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 ...

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BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 18: A Migrant worker carrying his belongings arrives at a train station on February 18, 2005 in Beijing, China. Millions of migrants are returning from their hometowns to China's cities after the Chinese New Year holiday. China has an estimated 140 million migrant workers and their semi-legal status in the cities means they have little protection against employers who cheat them of their wages. (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

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.

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.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina
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