Living Underground

An Excerpt From the Forthcoming book ‘From the Dragon’s Mouth’

They are called rats, and they have become a symbol of Beijing’s red-hot real estate market. Because of soaring housing costs, there are at least a million people living underground, only able to afford a rented room in the basements of skyscrapers or converted bomb shelters in their nation’s capital. Obsessed with the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack, in 1969 President Mao Zedong ordered the construction of underground shelters that would stretch for eighteen miles beneath the city, able to accommodate half of the population if war ever broke out. The subterranean city center was rife with holes from all the tunneling, like a giant Swiss cheese. A half-century after their construction began, parts of this underground city have been converted into living quarters. This is the only housing option for many students, waiters, hairdressers, office workers, the newly divorced starting their lives over, and many others trying to eke out a living.

Chen Erfei, thirty years old, arrived in the capital in 2009 from a village in the middle of the country where indoor plumbing was considered a luxury. He works as a security guard in a residential complex for upper-class Chinese and foreigners, in a trendy neighborhood filled with fashionable bars and clubs. When his workday ends, he spends the night in a subbasement with three hundred other people. Beds cost sixty-five dollars a month, four times less than renting a room above ground. Chen does not have to pay, because his company provides these barracks-like rooms to its workers to sleep in.



From the Dragon’s Mouth

Ana Fuentes
From The Dragon’s Mouth: Ten True Stories that Unveil the Real China is an exquisitely intimate look into the China of the twenty-first century as seen through the eyes of its people. This is one of the rare times a book combines the voices of everyday Chinese people from so many different layers of society: a dissident tortured by the police; a young millionaire devoted to nationalism; a peasant-turned-prostitute to pay for the best education for her son; a woman who married her gay friend to escape from social pressure, just like an estimated 16 million other women; a venerated kung fu master unable to train outdoors because of the hazardous pollution; the daughter of two Communist Party officials getting rich coaching Chinese entrepreneurs the ways of Capitalism; among others.   —Penguin{node, 3048, 4}

He is a mingong, a worker who migrated from the countryside to the city. There are almost three hundred million Chinese in this situation, most younger than thirty, and in Beijing they make up a third of the city’s twenty million inhabitants. China’s economic miracle would not have been possible without the extreme sacrifices they make, leaving their families behind to keep the factories afloat, construct high-rise buildings, clean offices, and serve meals in restaurants. They send almost all of their earnings home, and, if they’re lucky, they manage to go visit their families once a year, with suitcases stuffed with gifts. Their small children often don’t recognize them.

Chen is proud of where he lives. To get to his room, he enters a skyscraper’s lobby, goes down a stairwell and walks past the boiler room, the machines there roaring at deafening levels. At the end of the hall, a set of doors open onto the parking garage and bicycle racks. Past the garage is the bomb shelter, now converted into dozens of rooms. The first time he took me there, four sickly looking boys wearing doorman uniforms lay sleeping beside the bathrooms. As we approached, they snapped awake and stood up, mumbling a greeting, staring down at the floor. They couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old. “They just got here,” Chen said briskly. An old-timer sat beside them, although he was just as frail, and had to roll his pants down over the top of his belt.

Chen talks very softly, with a Henan accent, substituting the l’s for n’s. Every once in a while his voice breaks, as if he were in the throes of adolescence and it was still changing. He wears his hair in a short buzz cut, and has a suntanned complexion, a long, slender neck, and very white teeth, especially for someone who has never been able to afford to visit a dentist. He gestures slowly with his hands, and stares off into space. He has such a delicate physique and mannerisms, one imagines him composing poetry in his room. But nothing could be further from the reality.

He shares a room with seven co-workers, all security guards for the same development. There are four narrow metal bed frames squeezed into a space of 130 square feet. Pieces of plywood rest atop the bed frames with thin cotton-filled bedrolls over them, some of them too short—Chen told me his feet dangle over the edge as he sleeps. There are no pictures on the walls, no rug, no windows to let any daylight find its way into their underground world. Two of the beds are occupied: a boy with terrible acne leans on his elbows and plays a game on his phone while another curled up in the fetal position, snoring. “After work, we’re so tired all we want to do is sleep,” Chen explained.

On the floor were several plastic containers, mismatched shoes, a stool, and dust bunnies the size of a fist. Someone had left a bowl of half-eaten instant noodle soup. The room smelled of sweat and food.

“What’s it like living here?” I asked.

“I can’t complain,” Chen smiled.

When he thought about what his life would have been like if he had stayed in his village, he explained, he felt fortunate.

* * *

In 1981, when Chen was born, China had begun to open up its economy.1 But in the Chengjia Valley, in the Yellow River basin, nothing had noticeably changed. Among the 2,000 residents of the village, a tiny community by Chinese standards, Chen’s family was in an enviable position because his father worked for a state factory and had a steady paycheck he could count on at the end of every month. His mother taught in a nearby school. A plot of land to farm and a pen with pigs and chickens guaranteed they would have food to put on the table.

Chen remembers they were among the first households to have a television. “The neighbors would come over at night to watch the revolutionary soap operas. And we had a radio and a washing machine. We were very lucky because we had a worker in the family.” And his parents cultivated their land, which meant Chen and his two brothers had to wake up bright and early. His grandmother took care of them and his cousins. She had eight grand- children to look after in all. “Since she didn’t know which kid to deal with first, in the end she didn’t deal with any of us,” Chen joked. He doesn’t remember ever confiding in anyone in his family. “In the villages in the countryside, people don’t talk much, they are not used to expressing their feelings, not even with their own children. A few times in the evening, my mother apologized for not being able to spend time with us. She reminded us we were the envy of the village because we had a television.”

The biggest concern parents had was to marry off their offspring as soon as possible, and to accomplish this each son had to have his own place to live. “Without a house, in the village you’re a nobody,” Chen states. “Young men spend years building their homes, and when they finish they feel like they’ve achieved success.” When he finished secondary school at seventeen, his family wasn’t as enviable anymore because his father had lost his job at the factory. Many state-owned industries were being dismantled at that time, and twenty million people found themselves suddenly unemployed.2 Chen’s mother could not save enough money on her own to pay for the bride prices and homes for her sons, so Chen had to go out and find a job. First, he worked washing dishes in a hotel kitchen. Then, he enlisted in the Army until a relative who had a printing press in Shaanxi, the neighboring province, called and offered him a job. He worked there for a few months, but his relative paid him very poorly because he was “family”, and Chen could barely save any money. Not a day went by when his mother or grandmother didn’t call him and pointedly remind him that he had to find a wife. “They told me, if you don’t know anybody, we’ll find a woman for you ourselves. There are girls around here who would do just fine,” he remembers. Tired of all the pressure, he went back to his village to find himself a wife.

* * *

Chen confesses that he never imagined doing anything else with his life. His mission was to build himself a house, get married, and have a child—a son, if possible. That is what he had been taught, following Confucian tradition. At twenty-four he was behind schedule, as most of his friends and cousins had settled down already.

All of the romanticism the Chinese love to see at the movies is completely absent from real life. With few exceptions, marriage is like a contract two individuals enter into to pool their resources and earnings. They call it guorizi (过日子), or “passing the days,” to be together simply because life is easier when one has a partner. No more sentimental than that.

Chen had known Zhao Li since high school. They had talked a lot in class and got along well. When his parents began badgering him to find a wife, it occurred to him that it could be her. They had talked on the phone a few times, and he had taken her for rides on the back of his motorbike in the summer, racing through the fields feeling the wind on their faces. That was all, but for Chen it was enough.

“I don’t remember how I told her how I felt about her.” He scratches his head with his tan, rough fingers, trying to remember. “Now, teenagers watch television and they learn about those kinds of things from the shows, but back then we didn’t have anything to learn from. I think that one day I just told her I wanted to introduce her to my parents. She was quiet for a minute, and then she said yes. That formalized our relationship. Right then, we knew we were going to get married.”

Their families didn’t make it easy. As tradition dictates, Chen’s parents went over to meet Zhao’s parents at her house, and the mutual interrogation began: how many male children are there in your family? How many own their own homes? And plots of land? Does your son intend to include some livestock in the bride price? Are you sure your daughter could get pregnant quickly? Do any diseases run in your family? And both sides hedged their bets. “My parents introduced me to two other girls, and Zhao Li’s family did the same because they didn’t think I would manage to have our house built before the wedding,” Chen recalls.

Finally an agreement was reached, and they settled on a price. Before the wedding, Chen gave his prospective in-laws 8,8803 yuan ($1,400) as a bride price and a deposit of 20,000 yuan ($3,200), which would be returned to him once the house had been constructed. Until then, the couple would live with Chen’s parents. “I hated my in-laws for making me pay so much money up front,” he remembers, frowning. “But over time they have been very nice to me, and I understand that every family has to take care of their own. Getting married is like closing a deal, you can’t take it lightly.”

The wedding was a major event for the village. For years, Chen’s parents had had to put up with speculation from the neighbors about their son, who at twenty-four had never had a girlfriend, and they wanted to celebrate his marriage in as high a style as possible. It all followed local custom. The day before the wedding, the bridegroom’s house filled up with women cooking and men coming and going with chickens, pigs, sacks of rice, and vegetables, boxes of firecrackers, cigarettes, and rice liquor. Chen and his cousins rented sixty round tables that each sat eight people, and managed to set them up between the house and the garden. They hung up images of the Chinese character traditionally associated with weddings: “double happiness,” 囍 (shuangxi), on red die-cut paper. Then they went to find the bride.

A caravan of ten cars filled with the bridegroom’s friends and cousins pulled up at Zhao Li’s house. Her parents served everyone noodles. Then, as Chen tells it, a kind of fictional battle ensued between his side, who wanted to “kidnap” the bride, and Zhao Li’s relatives, who had to “protect” her and keep her from leaving the house. The bridegroom’s mission was to find and go to his future wife, but first he had to pass a series of tests. And that was the funny part. First, they made him show his respect to her family.

“Zhao Li’s friend kept shouting at me, laughing hard: Now bow down eight times before her mother’s brothers! Now bow to her oldest cousin! Again, you didn’t bow low enough!” Chen says. He remembers getting a sharp pain in his lower back after bowing down to her grandmother so many times. “Before I could pass through the last door to get to the bride’s room, they made me do thirty-six bows in a row,” he says with a chuckle, rubbing his stomach. “When I could finally get Zhao Li out of her room, I had to give a red envelope4 with money in it to each of her cousins and siblings. If I hadn’t, they wouldn’t have let us get in the car.”

Together, they arrived at the banquet at Chen’s parents’ house, which was open all day so that the whole village could come by and raise a glass. The tables were covered with red tablecloths, the color of marriage. They served all the traditional dishes for the occasion: dumplings filled with lotus root, symbolizing fertility; chicken feet, which resemble the feet of a phoenix (the mythological animal symbolizing woman); and lobster, which symbolizes the man because in Chinese it is called “dragon prawn,” and the dragon is masculine. There was plenty of fish, which sounds similar to “abundance,” to express to the couple the wish that they would not want for anything. Chen’s mother and her sisters bustled back and forth between the stoves and the guests’ tables all evening. The family’s reputation in the village and their prospects for marrying off their other sons depended on how the wedding went off.

The wedding night wasn’t exactly intimate. According to local custom, friends and family of the bridegroom would go to pester the newlyweds, so the first night Chen and Zhao Li officially spent the night together, a group of drunk wedding guests burst into the bedroom. “We played cards all night. I hadn’t eaten anything all day because I was so nervous, and at least with them I could fill my stomach and drink as much as I wanted,” he remembers. They ended up getting very drunk. Chen accompanied each of his guests home as Chinese etiquette mandates, and then stumbled back to his house. “I collapsed into bed, and felt how all the pressure of the last few months evaporated. I remember I said to Zhao Li, at last, we’re married. Now they’ll leave us alone.”

When I ask him what he likes about his wife the most, he thinks for a moment and lights up another cigarette. “The best thing is that she gets along so well with my family. Because pretty she’s not.” That is quintessential Chinese sincerity: they will avoid telling you “no” directly at almost any cost, but it is perfectly natural for them to point out that you have dark circles under your eyes, or that you shouldn’t eat so much because you’re getting fat.

We’re sitting on a bench in front of the residential complex where he works. On the top floor, next to the television satellite dishes, four brightly lit characters announce the name of the development: Yang Guang Du Shi, or Sun City. He always wants to meet there, because he doesn’t know anywhere else. In the three years he’s been in Beijing, he has not been to the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven, packed with visitors every day of the year. The boundaries of his world begin at the sentry box where he spends the night shift, and extend to the cybercafé on the same street. Within those parameters are the benches out front, the supermarket on the corner, and a few restaurants, encompassing about two blocks within a city covering 6,000 square miles. That has been his universe since he arrived in the capital.

* * *

Once they were married, Chen and Zhao Li moved in with his parents until construction on their house was completed. Those were very happy months, during which they built many pieces of furniture by hand to bring to their new home. Zhao Li opened up a store selling cosmetics and beauty aids in town, and Chen landed a job working for the South-North Water Transfer Project.5

But social pressures were building once again. “I don’t know what it’s like in your country,” Chen says, “but here you’re supposed to have a baby as soon as possible after the wedding, to avoid setting off a family drama.” In China, once again going back to Confucian tradition, the individual must meet certain moral obligations, such as taking care of and obeying one’s elders, and ensuring they have a line of descendants. What the individual wants to do with his or her own life is not relevant.

The couple carried out the task in less than a year. Chen remembers the day they had the baby in detail. “I was working, and my mother called me. She said that Zhao Li was in labor, and that they had taken her to the hospital. I asked my boss if I could leave. I didn’t even change my clothes. I got on my motorbike in my work uniform and hit the gas. My heart was beating really hard, so hard.” This is the first time he’s ever gotten emotional in front of me. He’s not speaking in a whisper anymore, he’s a proud father. “I thought about my own father when they told him I had been born. He had to go straight from work too, but on a bicycle, pedaling as hard as he could for hours,” he explains, as he grips imaginary handlebars and imitates his father’s efforts.

When Chen got to the hospital, a typical medical center in rural China where smoking is even permitted in the operating rooms, Zhao Li was still in labor, which went on for several more hours. Chen paced in circles, smoking all the cigarettes he had. Suddenly, he heard a cry that sounded like a cat meowing. A nurse brought him a tiny baby wrapped up in a blanket, the head covered in hair and blood. It wasn’t a boy, as the grandparents would have wanted,6 but for Chen it was the happiest day of his life.

“I looked down at her for a while. I can’t describe what I felt, but it was very strong, my stomach hurt, and I was very happy,” he exclaims. They named her Ya Zhuo, “elegant girl.”

His wife closed her shop so she could take care of their daughter. Chen invested all of their savings into buying a truck. As a driver, he would earn less, but he could spend more time at home and tend the garden on their little plot of land. They went on for two years like that, until the birth of their second daughter, Xianghan, which made them very happy but depleted their savings even more. At night, Zhao Li sewed silk slippers, but there still wasn’t enough money. The family began to pressure Chen to find a job away from the village. “My in-laws and my parents were always telling me, go to Beijing, go to Beijing, that would be the best thing to do.”

“Didn’t it make them sad to think of you so far away, knowing you’d probably come back to visit once a year at the most?”

“Sad? Not at all, that’s what they wanted,” he replied, as if it were perfectly normal. After all, in Henan one of every five residents migrate. And he repeats a phrase that seems like the mantra of Chinese migrants: “There wasn’t anything to do in the village.”

He went one February morning. He wouldn’t let Zhao Li accompany him to the train station, since that would have made him even sadder. He hugged his still-sleeping daughters, and, carrying a plastic suitcase stuffed with all of his clothes, he left.

* * *

The train ride to Beijing was twelve hours long. Chen remembers it like it was yesterday. He didn’t want to spend a single yuan more than he had to, so he bought the cheapest ticket, for a hard wooden seat. The aisles were jammed with people talking, sleeping, eating sunflower seeds, and chain-smoking. The trains in China are always overbooked. To guarantee yourself a place to sit down, you have to buy a spot in a sleeping car, a narrow pull-down bed, soft or hard, depending on the price. The seats fill up as people arrive, but they keep on selling tickets in the station. It’s not unusual to see people crawling through the windows into the trains, when it seems like not one more person could possibly fit.

Chen settled himself between a large man, sleeping with his shirt unbuttoned, exposing his ample belly, and a mother who was peeling oranges for her child, throwing the rinds onto the floor. “I tried to visualize what I would do once I got there, so I wouldn’t get lost,” he said. He had never been in such a large city. The furthest he had ever been from home was Xi’an, one of the ancient Chinese capitals,7 twenty times smaller than Beijing.

The train rattled along the tracks as night fell. The expanses of rust-brown fields began to fade away. “I’ll never forget the smell. A fat woman went up and down the aisles with food. She was selling soy milk and mantou, steamed bread balls. When she got to the end of my car, she took the lids off the round bamboo containers. The air filled with steam, and the guy next to me woke up,” Chen remembers. The smell of the bread buns made his mouth water, but they were too expensive. Like most of the other passengers, Chen had brought along a package of instant noodles. He poured boiling water over them, and squatted down to eat along with everyone else.

The only lead he had for landing a job was an ad he had come across a few days earlier in the local paper. The temporary employment agency Xilu offered work for drivers, guards, clerical staff, and stock boys. A steady job, the ad promised. Chen trusted the ad’s claim implicitly, since it had a picture of Jackie Chan. The actor, businessman and philanthropist from Hong Kong was a real star in China, and aside from appearing in martial arts movies, he had been featured in antipiracy campaigns in Beijing. He is a controversial figure,8 but to Chen he personified the ideal of the self- made man.

At dawn, the train pulled into Beijing’s East Station, which until recently had been the largest train station in Asia. (In 2010, it was overtaken by Shanghai’s new Hongqiao Station.) Every day, thousands of migrants from the countryside arrive there, ready to take on the world. They are easy prey for scammers, who pounce on them as soon as they get off the train, promising jobs in exchange for a commission. Some new arrivals eagerly hand over a large part of their savings, confident they will earn it back and more once they start their new jobs, but once they realize they’ve been had, the con men are nowhere to be found. Some organized crime syndicates place ads in local newspapers, recruiting migrants in their hometowns. Once they get to Beijing, they are given jobs and get to work, unaware that they will never actually be paid for their labor. Once they figure it out, the workers have been on the job slaving away for a month or more, they have no money to get home, and they are too ashamed to ask their families for help for fear of being the laughing stock of their villages. Many wander through the train station, asking passersby for money for a train ticket home. Seeing no other option, some commit suicide.

Chen was lucky. He ignored the aggressive offers of cheap lodging and jobs at the train station. With his Jackie Chan advertisement in his pocket, he got on the metro and then took a bus to get to Xilu. Bright new horizons awaited him there, Chan had promised.

The company painted a very different picture. They only needed drivers, and they had to know their way around the city. Unsurprisingly, he did not pass the test. Seeing how disappointed he was, the staff told him about an industrial park on the outskirts of the city that might be hiring stock boys or security guards. “I went there, but room and board were not included, and the salary was so low I didn’t think it was worth it, since I wouldn’t have been able to send any money home. So I got on the metro again and went back downtown.” He went into dozens of restaurants, asking if they were hiring. Then the sun set, and he noticed how much colder it was at night in Beijing compared to his village.

He decided to find a cybercafé where he could connect to the Internet and call his family. As he walked by a residential development, he overheard some security guards joking around in the little guard booth at the entrance. “I could tell by their accent that they weren’t from Beijing, and I asked them how they had gotten jobs there,” he explains. As it happened, the company was hiring. “When they told me a room and meals were included, I didn’t think twice.” That very night he started working. And sleeping underground.

* * *

He gradually got acclimated to his new home beneath the surface. It was like being in the army again, with the jokes about women, a constant smell of feet, and the camaraderie of his peers to stave off loneliness. The lack of privacy did not bother him since growing up he had always slept in the same room with his parents, brothers, and grandmother. “The only thing that bothered me was the lack of ventilation. The air was so thick and stale, a lot of nights I couldn’t sleep.”

Security guard shifts are much less grueling than the factory jobs. He has friends who went to work in the factories in Shenzhen, on the Southeast coast, instead of migrating to Beijing. Most of their wages are from putting in overtime, in shifts that can stretch through the night. In the summer, when the factories gear up to meet orders for Christmas from the West, the pace is frenetic. Some weeks, his friends only get four or five hours off per day, the bare minimum required to keep them from literally collapsing at their workstations. Chen works a maximum of twelve hours a day, six days a week at his security guard job. The worst part, as he tells it, is working in the winter when temperatures can plunge to five degrees Fahrenheit. With their navy blue knit caps pulled down low, the guards’ hands go numb as they grip their walkie-talkies and thermoses full of tea.

It’s very common to eat lunch and dinner out at local restaurants in China. During Mao’s reign, the kitchens were communal, and many families only had a hot plate at home. Chen prefers to save his money and eats his meals in the cafeteria in the basement. He took me there once and we got in line with our bowls and chopsticks as two pudgy women spooned food out of two huge plastic bins. For breakfast, there was tea and zhou, a kind of rice porridge with a thick broth which is a staple in the North. For lunch and dinner, the offerings usually include white rice, noodles in clear broth, vegetables sautéed with garlic, chicken, and, once in a while, a stew with calves’ intestines. We both agreed that almost everything tasted the same.

Chen gets to know his fellow basement dwellers in the cafeteria and when he does his laundry. A cleaning lady, an electrician, or a worker who repairs the water mains could all gather around the same table for lunch. “The first two questions are always, ‘where are you from’? And ‘how long ago did you leave your village’?” Chen remarks. The girls who work in the hair salon in building three are the only ones who eat separately, keeping to themselves and not talking to anybody else. “They say those girls do something more than just give massages,” he murmurs, blushing.

He has one day off a week, and he uses the free time to do laundry, buy something to eat in his room, and play computer games. Thanks to all the migrant workers, the neighborhood cybercafé is always packed. For a few yuan, Chen spends hours playing Meng San Guo (‘Dream of the Three Ancient Kingdoms’), a battle game based on a classic work of Chinese fiction, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written 600 years ago. For the same amount of money, he could get on the bus and explore the city, go to the park, and enjoy some skewered beef and a beer at a sidewalk café. But he says he doesn’t feel like it, because time seems to pass more quickly in front of the computer screen.

* * *

The happiest time of year for Chinese migrants is the lunar New Year. It falls between January and February,9 and is the equivalent of Christmas in the West. Families get together, eat as much as they can, and exchange gifts. For the mingong, it is the only week of the whole year they spend with their loved ones, and they crisscross the country in what is considered the greatest annual migration in the world.10 Train stations are jammed, tickets sell out, and scalpers do a brisk business.

Sometimes, migrants cannot return home at all because they can’t get the time off from work, or they haven’t saved up enough money to afford a train ticket. That’s what happened to Chen his first year away. He was making 900 yuan ($140) a month at the time, and he had hardly saved anything. As his neighborhood was decorated with colorful garlands and paper lanterns for the holiday, he felt a stab of emotion, but it quickly passed. He and a few buddies pooled their money to buy firecrackers, the New Year tradition that the Chinese enjoy the most. They spent hours lighting off strings of them and listening to the crackling explosions until their heads pounded from all the noise. “We drank a lot of rice liquor, and ended up arm-in-arm, singing revolutionary songs,” he remembers. The sidewalk was covered with red casings and dust, like streets everywhere throughout China at the New Year.

“There was just one really hard part, when I called home and they handed the phone to Ya Zhuo,” he says soberly. His eldest daughter was now old enough to ask him where he was, and when he would be coming home.

* * *

Over two years have passed since he first arrived in Beijing, and now Chen is a seasoned veteran. He earns 2,500 yuan, almost three times what he made when he started. He has been given two raises, thanks to the migrant worker strikes that took place in several provinces across the country.11 He still sends his wages home, but now he occasionally treats himself to a soft drink. From the block of buildings that comprises his world, he has seen changes. “There are many more cars, and the real estate market is through the roof.” The residents of Sun City, his only reference point aside from his fellow basement dwellers, drive more SUVs than before. Real estate agents that work in the neighborhood say that apartments in the area are worth twice what they were just five years ago.

Living in Beijing, at least in the small section that he knows, is not bad, Chen says. The hardest part is that his daughters barely recognize him. “They see me once a year. The first time I went home for the holiday, the little one didn’t even know who I was. It’s normal, since I left when she was barely two months old, but when I picked her up, she wouldn’t stop crying until I gave her back to my wife. You can’t imagine how much that hurts.” On his cell phone he has a video of Ya Zhuo, his oldest, that he recorded a few days before he left. She had just learned to walk, and was babbling away. Chen plays it and smiles broadly. Even after having seen it thousands of times, it still melts his heart. Ya Zhuo wears a little blue skirt, a pink jacket, and flowers in her pigtails. She clutches a ribbon like the ones used in rhythmic gymnastics in her hand, shaking it up and down, laughing. The video is not the best quality, her face can’t be seen clearly, and it only lasts for around thirty seconds, but still it is Chen’s most prized possession. He admits that sometimes watching it makes him cry.

* * *

A few months after Chen first began sharing his story with me, he called to let me know that his wife, Zhao Li, had just arrived in Beijing, and had found a job as a cashier in a neighborhood supermarket. The girls were old enough to live with their grandmother, and with both Chen and Zhao Li working they could save more money. They were not considering finding an apartment to rent above ground. Like so many couples do, they moved into a little room in the basement of the Sun City residential complex.

Now they’re both “rats.” Their new home measures eighty-six square feet and has a bed that doubles as a sofa and a small table, where they have placed a picture of their daughters. Chen can eat at the cafeteria because he works in the development, but Zhao Li can’t. So when she gets home from work, she fixes herself something cold to eat, or buys instant noodles and boils water for them in the bathroom. On her days off, she plays card games on the computer, and talks on the phone with her daughters. “She cries so hard when she watches videos of them,” Chen sighs.

Living and working in Beijing while their daughters are raised by their grandparents is the couple’s biggest challenge. Without a residency permit,12 the girls do not have the right to go to school in Beijing. They could only attend a school for migrant children—which are often clandestine, with substandard facilities and a much lower academic standard—or they could make a donation to a public school, literally handing over an envelope with cash, and pay much higher matriculation fees. The public schools’ strategy is to prevent children from the countryside from hurting their reputations by weeding them out beforehand with exorbitant charges they cannot afford to pay.

Children of internal migrants have so few alternatives in the city, their parents are forced to leave them behind in their villages. They become liushou ertong (留守儿童), “the children left behind.” Sociologists consider the phenomenon a serious national problem. There are 58 million children growing up without their parents,13 and this comes at a very high price to Chinese society. In some parts of Sichuan, Henan and Anhui, all provinces with high poverty rates and high levels of internal migration, eight out of every ten children only see their parents once a year.14 They grow up like wildflowers, without their parents’ support, in the care of their grandparents or other relatives. They feel abandoned, and some develop anxiety, self-esteem issues, and depression. Without being closely watched, some have been victims of sexual abuse by their neighbors.

In 2007, several Chinese media outlets published letters that some children of migrants had written to their parents. One of these letters read:

I was playing in the street, and I saw my mother walking to the bus stop. She was going. She started to walk faster so I wouldn’t notice, but I saw her. I ran up to her and held her hand tight. My grandmother separated us so she could get on the bus. I broke free and grabbed on to my mother’s clothes, but then my uncle separated us. I started kicking, but when my uncle let me go the bus had already driven away. I was only thinking about bringing my mother back, but the bus was getting smaller and smaller, until it disappeared. I collapsed on the road and cried and cried. The sky was gray, as if I were making it sad. I was so angry, I saw a frog hopping across the road and I kicked it.

Every day, Chen and Zhao Li wonder if leaving their daughters behind will cause them problems in the long run. If they want to save up some money, they have no other choice but to stay in Beijing for a while. Their plan is to eventually go back to their village and open their own business, although they don’t know exactly what it will be. The one thing they are both sure of is they don’t like Beijing. “Here people look down their noses at us. On the metro, they move away from us like we smell bad,” Chen complains. He has seen China’s classism at work many times. The same people who hire mingong to repair a light fixture or take care of their children talk about them disparagingly. A 2010 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that one out of every three crimes in the country was committed by a migrant worker born after 1980 (a demographic of approximately one hundred million people). The study pointed to the “social exclusion, the political and economic injustices,15 the culture shock and the lack of social security” that migrants experience as the root cause of criminal behavior, even more than poverty and low levels of education.

The reality is that without a hukou, a residency permit, for Beijing, Chen will never be able to claim the rights of a full-fledged citizen. He knows he will be extremely vulnerable, unable to take time off for vacation or even take sick days. As the cost of living continues to rise, he wonders if being so far away from home is worth it. Many migrants his age share his outlook. Their parents endured all manner of hardships in the cities, because the only other alternative they had was going back to their villages, hard-hit by famine. But Chen’s generation is connected to the Internet, and they know what workers in other parts of the country earn. Chen doesn’t speculate about what might happen if the Government legalizes labor unions or abolishes the legal restrictions placed on internal migrants. He does know for sure that he will go wherever the pay is highest. Effects of the one-child policy can be felt in the labor market, as there is no longer a glut of workers, and some factories are offering improved working conditions to attract migrants.

For now, Chen and Zhao Li take it one day at a time. And they have a plan: as soon as they have saved enough money, they’ll go back to their village. “This isn’t for us,” Chen remarks, looking up at the high-rise buildings he keeps watch over for twelve hours a day.

  1. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping began to open China’s economy. It was the first step in the largest urbanization process in history, and some point to it as the beginning of the country’s economic miracle. To many China experts, however, it really began in 1949 with the Maoist revolution. Without that period and the communes of the 1950s, they assert, modernization would not have been possible.

  2. Economic reforms picked up speed during the nineties. As many state-run factories shut down, others were consolidated, the agricultural sector was deregulated, and foreign capital began entering China through joint ventures. Unemployment skyrocketed, and millions of uneducated Chinese who until then had held the proverbial “iron rice bowl,” a job for life at a state-run factory—were thrown out into the streets. For many, emigration to the cities was the only option.

  3. It is customary to give sums of money that contain the numbers 6, 8, or 9 because they are considered lucky (the pronunciation of their characters sounds similar to the characters for “fluidity,” “prosperity,” and “eternity”). The Chinese are very superstitious about numbers. For example, they are often willing to pay much more than the going rate for a license plate or a phone number as long as it includes lucky numbers. On the other hand, buildings generally do not have a fourth floor, they call it 3-B, because the word “four” sounds very similar to the word for “death.”

  4. In China, a red envelope (hong bao, 红抱) is used to give cash gifts. These are typically given for weddings, birthdays, and at the New Year.

  5. The South-North Water Transfer Project (Nanshui Beidiao Gongcheng, 南水北调工程) was a dream of Mao Zedong’s in 1952, but it was not set in motion until 2002. It is a massive public works project that will send water from the Yangtze River to the northern regions, plagued by recurring droughts. It is controversial because of its high cost and social and ecological impact. Hundreds of thousands of people have had to abandon their homes, or will have to eventually, since their towns will be submerged under water. It is estimated that when the project is completed in 2050, forty-five billion cubic meters of water annually will be diverted to the North. Shao Xuejun, Hong Wang, and Zhaoyin Wang, “Interbasin Transfer Projects and Their Implications: A China case study,” International Journal of River Basin Management, 2003.

  6. In the country, first-born males are still preferred, because it is believed they can help more with farm work and raising livestock.

  7. It was the capital of thirteen dynasties, among them the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang.

  8. Jackie Chan has a good relationship with the Chinese government and is the President of the Association of Film Directors. He is known for making provocative statements. In 2009, for example, he said he wasn’t entirely sure that freedom was a good thing for China. “I’m starting to think that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not controlled, we’ll just do whatever we want.” He also once stated that he would not buy a Chinese television, because it might explode.

  9. On the Gregorian calendar it falls on different dates every year, always between January 21 and February 20, coinciding with the second full moon after the winter solstice.

  10. It is known as chunyun (春运), the migration for the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year. Some migrants travel home with thousands of yuan stuffed into their pockets. Robbers know this, and are out in full force traveling the railways at this time of year.

  11. In June 2010, a wave of worker strikes swept through foreign factories (Foxconn and Honda, among others) across China. The mingong paralyzed production lines, demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Some companies raised salaries as much as 70%. The Chinese government clamped down on the strikes, fearing that the workers would form unions, and could challenge the authority of the Communist Party, but at the same time they raised the minimum wage in many cities to placate migrant workers, a key component of China’s economy.

  12. The residency permit, called hukou (户口), is a kind of internal passport created by Mao Zedong in the fifties, to prevent a mass exodus of people from the countryside heading to the cities when the country was recovering from civil war. It anchors each citizen to his or her birthplace, and that is the only place where they will be guaranteed to receive healthcare and education. Defenders of hukou assert that, thanks to the system, belts of extreme poverty have not sprung up around major metropolitan areas, like they have in Brazil or India. But most Western and Chinese analysts agree that it is a profoundly unfair system that relegates internal migrants to second-class status. It is a highly polemic issue within the Chinese government.

  13. According to an article published in the December 12, 2010 issue of The People’s Daily (留守儿童人数近5800万 逾8成隔代或临时监护).

  14. Data from China’s official 2005 census.

  15. According to China’s National Office of Statistics, the median monthly salary earned by a mingong in 2010 was 1,600 yuan ($250), compared with the median salary of 2,687 yuan ($418) earned by Beijing-born workers.