Dispatch from China: The Transient Life
At any time, an estimated 10 million people are traveling across China by train. Some are seated; some rest on overnight bunks; some stand in hot, crowded cars. Some are leaving home, some are homeward bound, and some have no real home anymore, but are simply traveling to the next place they hope to find ...
At any time, an estimated 10 million people are traveling across China by train. Some are seated; some rest on overnight bunks; some stand in hot, crowded cars. Some are leaving home, some are homeward bound, and some have no real home anymore, but are simply traveling to the next place they hope to find work.
Train stations everywhere are places of expectation and waiting. In China, stations are not monumental testaments to state ambition or the glory of empire or influence (as they were once in Victorian England or early-20th-century America), but rather unremarkable and often run-down edifices. The newer ones are cleaner, but hardly grand.
Near the old railway station in the city of Chongqing, I spoke with a group of a dozen people, seated on large plastic bags in which they carried clothes, bedsheets, and food. Their destination was the city of Kunming, in another province, where they had contacts with a construction company that would hopefully find them work. Their train left at 2 p.m. and would arrive early the next morning. Once in Kunming, the company had promised to help them find housing, most likely rundown apartments in the suburbs where five to eight people strangers would share a room.
The older members of the group were reluctant to talk, but a young couple, who seemed not yet beaten down by life, offered a glimpse into their lives. Yang Jia, 22, and Wang Wei, 24, were not married, but they had vague notions that if they ever stayed in one place, they would like to have a wedding. Since they’d met, the slender and attractive Yang had been following her construction-worker boyfriend on the road. In each new city, she looks for odd jobs, like hawking beer outside a supermarket. The most they ever stayed in one place was a year.
China’s economic growth, largely driven by massive state-funded infrastructure projects, is churning money and creating more work, but often in a way that leads to fractured lives. "When this job is done," said Wang, one of tens of millions of migrant workers today in China, "we will look for another." He took a long drag on his cigarette and looked up at the station clock.
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