Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Call of the Home

(Foreword--China Business Law Blog strives to focus on matters only related to Chinese Law, but the following post is an exception due to the unique weather circumstances in China right now. This post is dedicated to all the migrant workers, either at home already or still on the road.)

The coldest winter of half a century has so far claimed at least 60 people.

It has caused billions of dollars in economic damages.

It has paralyzed much of the transportation system in southern, central, and southwestern China.

It has engendered mass blackouts in many areas, including my parents’ home.

And it has exposed the Chinese government’s weaknesses in emergency response management. At least, it is a huge blow to a government whose leadership believes that “man is sure to triumph over nature.”

Besides bringing about these unpleasant losses, damages, and revelations, the worst weather in half a century also showed something golden and precious—Chinese people’s unwavering resolve to go home for the most important holiday of the year, no matter what.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are willing to brave the cold, the pushing and shoving, the rude railway employees, the cops, the hunger and thirst, and the seemingly endless waiting while exposed to the elements. Even though they knew they would be delayed for an extended period of time, most of them still chose to wait some more so that they could catch a train or bus for home. So, many of them are still waiting in the cold as I am writing and by the time you are reading this.

Why? Why don’t they just turn around and return to their factories, warehouses, construction sites, dormitories, or wherever they were before their arrival at the Guangzhou train station? Or some other stations scattered across southern and central China? It would be such an easy, logical, and obvious thing to do, given the grave circumstances.

But they did not. Millions of them chose the counter intuitive approach. They chose to brave the difficulties on their way home. They chose to suck it all up for a New Year’s Eve meal with their family whom they have not seen for at least a year; they chose to “eat the bitterness” in order to spend a few days at home, drinking home water, eating home meals and breathing home air; they chose to go home for all that it stands for and all that it means consciously and subconsciously to them. They chose to go home at all costs. They simply choose home over a hotel room, a dormitory bunk bed, or a rented apartment where they do not belong. Because to them, the simple truth is that as far as the Chinese New Year is concerned, “North, South, East or West, Home is the best.”

They won’t do this for the Labor Day; neither will for the National Day; nor will for any other cultural or political holidays. Somehow, the return to home for the Chinese New Year is so deeply ingrained in their psyche that nothing can overcome their drive and resolve to accomplish it.

Is it worth their while to risk so much, even their lives, just to be home?

For observers outside China, the answer is not so obvious, but for them, it seems to be a simple yes.

After observing migrant workers at the Guangzhou train station, the China Blog has the following to say:

My overriding impression was that I was impressed. I was impressed by what people were willing to put up with just for the possibility of getting a seat or even a spot on the floor of a train for a 20+ hour trip home. It was a grand display of enduring hardship, or what in Chinese is vividly known as "eating bitterness" (吃苦).

Of course, that is what many of these people's lives are about, a willingness to endure hardship to get ahead. The thousands waiting outside the Guangzhou station were largely migrant workers, people who traveled to Guangdong province from China's interior seeking a better life for themselves and their families. So when I spoke with the Chinese reporter, my final thought was that I couldn't imagine many Americans going through this. I left feeling a little guilty for complaining about transpacific flights in economy class.

It definitely gives me a new perspective about the Chinese New Year and going home. The closest thing about going home during a holiday in America can be found, I think, in the comedy movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles, although the mood is totally different from the reality in China now.

Hope the migrating masses in China find their transportation and get safely back to their sweet home soon; and above all, wish all a happy Chinese New Year (starting on February 7, 2008).


Anonymous said...

Home coming is certainly one important reason for these migrant workers to go home for the Spring Festival.

Economics and infrastructure are also important. These migrant workers are earning money to support their families. People from rural villages cannot just go into the bank, buy a money order, and mail their money home. There may not be a bank at home for them to cash their money order. And who would trust their bank ? Would the local officials grab a substantial part of that money ?

In North America, it is very unusual for parents to leave their children at home, and migrate to distant cities to work. Therefore, most people in America go home to see their parents, not their children. These Chinese migrants are going home to see their children.

Most Americans can go home a few times a year, if they choose to. These migrant workers can only go home, once a year, to see their precious children, and to take money home the only way they can so that their family can survive another year.

26 said...

One thing central for all these: the family concept deeply rooted in Chinese traditions, or all East traditions. As the origins of Easten thinking, like Romans to Western thinking, the Chinese concept of collective and family is quite distinguished from the other.

Anonymous said...

Economics and infrastructure are also important. These migrant workers are earning money to support their families. People from rural villages cannot just go into the bank, buy a money order, and mail their money home. There may not be a bank at home for them to cash their money order. And who would trust their bank ? Would the local officials grab a substantial part of that money ?

-------what a load of crap.

Let me tell you why these people wanted to go home---because they had to. Migrant workers typically sign contracts that last until Spring Festival. They would pack up, leave for home and spend a few days with their families before coming back to find another job or return to the old factories.
So when they leave for the train station, there is nothing left that could tie them up with the cities. Going back home was their only choice.

Brad Luo said...


I'm glad you pointed out that "economic and infrastructure are also important." True, they are. According to many, the root cause of the massive transportation headaches around the Chinese New Year. Because of lack of job opportunities and economic disadvantages in far-flung regions of China, workers have to "migrant" for work, far away from home. In addition, the transportation system, even though after years of substantial improvements, are simply not adequate to handle the sheer volume of travelers in a very short span of time. So, you pointed out two very key issues underlying the horrific scenes at train stations, airports, and bus stations during this time of year.

However, I respectfully disagree with your assessment that "People from rural villages cannot just go into the bank, buy a money order, and mail their money home. There may not be a bank at home for them to cash their money order." Major commercial banks, such as the Bank of China, China Construction Bank, and other regional banks do not typically have branches in remote villages. However, small credit unions and the bank associated with China Postal do have branches in small towns, which are accessible to most villages. Thus, many workers do wire their money home through, as far as I know, the post office, where they can be picked up with ease upon showing proper ID. As far as I know, local officials do not have access to monies wired home, at least ostensibly. That's not to say they could not do so by levying local taxes, though.

Brad Luo said...


Very valid point. As I mentioned above, going home for a short family reunion is a well established tradition, a cultural phenomenon.

Personally, I have been away from my home in China for almost eight years. I celebrate the Chinese New Year here in the U.S. But, it is just different. Not being able to be with the rest of my family to make the meals, to do our rituals, and to visit other relatives and friends...Something is missing--the sense of togetherness. It is hard to explain.

Thanks for the comment.

Brad Luo said...


Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Your comments are well taken here, and I agree in part and disagree in part. My agreement with you lies in "They would pack up, leave for home and spend a few days with their families before coming back to find another job or return to the old factories." You are 100% here b/c that is what happens year after year. They depart and return home, just like birds every year around the New Year. Many do change jobs, while others go back to their old jobs.

However, I don't think that many of the migrant workers sign contracts that end around the new year. If I am not mistaken, many of the mirgrant workers, up until the end of 2007, do not sign contracts because they fall into the cracks of social justice and labor laws. However, things might be different after the new Labor contract law became effective.

26 said...

what if the construction project lasts till next year? Their contracts usually go with the project. Moreover, for those people work in hairdressers, massage, their conditions are not just as what u described.

As far as I could tell, there are many pupil schools runned either publically or privately by those with warm heart at the outskirts of Beijing city, for the children of these migrants. I went to schools like this frequently. Although they are not economically fully supported by the government, they are running well, at the benefit for both this group of people at the bottom at the society and the future generation of the country.

Its nice to see people with sympathy and concern about this part of China. But what we have to understand is that 90% of 1.3 billion are from the countryside and many of them could not just rely on their land to make living. China got only 7% of world farming land but has to support 24% of world population. Instead of staying home without money and food, going for work in cities are better for their lives.

Anonymous said...

One comment on the reason why they must return home at least once a year:

1. They are the lowest level class in the places they work - people avoid to talk or look at them, they can not afford even the cheapest products. Only when they bring money home, and return to a place that is poor, can they gain the respect even though for a very short period of time.

2. They bring food and gift and money to the children they left at home - whom they expect for a better education and life.

3. They went to see the parents, who are old and poor and take care of the land and crops as well as the house and children.

4. They went to visit their spouse, which they have missed so much.

5. Their old and small house may needs mending, their deceased relatives' tomb needs to be visited.

All they are seeking is a little respect, love and understanding that is so basic. Without which a man can not be a man, a human can not be a human any more..

Anonymous said...

Besides, I observe that about majority of peasant workers are only paid at time before the spring festival -- it is another habit. I do not want to talk about the labor contract law- because I do not think it actually applies to peasant workers, although legally speaking they should.

If they do not get paid before the spring festival, they may never get paid at all...

I think many would have heard about the early Chinese migrants in America, they did hard labor here, they were given little respect or social status, and that is why generations after generations, they never regard themselves as American.

Yet, whatever we talked here, amounts to not much value to the peasant workers. I remember Mr. Yuan Hongbing, who was arrested around 1997 and sent to Guizhou province because he organized an association in support of the peasant workers in South China, where most peasant workers were.