Workers' Dilemma: Go Home for the Holidays or Stay

Millions on Road for the Holiday

The world's largest population has been on the move since Monday as millions of travelers await the traditional Chinese family reunion season.

This year's Spring Festival travel period lasts 40 days, from January 28 to March 8.

A total of 1.74 billion travels by passengers taking various forms of public transport are predicted, about 100 million more than last year.

Wu Qiang, a senior official with the Ministry of Railways, said the first peak will fall on February 7-9, and involve about 3.6 million people.

The second peak will be on February 18-20 with 4.1 million people, while the third peak will be from February 28-March 2 and involve 3.6 million people.

So far this year, the volume of railway passengers peaked on January 18 at 2.6 million, mainly involving students on holiday and transient laborers.

This was earlier than in past years, Wu said.

The volume will increase steadily in the coming days, he predicted.

Official estimates indicate there are about 70 million migrant workers going back home across the whole country during the traffic peak this year.

To ensure that passengers get home safely and conveniently, local governments in Beijing, Guangdong and other places have mobilized migrant workers to return home earlier to avoid heavy traffic.

As China's economy turns more market-oriented and as the society becomes more open, an increasingly large number of Chinese have left their home to seek employment or to study in distant cities or provinces.

This has made the Spring Festival traffic a great challenge to the country's transport systems.

Fortunately, the completion of many new roads has greatly eased the traffic in recent years.

During the period from 1996 to 2000, China built a total of 240,000 kilometers (149,129 miles) of roads, many of which are high-quality expressways.

This has provided another way for many passengers to return home.

This year, about 1.58 billion travels by passengers will take place by bus within the peak traffic period, up 4 percent over the same period last year.

The air services in China have also lowered their prices gradually, and will attract an unusually higher number of passengers than normal by offering considerable discounts during the peak traffic periods.

Some air services have launched special "visiting families" flights, and many migrant workers have even reserved chartered planes to go home.

(Fu Jing, China Daily, February 1, 2002)

Migrant Workers Returning Home

Chen Bobao stands among the massive throng of passengers waiting at the Beijing Railway Station, but his heart is already home.

The 42-year-old migrant worker can hardly wait to see his wife, two children and elderly mother in a small mountain village in North China's Hebei Province during the Lunar New Year festival.

It's the only time during the entire year that he is able to return home.

During the rest of the year, Chen, whose gaunt face is already deeply etched with wrinkles, must work at a construction site in Beijing for 10 hours a day.

His goal is to save enough money to feed his family, pay rising medical bills for his handicapped mother and pay for the wedding of his 23-year-old son.

To many urban Chinese, Chen is simply a 'min gong' or migrant worker trying to make it in the big city.

He left his home four years ago and has worked in construction ever since, just one of many nameless faces that are literally constructing the new Beijing.

The booming real estate industry has helped him find ample work. Last year Chen earned 8,000 yuan (US$969) on 13 different building projects.

And he's not alone; more than 1,000 men from his village left to find work in Beijing, Tianjin and Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province.

Clutching gifts for his family -- a scarf for his wife, two pairs of leather shoes for his son and daughter, a bottle of wine and a bundle of roasted duck -- Chen cannot contain his joy.

"I can't wait to see them. In the last few weeks, I've been counting the days on my calendar waiting to rush home," said Chen. "They will be so surprised at these gifts."

To save money, Chen only has three sets of worn-out clothes a year. He doesn't have time for sightseeing or movies, and the only time he shops is to buy gifts for the family.

"As a farmer, I don't need crops, I need cash," said Chen. "For a person like me, who has no primary education, all I have is my physical strength."

"And I have to take advantage before I turn too old to compete for a job," he said.

Li Yulian, a 35-year-old native of Northwest China's Gansu Province, was also attracted to Beijing for its job opportunities.

She left her husband, who was also working in a city, and for the first time in her life, left home for Beijing alone.

With the help of one of her friends who got a job in a local restaurant in southern Beijing, Li was hired to serve as a housekeeper in a local family.

The job was a hard work, Li said. She had to take care of an elderly man in his 70s, who was paralyzed and bed-ridden for years. She fed, dressed and cleaned him for only 400 yuan(US$48.5) a month.

But what bothered Li the most was the discrimination she received from city dwellers.

"I thought everybody was born equal, but that wasn't what I saw. I felt people looking down at me. It's like you are dirty or a savage, something that is untouchable."

Chen has also faced this discrimination.

Each time he gets on a bus, people nearby will get up and leave their seats vacant. The scorn is also seen on the streets when pedestrians try to walk as far away from him as possible.

Li said he deserves respect.

"Being a rural person working in the city does not mean we are trash or the devil. All I need is some respect. I wish that someone would kind enough to help me when I do house chores or feel ill, but this is rarely found in cities."

Li is considering another job opportunity in South China's Guangdong Province, or simply returning home.

"My son will be enrolled in high school later this year and I want to give him access to education because I do not want him to be as poor as I am," said Li. "I want him to learn computers so that he won't have to work like me."

But she admits, her small dream is a long way off.

(Zeng Min, China Daily, February 1, 2002)

Incredible Journey Planned to Reach Loved Ones

GUANGZHOU: Home is where the heart is -- even more so during Chinese Lunar New Year, when millions of people, including migrant workers, return to their loved ones.

"No matter how difficult it is, I must go back home to celebrate the Spring Festival with my family," Liu Mingdao said at Guangzhou Railway Station in South China's Guangdong Province.

Standing by several large bulging bags, middle-aged Liu and his four fellow villagers -- so-called farmers-turned-laborers -- have been waiting for almost 24 hours at the station for the dawn train to Dazhou, Southwest China's Sichuan Province - one of the biggest origins of Guangdong migrant workers.

"When I got a train ticket today, after queuing up for four hours, and knowing I am able to get back home on time, my toil for the whole year suddenly appears worthwhile," the builder said.

"My children are waiting for me eagerly now, with the pig butchered and wine made."

Since 1993, Liu and his fellow villagers have gone every year to Guangdong to seek jobs and insist on going back home during the Spring Festival every year.

"We struggle desperately on crowded trains each time," Liu said, stressing they do not have a place to squat, never mind a seat, for the 20-hour journey.

"We can only stand back-to-back, even in the toilets," Liu said. "But who cares about such difficulties when you are going home? Lunar New Year is only truly Lunar New Year when it is celebrated with family members."

It is expected nearly 6 million migrant workers from outside Guangdong are to journey home before the Spring Festival this year, on February 12-25 percent higher than in 2001.

"Food in my hometown is still the most delicious, even though I have stayed here for five years," 30-year-old Shen Zuolian from the countryside of Rizhao, East China's Shandong Province, said.

Shen is a warehouse man of Hallace Garment Factory in Zengcheng, a city 40 kilometers (24.85 miles) east of Guangzhou. Zengcheng is the biggest jean distributing center in China.

Shen said he will bring a lot of thin-fried pancakes made of maize flour -- a traditional food of Shandong -- back to Zengcheng when he and his wife return after the holiday celebrations.

"When I first came to Guangdong five years ago, I was loath to spend money. I had taken 30 pancakes from home, that fed me four days," Shen recalled.

But the hard days have gone, as he now earns 1,500 yuan (US$180) a month, three times as much as his first job in Dongguan, another city in Guangdong.

"I will bring my parents and six brothers and sisters many gifts," Shen said. He has not been back home for two years, and it is the first time his wife will come home with him during the Spring Festival.

He also plans to buy some semi-tropical fruits in Guangzhou for his parents, such as longan, civet durian and lychee, as they are rare in Shandong, a northern province.

"I plan to go back to Shangdong in several years' time when I have enough money to open my own business, as I am a little tired living here. The local people and the environment always remind me I still do not belong to Guangdong." Shen said.

Shen also said speech is sometimes a barrier between them and locals. People from northern provinces sometimes find it too difficult to learn Cantonese.

(Liu Li, China Daily, February 1, 2002)

Festive Reunions Not for Everyone

SHANGHAI: To return home or not, that is the question.

The chance to work over Spring Festival and continue to make money sways migrants in Shanghai like Qu Tingqiang against joining thousands of others who venture home for the most cherished family reunion of the year.

Qu, 54, an Anhui native, said he eked out a living on a small piece of barren farmland until his fellow countrymen told him five years ago that it's much easier to make money in Shanghai. So he left his wife at home and came to the city alone.

Qu now works on a construction site all day, with no time for social outings. But he said he doesn't mind because he has a good job.

Qu spends just two or three yuan on meals for himself each day and mails 1,000 yuan (US$120) back home every month. But this is the first year he will not return home for Spring Festival.

"I have to make money for my 20-year-old son so that he can find a wife," Qu said.

He said he does not get sentimental when he sees his co-workers leave the construction site with their travel bags.

"No pain, no gain," Qu said. "That's a common saying."

A pair of middle-aged Shandong men who run a small roadside fruit stand in the city's prime Hongqiao area also decided not to go home, again because of money.

"This season is the busiest time of the year, and we expect to reap some reward in an otherwise tough business," one of the men said.

They said they pay 1,500 yuan (US$180) a month to rent a shop in which they stock the shelves with fruit and squeeze a bed in the back so they can sleep.

They buy cheap vegetables -- and occasionally meat -- from a nearby market and cook for themselves.

"Our lives here are much better than the fellows who still plough tediously at home," one of the fruit-sellers said. "So we seldom complain about the difficulties we do have to bear."

There are some job benefits as well.

After the busy season, they will take turns working two days in a row so that the other can return home and rest for a while.

And they said they don't have to worry about transportation because truck drivers will take them to and from their hometown for free.

"We can save at least 70 yuan (US$8.50)," the same fruit peddler said. "But we have to bundle up tight to stay warm."

Other migrant workers who do choose to leave the city for home are not as happy as one would expect.

"Every time I leave the city, I feel almost choked," said Yao Xinhong, 25, from Weifang in Shandong Province in East China.

As he spoke, he gazed at the men in business suits and shined shoes briskly walking outside the Shanghai Railways Station and wondered why he was not destined for a similar life.

Yao has taken several temporary jobs in Shanghai. Last year he worked for a telephone installation company.

He said he wants to stay in the big city, even though he is not as wealthy as many of its residents.

But when he goes home for Spring Festival, he will encounter the same old pressure from his parents to move back home and find a wife.

"I will have to quarrel with my parents for another year but I will come back," he said.

(Tian Xiuzhen, China Daily, February 1, 2002)

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