Editor’s Note: Every day, and through the nights too, China’s long-haul truckers are on the move. At least 30 million strong, they form the backbone of the country’s vast logistics network, accounting for more than 70% of China’s domestic freight volume.
Little is known about the lives and livelihoods of this vital workforce — most of whom barely eke out a living hauling goods across the country all year round with little time to eat, drink, or sleep. Unexpected delays or unforeseen circumstances sometimes leave them with hardly enough to even buy a pack of cigarettes.
But behind many of these unknown truck drivers are invisible women. Some stay behind to take care of the family on their own; others go along for the ride to help their husbands. The latter take care of everything but the driving and are usually far from home and their children, building lives in cramped truck cabins.
In 2018, Ma Dan, a researcher at the Chinese Truck Driver Research Project, traveled to cities in five provinces, meeting the wives of 49 truck drivers to chronicle their lives, loves, and struggles.
This is the story of the ka sao, wives of China’s truckers.
Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
One of my most enduring memories is of a woman who stepped out of her truck after 20 or 30 hours on the road to come and talk to me. She had a 4-month-old baby in her arms.
I didn’t know what to say. The baby was sitting across from me in his mother’s arms, looking at me curiously. The mother had spent at least eight months of her pregnancy being jostled around inside the truck. And 100 days after being born, the baby also joined his parents on the road.
Meeting such people in real life makes you realize just how much of a truck driver’s job is a family affair — the mother had gone from being pregnant to nursing her baby and taking care of a growing infant, all within the confines of a tiny truck cabin.
Such scenes aren’t meant to evoke a sense of condescension or pity. You become aware that sometimes there is only one option available: Life presents you only with a single road to travel down.
Rough estimates suggest that there are around 25 million ka sao in China. They can be divided into two types: those who stay at home to care for the family, and those who join their husbands for the long haul.
But whether they’re on the road or at home, life remains an uphill battle.
Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
The left-behind wives
The left-behind wives of truck drivers share some similarities with the wives of other migrant workers, but with some unique characteristics.
Truck driving is a dangerous job, so it’s common for many of the trucker wives who remain at home to closely follow the news. It’s how they keep up with local developments and the weather, as well as check for any traffic incidents on their husbands’ usual routes. Even if they see a traffic accident completely unrelated to their husbands’ whereabouts, it can leave them reeling for several days. This constant state of worry means they have their own heavy load to bear.
Gao Chunjie, 46, has seen both worlds. She’s been riding with her husband for three or four years, having previously stayed at home while he was away driving.
“Starting around 1992, truck driving was a pretty fashionable job. At the time I was a physical education teacher earning 130 yuan ($20) a month, while my husband earned 4,000 or 5,000 yuan. We were a pretty popular couple at the time since we always picked up the bill,” she says.
Later, her husband’s friend suggested the couple move to the eastern Shandong province to transport ore sifting machinery to the northern Shanxi province, famous for its rich mineral resources. At the time though, she says, the trucks were slow and had low horsepower. A trip to Shanxi took more than 10 days there and back, so they met only twice a month.
“When our son was on summer vacation, I tagged along too and saw how precarious some of the roads he took were,” Gao recalls. “After getting back, I found it hard to sleep because of all the anxiety. I always waited for him to call and my mind would start racing when he didn’t — wondering if he’d gone down some or the other (dangerous) road.”
Also, Gao’s husband liked to drink a little to relax. She remembers saying to him often: “Be careful when you’re driving. Pay attention to the road.”
Gao Chunjie takes selfies with her husband. Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
Those days people already had cellphones, so they spoke at least once a day. On one occasion, he didn’t answer her calls for several days, leaving Gao worried sick.
“When I finally got through, I started crying. But we don’t talk as tenderly as other married couples. He just said, ‘There’s no problem! What are you crying for?! You think I don’t know how to drive?’”
At the time, Gao took care of everything at home. Once, she recalls, she had a fever and wasn’t able to get on an IV drip. She opted instead to get an injection to try and bring her temperature down.
“On the way home after the injection, I was in such pain that I couldn’t move. My son was around 10 years old at the time. He walked up to me and said: ‘Mom, I'll carry you.’ It breaks my heart to think about it,” she says.
According to Gao, she always gets straight to the point and says straightforward people, like her and her husband, fight constantly when together.
But, she says, when he is away hauling goods and they are apart for long stretches of time, they always think about how hard it is on each other, and so they always cherish their time together.
Gao says, “As tough as my husband is, he can be a sweet talker. If you try and force him to bend, he can’t do it. But you can feel that though he says nice things in a somewhat rough manner, he always does the right thing. That’s just the kind of person he is."
Miao Huiling tightens ropes along the truck. Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
Home on the road
Across the globe, long-distance truck driving is primarily a man’s profession. So, when I heard about husbands and wives hitting the road together — women were suddenly appearing in a male-dominated world — I wanted to understand why women were accompanying their husbands like this.
Though women traveling with their truck-driving husbands is not new, it has become more common in recent years. Each truck is supposed to have a main and a backup driver. However, the low wages make it difficult to hire a second driver and so more and more truck owner-operators need a second person to travel with them to help out.
If these women are asked why they go out on the road, most will say something like they’re there to cook and do the laundry. And though it may not sound like much, being able to not worry about where their next meal is coming from is a huge bonus for long-haul truckers who spend their lives in constant motion.
Miao Huiling, 46, has been riding with her husband for 18 years.
She says she first joined her husband in July 2003. “The route was from Golmud (in the northwestern Qinghai province) to Lhasa (capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region), and we were transporting pigs. Since it was my first time to Lhasa, some suggested I should take oxygen with me, but my husband said there was no need, so I didn’t take any. By the time we arrived at Wudaoliang (in Qinghai province, about 4,500 meters above sea level), I wasn’t feeling right,” she says.
After taking a nap, Miao woke up to discover that her face was swollen and covered in bruises. She recalls, “I tried drinking some water and spat out some green stuff. I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t sleep. Traveling down that road, you experience all four seasons in a single day — one minute it’s snowing, the next there’s a hailstorm, and then it’s bright sunshine.”
Miao Huiling and her husband pose for a photo in front of the Potala Palace when they arrived in Lhasa for the first time, 2003. Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
The couple then got stuck in traffic at Wudaoliang overnight. “The sky was pitch black. My nose was constantly running and I kept wiping it. By morning, I looked down and saw it wasn’t a runny nose — it was a nosebleed. The tissues were all covered in blood,” she says.
“After arriving in Lhasa, I couldn’t eat anything. I walked around on my own, circling the Potala Palace several times. Perhaps I’d gotten used to the altitude, because on the way back I didn’t have any reaction whatsoever.”
On the return leg, Miao says they came across an incident she still remembers as clear as day. It was July 15 (that year’s Ghost Festival) and they arrived back in Wudaoliang to find that seven or eight vehicles had crashed and slid over a cliff. “It was the first time I’d seen anything like it and I didn’t dare get out of the truck. Where we’re from, people are pretty superstitious,” she says.
On the way down from there Miao didn’t sleep a wink and was on tenterhooks the whole way. After that trip she didn’t feel right: She recalls thinking to herself, “If there are two drivers then it’s not so bad. But if my husband is on his own, what can he do?”
To Miao and her husband, the truck is like a home on wheels — it has everything a house does, apart from a toilet. Their cab is less than 6 square meters in area; the upper and lower bunks are just about 90 centimeters wide; and in front of them are the two seats. They have the most space to move around when they lie down on the bunks.
And from sorting and washing vegetables to making dough, everything is done in the cab. “I keep all the kitchen utensils in a box in the truck and spread them out while cooking. I have to stir-fry when the truck is on the move, otherwise the smoke has nowhere to go. The whole process takes almost three hours off and on,” she says.
Miao Huiling cooks a meal in the truck. Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
Truckers’ wives have a lot of things to do on the road. But ask any of them, and they still won’t tell you how much work they do. They prefer to put their husbands in the spotlight and downplay their own contributions. These women and those around them make their work invisible, just like Gao, who contends her hard work is nothing compared with her husband’s.
“I have to keep watch for anyone trying to steal fuel every night — ‘gasoline rats,’ we call them. Usually, I’ll be out there from around 11 p.m. until 4-5 a.m. when I wake him up. I can’t stay in the truck when I’m on the lookout. First, it’s hot inside. And second, if something happens, opening and closing the door will affect the driver’s rest,” she says.
Back then, there was no killing time on a smartphone. They could only walk around the truck. And in the summer, the heat and humidity meant their clothes would stick to them. “I can’t bear to even think back on those times,” she says.
Other than the driving, Gao says, she can do everything else. “Sometimes I feel really tired, but then I look at my husband sitting there as he drives for more than 10 hours (every day). Looking at myself, I’m much better off than him. So, I just put up with it.”
Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
Along with such challenges, truckers’ wives are concerned most about their children back home.
Miao Huiling joined her husband on the road when her son was 7 years old. On one occasion, they’d already gotten on the highway when her son, Xiao Kang, started crying nonstop on the phone, not wanting his mom to leave. Miao had no choice but to head straight back home and calm him down.
When Miao told me about that incident, I thought she must have then stayed at home that trip. When I interviewed her, my son was also 7 years old, and I could really empathize with the pain of a mother and son being separated.
However, she said that after comforting Xiao Kang, he looked over to her while doing his homework and said, “Mom, you should still go. I know you can’t relax when Dad’s driving alone. You should go with him.”
“Xiao Kang is a really smart kid. After I left to rejoin my husband, we talked on the phone every day,” she says.
Miao also remembers going to Xinghua Village, which translates to “Apricot Blossom Village,” in Shanxi province, and her son asking, “Mom, where are you now?”
When she told him where they’d arrived, what he texted back made her laugh: “Mom, tell Dad to stop and have a drink before you go, because (as a Tang dynasty poem says) ‘Enquiring, where can an inn be found? A cowherd boy points, far away, to Apricot Blossom Village. There’s wine there!’”
A group photo of “ka sao.” Courtesy of Transfar Harbour
Women in a man’s world
The wives of truck drivers face another difficulty on the road: There’s no stopping once the truck starts hauling goods. No matter how much they sweat in the summer, there are no breaks for showers or freshening up. They may be pregnant, breastfeeding, or menstruating, but these all get integrated into the fast-paced life.
Gao says, “You can’t even drink water in the truck, otherwise you’d have to stop for bathroom breaks. During holidays, the parking spaces in service areas are very tight — if you go in, you might not be able to get out again. So, you have to figure out workarounds to avoid delaying your journey.”
When I met the wives to interview them, they all looked pretty, but one of the most common things they told me was: “If I was on the road, you wouldn’t be able to recognize me.”
Gao says, “I’m a typical example. When I’m not on the road I feel quite good about myself. But when I’m on the road, people ask me: ‘Are you in your 50s?’ It makes me so angry. I reply: ‘You’re too kind; I’m actually in my 60s.’ But what can you do? I’m actually only 46 years old."
After interviewing the women, we added each other on WeChat. In our day-to-day lives, I’ve found we’re no longer researcher and subjects, but just a group of mothers and women.
They’ve given me a lot of support and strength, and are a great group of women and a great group of wives. The world doesn’t see their work or their sacrifices.
For me, they are unsung heroes living in a man's world.
This article was originally published by StoryFM. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Lu Hua.
(Header image: Miao Huiling and her husband pose for a photo in front of their truck, 2018. Courtesy of Transfar Harbour)