sniffing.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Where is your home? Maybe we can help you to get back?”

He raised his head just for a moment. I saw that his eyes were swollen and he smelt of alcohol. The man was in his middle 30’s, his compact body clad in a check-shirt. Judging from his dark skin and cropped hair, I guess he is a migrant worker.

“I don’t have a home anymore,” he said in a heavy voice, his head bowing again.

“Well, where did you spend last night then?”

“In the street.”

He didn’t strike me as a beggar or homeless. I looked up at the dark sky. Lightening had started.

“Where exactly? Is it covered? It’s going to rain again soon.”

“I don’t care. I just want to find a quiet place to die!” As if he was unable to bear the weight of the sentence, he bent further over his bicycle, his head almost buried in the basket.

Antonio and I looked at each other and inched closer towards him. “What happened?” I asked.

“A terrible thing has happened. I can’t go back home now. I can’t bear it. I just want to die.” Then he began to cry, in a controlled fashion at first but soon let go.

Did he lose his job? Was he kicked out of his house, or was he tricked in a business deal and lost his life savings? I tried to figure out the possibilities. “If you tell us what happened, then we might be able to help you.”

He shook his head from side to side, weeping more violently, his whole body shaking.

We tried to comfort him but to no avail. After a while, a car turned up, beeping impatiently for him to get out of the way. We helped him to get off his bicycle and sit him on the curb of the pavement. After he calmed down, bitter words tumbled out in floods. His name is Lu Xiaoyu, originally from a Hebei village. He has been working in Beijing for a few years, mostly as a security guard. However, ever since his girlfriend, a local Beijing lady, had left him ten days earlier, he couldn’t concentrate on his job or indeed on anything He couldn’t bear going back to the flat they shared: some of her clothes were still there, her smell was still there and everything reminded him of her. “I don’t know many people in Beijing. She is the only thing I have. I just can’t live without her!” he kept saying. His tone was quite theatrical but his story sounded genuine and I felt his pain, especially as someone who shared the experience of being dumped. What really surprised me was how articulate this man was, even though he claimed to be uneducated. At one point, he recited Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi’s poem: “On high, we’d be two love birds flying wing to wing; and on earth, two brunches entwined together.” That was one of their love poems.

Antonio patted the man’s shoulder and said in his strongly accented Chinese: “Pengyou, nihenghao! (friend, you are very good)”

This triggered more tears. “I am good. But it is no good that she doesn’t think so. I am willing to give her everything. If she wants my heart, I can open my heart and give it to her! But now I don’t even know where to find her.” He held his head and started to sob again.

Crying openly is not regarded as very manly in China. I guess that we were not in Mr. Lu’s circle and he was too devastated to care about his face.

Just then, we heard a noise from the water: someone had just thrown a bottle or a brick into the canal.

Lu jumped up and listened, as if having just woken up from a dream. “Is that me who has jumped into the river?”

I knew he was a little drunk. Still I thought the remark was so funny that I burst out laughing – I know I shouldn’t. Then I interpreted it to Antonio. We both tried to repress our giggles.

This obviously embarrassed him. “I am planning to jump into the river and die anyway,” he declared, turned around and charged down the slope towards the canal.

Antonio dashed after him and caught him before he reached the bank. “Pengyou, buhao, (friend, this not good)” He scolded Lu as he struggled to pull the heart-broken man up to the road.

As if this was dramatic enough, the rain started to pelt down. We couldn’t just stand here with Lu and get soaked but we couldn’t just leave a suicidal man on his own device. I decided to take him to a small hotel around the corner from my house and put him up for the night.

Being dragged along by Antonio, Lu continued to talk in a drunk but coherent way. When a flash of big lightening shot across the sky, he pointed at it and said: “See, that’s heaven – that’s where I am going tonight.”

At the hotel, a middle-aged man, his pot-belly exposed, informed me that all rooms had been taken. When he realized that a foreigner had descended in his run-down hotel and holding a drunken guy, he got up and demanded: “What’s the matter?”

In a lowered voice, I explained to the hotel guy that the drunken man was heart-broken and suicidal because his girlfriend had left him and wondered if he could kindly find the poor man a room tonight.

Pianzi – swindler,” the hotel guy thundered, pointing at Mr. Lu with his sausage finger. “He must be a pianzi! Tell him to get lost.”

Lu didn’t argue. He just asked for some tissues to wipe his eyes.

The three of us came out to the street again. Now I really didn’t what to do. The rain had eased but it was still drizzling.

“You are kind-hearted people. You go. Don’t worry about me,” Lu said in a hoarse voice, his expression sober but sadder than before.

“We’ll go if you promise to go back home and go to bed,” I said. I was exhausted and looking forward to my own bed.

He shook his head. “I can’t go back home. My heart can’t bear it,” he said, patting his chest. It looked like he was going to cry again.

Antonio decided to buy him some water.

“Where is he going?” Lu asked in Antonio’s wake.

“To buy you some water?”

“If he has to spend money, maybe you could ask him to get me some beer instead?”

“A few beer please,” I shouted after Antonio.

“Big sister,” Lu turned to me. “I hardly ate anything in the past ten days. Alcohol is the only thing that I can manage. It washes down my sorrow.”

Standing there, I thought about ways to cheer him up. My journalist instinct kicked in. “You said you are going to die today. Maybe let’s look back at your life. What did you really want to do when you were young?”

His swollen eyes lit up. “I was really good at singing and dancing at school, to be honest with you. My whole school knew that. If I had the opportunity, I might have become somebody.”

Antonio returned with a few bottles of beer and water. Lu took a bottle and said thank you in English. He gave a laugh at his effort. The two men clicked the bottles and drank directly from them. After a few swigs, Lu’s mood visibly improved. He asked Antonio if he liked Michael Jackson. Antonio said yes. Lu then imitated a Jackson’s signature move brilliantly and effortlessly. We laughed and applauded, which seemed to please him.

“Why don’t you do a dance for us?” I suggested.

“Okay then. What would you like to see?”

I didn’t expect to be offered such a choice. Dance isn’t an area I know a lot about. The only famous dancer I know is Yang Liping, famous for her peacock dance. So I ordered it.

He solemnly walked to the centre of a clearing in front of us, took a deep breath as if preparing for the transformation. Then he raised his hand, lifted up one leg and turned his body ever so gracefully. As I watched the man dancing energetically on the muddy concrete ground, I had this surreal feeling. The street had long been deserted; the hotel guy and a few onlookers had gone home; the shops and restaurants shut and most of the lights off. Lu was oblivious to the surrounding. He performed, as if on stage, facing a large audience. He was no longer a suicidal migrant worker but a dancer who was able to move his body to resemble a peacock!

When he finished, we cheered heartily. “Bravo!”

A smile blossomed on his face like a flower. He bowed. “Glad you liked my dancing. I just love it.” Then he took my hand and danced a fox trod with me.

I grabbed his hands and said: “Look, you are too talented to take your own life. Now go home and have a good sleep. Soon I’d you to take me dancing at the square by Wine God’s Bridge.”

Lu nodded an agreement. “I go there dance often.” Every day when the night falls, the square always bursts into life with music and ball-room dance.

With a wave of hand, Lu jumped on his bicycle and rode off, a smile on his face.

It was half past two in the morning when I returned home. We had spent almost four hours with the man. I boasted in my diary that I rescued a migrant worker from committing suicide. Maybe he hadn’t really intended to kill himself but needed someone to talk to and to let out his grief and anger. I was glad that we were there for him.

The following day, Lu called to thank me and apologize. “Did I scare you?” I said yes. And it just happened a day after, a man was found drowned in the canal, which truly scared me to death.

The suicide rate among the migrant workers is rising. I have no concrete date but we do often hear tragic stories how some migrant jumped off the bridge after the boss at his construction site ran off without paying him for the whole year or another one killed himself after he fell ill but no money to seek treatment. Early in 2010, more than a dozen workers from Foxconn jumped to their death from a tall building in the factory’s campus highlighted the plight of the migrant workers. Literary called nongmingong – peasant workers in Chinese, the migrants left their villages for the city in search for a better life. But the reality in the city is often harsher than expected. They work long hours for low pay, have little time and few means to make friends. Physically and emotionally displaced, they lack a support network. And they are often looked down by the city folks.

Lu and I met up for a chat and he filled me in with more details. He had met his girlfriend, a laid-off worker-turned shop assistant, when they were ball-room dancing at the square. She is seven years of his senior, a divorcee with a grown up son. One year ago, when she had moved in with him, her parents strongly opposed it because he is too young, his status as a migrant way beneath a city girl and his job too low with little prospect of going far in life. He believed that her family had forced her to give up on him. If he could find her, he might be able to persuade her. But she had changed her mobile, left her shop and she had been stay with her parents. In desperation, Lu revealed a plan to write her a heart-felt letter and beg her to return and send it to a magazine called New Life which she buys every week. I thought it was touching but not very practical. Still I offer to polish the letter when he got it done.

He had never come back to me with the letter. But he obviously hadn’t given up. When I had returned from my summer holiday, I learnt that he had got in touch with her and had been working on winning her back. I am glad that his harsh existence hadn’t destroyed his artistic temperaments or his longing for something big in life but I can also imagine that such qualities probably don’t make his life any easier.

I should try to find Lu a place where he can use his talent. After much asking around, I found a western NGO Huadan that helps migrant workers, predominately women, to gain confidence through acting. After my introduction, they are trying to find a way to engage him.

Otherwise, our friendship has not gone far. Once I was given some tickets for a singing concert, I invited him to join me and my two daughters. He sounded excited at first but declined in the end. More recently, when I invited him to come to my house for a dancing party, he hesitated. “Will there be Chinese or foreigners?” “Both,” I said. “I’ll pass this time,” he said finally. “Teacher Zhang, you are too high-up for me. You are so cultured, you can speak foreign languages. I am nothing.”

I didn’t try to persuade him as I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. It seems to me that he readily conforms to the social division as much as his ex-girlfriend’s parents. Or perhaps he is more aware of it after the unpleasant episode?

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2 thoughts on “The Sucidal Migrant Worker and Me – just published in Italian magazine East

  1. A very touching story. During my few visits to the mainland, I was normally driven here and there by factory owners or office workers. As we passed through small towns and streets, I always wondered what kinds of lives these people lived.

    I knew the stories of some of the “white-collar” workers since we often talked during our long trips together. Their stories were often difficult enough to entertain, with families they saw only once a year and lives that seemed rather lonely to a westerner lucky enough to live with their family. But, these people were probably at a very different social strata from the man you described above.

    As always, thank you for your wonderful insight.

  2. Lijia – Could you please take a look at your post. It seemed a part of the story have been posted in duplicate.

    I’ll come back and put my comments after you have got a chance to review.

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