I stayed home for two years after I graduated junior middle school. After working on the farm with my parents, all I wanted was to get out, see the world, and hopefully make a little money. I finally left in July 1999, when I was 19 years old. I moved from my home city of Guilin in China’s southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to the neighboring province of Guangdong. My dream then was simple: to work and support myself, to spend some time increasing my understanding of the world through self-study, and to have an engaging social life.
But my desires were crushed by reality. To support myself, I found a job as a weaver in a factory that only offered 12-hour shifts, which meant working well into the nights. I did not have days off or vacations, except for a couple of days over Chinese New Year. My starting salary was only 450 yuan (about $70) per month. Sometimes I was also stopped when I left the factory by police who demanded to see my temporary residence permit. Whenever I failed to produce it, I was instantly fined 200 or 300 yuan. In addition, the neighborhood was very rough, with a high crime rate. Between the hassle of the police and the threat of being robbed, I stayed within the factory walls most days.
I became frustrated. I bought a lot of books and tried to bury myself in reading about things I had a limited knowledge of, like computers. At one point I was so anxious that all I could eat each day was a small bowl of rice and could only sleep three or four hours each night. I felt unhealthy all the time and I lost a lot of weight.
After a year spent enduring this torment, I was in despair. I could no longer see where my path led or any way out of the nosedive. One day, I overheard coworkers reverently daydreaming about the snowcapped mountains of China’s southwestern Tibet Autonomous Region. Listening to them, I suddenly realized that I would rather end my life on those mountains than spend one more day in this underworld.
In October 2000 I settled my final wages with my boss and left without telling anyone. I first traveled to the provincial capital, then to Southwest China’s Yunnan province. After this I made my way to Tibet one stretch at a time. I didn’t have a lot of money and the going was slow. It took me more than 20 days to reach Tibet.
When I finally arrived, I was disappointed to find that the surrounding mountains weren’t actually snowcapped. The journey and all of the negative emotions I had been feeling suddenly bubbled up. I felt close to breaking point, but more than that, I was angry at the perceived deception. Everywhere I went, nothing turned out like it was supposed to. I bitterly resolved that if I ever ended my life, it certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near these snowless peaks. I stayed for several days longer, then decided to seek my fortune elsewhere.
First I hopped the provincial border to China’s northwestern Qinghai province, where I picked up odd jobs for a month. I remained unfulfilled. So I returned to Guangdong to once again become a weaver. Life continued as if nothing changed. I bought many books and began writing prose about the lives and conditions of migrant workers in China.
The problems facing Chinese migrant workers are numerous. The workers are normally undereducated and lack the means to enter into vocational schools which would help them become skilled tradesmen. In addition, because they travel from place to place, they run into difficulties with their hukou, which is a registration system in China that allows access to local social benefits, such as public education or healthcare. It is often very difficult to move since a person must satisfy a host of requirements, like owning property, before registering for their hukou. When workers do eventually manage to find employment, it is often underpaid, which results in bad living conditions when paired with the high cost of living in cities.
Whenever I read in the newspapers about a migrant worker winning the lottery I would dream of what I would do were I in their place. Beyond the usual earthly desires, I wanted to open up a workers club, where my fellow migrants could chat, read, study, and enjoy all types of recreational activities. I wanted to help others stuck in the same situation as me — to offer a sort of support network through which we could all lean on each other. As far as I had experienced, this didn’t exist. But of course, my occasional lottery purchase never led to anything besides an increased frustration.
Between 2001 and 2006 I travelled extensively across Guangdong and neighboring Fujian, as well as returned home to Guangxi. My main desire was to observe the living and working conditions of migrant workers in those places. My brother had always told me, “Crows everywhere are equally black,” but I still hoped to find one place where migrant workers were treated decently, or failing that, humanely.
At the end of 2007, I was offered an internship at a nongovernmental organization (NGO). I was initially hesitant, since I had finally landed a good position at the factory as one of the few assistant engineers. I now worked eight hours a day, five days a week, and received a salary that was twice as much as when I had started. The whole job had turned into a breeze. On top of it all, I was becoming seriously interested in a girl in my department. If I quit it all and took on the internship, I would receive only basic living subsidies. I also wasn’t sure where it would lead me in terms of career prospects. Nevertheless, my fascination with migrant worker populations induced me to take the job. I wanted to help people.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Not long into my internship, I began having doubts about the organization and my role in it. First, I didn’t think they had the means to be of much use to such a large migrant population. Second, this NGO mainly served people coming from the construction and service industries, and I was more familiar with migrant workers in manufacturing. Before long, I left the NGO and moved to Suzhou, in East China’s Jiangsu province, where I began working in another factory. Since I had previously spent a lot of time working in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong, I was curious to see the conditions of migrant workers in the Yangtze River Delta — another region in China famous for manufacturing.
After a time spent working in factories again, I shared my failed NGO internship experience with my friend. Surprisingly, he cautioned me against giving up: “What you did took a lot of courage. None of it was easy. But have you thought about what you could do for the community? It’s impossible to predict how it will turn out, since every generation of the working class has its own unique struggles. No one can give you the exact answers you’re looking for. You’ll have to keep learning through experience.”
Although his words were simple, they struck me like a thunderbolt. My visions of what I would do if I won the lottery began creeping into my thoughts again. What I had envisioned way back during my early years at the factory was no longer a pipedream — it had been made achievable by years of financial security and working experience. Unfortunately, I was still unable to afford an entire workers club, but I knew where I could begin. On March 6, 2009, my library opened its doors for migrant workers in Suzhou for the first time.
We were faced with financial problems almost immediately. Since libraries are extremely hard to make profitable, I had initially considered staying on with my factory job and supporting the NGO with my salary from there. However, I quickly realized how much time I actually needed to run the library. Luckily, through the collected efforts of me and my friends, the Oxfam Urban Livelihoods program began collaborating with us and assisted our organization with the necessary funds. Our staff were finally able to receive allowances, and we were able to dedicate our full attention on improving the services of the organization.
We were finally able to expand and in December 2013, the Suzhou Migrant Workers Home Social Work Service Center was officially registered at the Suzhou Civil Affairs Bureau. There were four other full-time founding partners besides myself.
Over the last seven years we have served almost 70,000 workers and 30,000 migrant children through several ongoing projects. With our library, we hope to enrich the spiritual life of our members and offer them a chance to expand their knowledge across various fields. We also seek to help those injured at work by providing legal and psychological counseling. Finally, we help the children of migrant workers supplement their education through tutoring sessions.
Of course, the small amount that we contribute far from solves the problems facing China’s 270 million migrant workers. Luckily, it is NGOs like us that make society more aware of these issues, leading people to pay increased attention to bettering the situation.
(Header image: A worker uses a laptop inside his dormitory near a residential construction site in Hefei, Anhui province, Aug. 6, 2014. Jianan Yu/Reuters/VCG)