Just a tiny contribution

When Wei Chen looks back on those eight years today, he believes he wasted his youth.

Wei Chen dropped out of school and embarked to work at a construction site in Inner Mongolia. He stayed there for eight years: It was like living in a black-and-white film, he says – no colors, only desert.

Wei Chen was born in Tongzhen, Yulin, Jia County. In 2006, during his third year of middle school, he decided to drop out, believing he was not made for learning. Wei Chen, an only son, comes from a poor family. He had little choice but to embark on the search for work, following a relative who worked at a construction site in Inner Mongolia. For eight years he worked there as a backhoe operator.

Wei Chen spent the first half year in training, after which he built roads with his construction crew. He learned how to operate backhoe loaders, dumpers and road rollers, and how to give instructions. When the road project was completed in 2008, Wei Chen’s construction crew was not hired for any follow-up projects due to the financial crisis, and he had to turn to other companies. At a new construction site, he worked around the clock with only a few breaks for one year. When the construction was completed, he went to Wushenqi, where he worked in road construction for another three years. Over the years he was able to save 130,000 RMB [ca. 21,200 US Dollar].

When Wei Chen looks back on those eight years today, he believes he wasted his youth. They were eight years in a monotonous, desolate region. It was like living in a black-and-white film, he says – no colors, only desert.

No longer suited for city life

Wei Chen, who is now 26 years old, finally returned to Yulin to start a family. After all the time he spent in Inner Mongolia, he soon realized he would not be able to do anything truly substantial with the 130,000 RMB he had saved, nor was he particularly suited for his new life in the city…

"The years in the construction crew left their mark on me. The work there had to be done with great precision. In today’s society, however, it is very difficult to get ahead with that approach. Appearances are all that matter here; the entire society is a giant bubble. I earned a lot with hard work during those eight years, but in hindsight it was all in vain… I’ve been living off my savings since returning to Yulin. I am looking for a job, but at the same time I’m trying to be as relaxed as possible and find something that I really enjoy."

When asked whether this lack of orientation is common among his peers, he replied that many others feel the same and would simply take life one day at a time. "A few of my school friends have had children and are constantly thinking about how to make money. If they cannot work because the kids are sick, they face a loss of earnings. If it turns out they need a doctor, the financial pressure is even greater. If it were up to me, I would not marry."

Difficult integration in the city

Wei Chen also shared his views on the topic of reintegration in the city:

"In the long term, there is no alternative to getting used to the city because you can no longer live in the country. It’s simply not possible to make a living in agriculture, and nothing works anymore in the villages. There are hardly any schools, and the children do not get a proper education. Things are somewhat better in small towns. The villagers have since come to terms with the changes and are moving there, even if the cost of many things is much higher in small towns."

A few of Wei Chen’s friends work in smaller towns as waiters or cooks, and although they have a steady income it is not enough for even a modest living. Service workers rarely earn even 1,800 RMB [ca. 287 US Dollar] per month. While wages are said to have increased over the past two years, prices have also soared. For all practical purposes, wages have not increased.

"A few years ago, you could fill a shopping basket with 2 RMB, but today you can spend 200 RMB [ca. 29 US Dollar] and the basket is still half empty. As before, peasants and migrant workers are still on the lowest rung of the ladder."

During the interview, Wei Chen initially did not have any direct answers to several questions about his future. It was not until the end of the conversation that he emphasized several times that his ideal life would be in the service of helping others. In reality, Wei Chen and his generation of young villagers have already made their honest, unconditional contribution to society – one that can be seen in their sacrifices.

This is one of three excerpts from interviews with migrant workers. While there are numerous publications, research projects and analyses on the topic of migrant workers in China, those directly affected are rarely given a voice. The other excerpts, previously published in Chinese in 2012 and 2013, can be read in our latest Perspectives Asia issue