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Migrants think of bread, not rose, on Valentine's Day
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Han Yagu had never heard of Valentine's Day before he came to Beijing from his rural home in northwest China's Qinghai Province. As he learned more about it, he realized how big the gap was between his life and that of his 20-something urban contemporaries.

"They are already in their 20s, but they still think of playing and having fun instead of working hard and earning money for their families," he said.

Han, 20, a cook in a Muslim restaurant in downtown Beijing, is among the 130-million plus migrant workers who've left rural villages to seek their fortune in the cities. But their fortunes are meager in comparison with natives of the big cities, and their holiday celebrations are modest as well.

As China has opened to the outside world, Western holidays and customs like Valentine's Day have gained popularity, especially among trendy white-collar workers and college students. While well-off urban lovers offer roses and chocolates, migrants have little time or money to spare for such gestures.

Rare, expensive words

On Valentine's Day, about all Han can do is call his wife in their home 2,000 km away. With a monthly income of only 1,000-plus yuan (146 U.S. dollars), he can't afford to call home every day, although he and his wife exchange frequent, affectionate text messages.

Han fell in love back home and got married in November. With the money he earned in Beijing, Han gave his wife 70 grams of gold and 28,000 yuan for their wedding. That was a hefty sum for him. Just 23 days later, he had to return to Beijing and leave his wife home.

"If she were here with me, I would also give her a bunch of flowers like the young people in Beijing," said Han. "But I cannot, so I will think over what I'm going to say on the phone."

Han isn't tempted by the women of Beijing. "I don't like the dresses and manners. Their hairstyles are like hedgehogs and their make-up makes them look like ghosts," said Han. "My wife is filial and faithful to Allah. She is the most precious gift that Allah gave me."

Many hurt by downturn

Adding to the plight of many low-paid migrant workers is the economic downturn that has cost many their jobs. The government has estimated that about 20 million migrant workers, or 15 percent of the total, have lost their jobs and returned to their hometowns.

This Valentine's Day will be a lonely one for Li Xiulin, a 28-year-old woman who divorced recently. She has also been laid off, and her employer did not pay all her back wages.

Li came from central Hunan Province, a major labor export region of China. For a stranger without a college degree or skills, new work has been tough to find in Beijing. After being laid off, she rented a small fruit stall to make a living.

As a single woman, she's totally on her own. At 6:30 every morning, she rides a bicycle to replenish her stock, and she then works in her stall until late at night.

"Valentine's Day means nothing to me," she said. "A single woman's life is really a hardship."

A simple celebration

Xu Lei, 24, who comes from a rural area on the outskirts of Beijing, is another victim of the economic crisis. He lost his job after his factory, crippled by losses, shut down.

This is his first Valentine's Day with his girlfriend, but they have more on their minds than the holiday.

"Our Valentine's Day will have to be just an ordinary day. I don't need roses and he doesn't need chocolate. The gift I want is a new job for him," said Xu's girlfriend Zhang Xiaoying, a migrant worker from the central Henan Province who is a supermarket cashier.

Xu and Zhang have spent a year together in Beijing. During this year, their life has been less about romance than about finding, losing and finding jobs again. Valentine's Day will be a simple holiday for them: they will buy some cheap gifts for each other and return to their rented apartment to prepare a meal.

Waiting for Mr. right

Zhang Jin, who works as a housekeeper in Beijing, came to Beijing for money but is still hoping for romance.

"I've never received flowers on Valentine's Day," said the 40-year-old native of north China's Hebei Province. "I long for a family." However, Zhang said as a stranger in Beijing, she could not trust people she met.

"Their biggest problem is lack of a sense of security in making friends, they cannot verify the validity of each other's identities," said Wei Wei, the founder of the Little Bird Hotline, a non-governmental organization. "And their transient lifestyles lead to many uncertainties."

(Xinhua News Agency February 14, 2009)

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