What Can We Do?

A Chinese student volunteers with migrant workers – by Crayon


Ed: Most writers on the Anthill are foreigners, so we thought to hear from a Chinese voice for a change. 蜡笔 (là bǐ) or “Crayon” is the pseudonym of a 20 year old student of English at Wuhan University, in her home province of Hubei.

Last year, in the run up to the spring festival, Crayon volunteered to work with migrant workers in the southern factory city of Shenzhen. She was there for a week, and her experiences affected her deeply. She wrote about it (in English), and quite by chance I stumbled across the essay. With her permission, the Anthill is publishing an edited version.


I have finally decided to write down what I saw and felt in Shenzhen.

I wanted to experience different walks of life, so I volunteered with the NGO “Hand in Hand” (手牵手). They sent us to Fuyong district in Shenzhen, to talk to the migrant workers there. We stayed in an industrial park, so we could see factories and workers everywhere. I had already heard about the wave of migrant workers returning home during the spring festival, but I never experienced it myself, so it held no meaning to me. Only when you are in the thick of it can you truly understand the conditions that the workers face.

The NGO gave us a very busy schedule. Each day was divided into three parts: investigations in the morning and afternoon, and learning and discussion in the evening. The first task was to ask workers to fill out our questionnaire, so we could get their basic details, and to try and establish a connection with them through conversation. The questionnaire was just a way to make them trust us, to tell us their stories and true feelings. We found that young people and old people opened up the most easily. We guessed it was because young people could accept new things more easily, and perhaps we reminded the older ones of their grandsons and granddaughters back home.

Some of the girls were my age, I thought, but actually they were much younger than me. Their years of drifting, far away from their hometowns, performing the same actions in front of the same machines everyday, had matured their faces – we couldn’t see any of the expressions that girls of that age should normally have. Their hair style and clothes were out of fashion, but I don’t want to use the phrase “low fashion” as some people do. We have no right to judge.

A boy from a mountain village in Sichuan couldn’t fill out much of our questionnaire. He was only 14, too poor to finish primary school. Even if his family could have afforded him an education, in his distant village no higher education was available. I kept thinking that while we complain our universities aren’t good enough, others can’t even finish primary school – not because they don’t study or aren’t clever, but because they have no money.

When we were learning with them how to put on make up and dress like a lady, the worker girls wanted to fit in with our so called “upper class” fashion. They wanted to look no less good than we did, but they were in the factories almost all the time, and didn’t know anything about up-to-date fashion. Sometimes they just wore a working dress all day. We all know there is unfairness in the world, but when you witness the gap with your own eyes, and touch that unfairness with your own heart, you are shocked. We were sympathetic, but helpless. The despair grew deep in our hearts. How I wish I didn’t know that so many people are doomed to an abyss for no reason at all.

At night, we talked about what caused their current condition. Some said they were not hardworking at school, so they had no choice afterwards; others said the education system was bad. Some blamed the one party system; others blamed capitalism. I’ve seen many people who are rich and don’t do well at school, but they don’t go on to be workers just because they didn’t study.

Take the boy from Sichuan – how many opportunities was he given in life? Born to a poor family, in a village without the education resources that the cities have, without educated parents to show him what he’s supposed to do to succeed? People say Chinese are eager to move to the cities these days. What if that’s not because they are thinking of themselves, but rather the gap their children would have to face compared with city kids? How strange it is that some people are inferior to others even before they are born.

I don’t want to criticise the government, because we all know that while it is to blame for many social problems, it has also made some improvements. Still, the big problems remain. Progress can’t be achieved in day, so we should be patient with the government. But I am afraid that if most citizens just wait for things to change without voicing their concerns, then nothing will really change. I am afraid that the better life for some will make them blind to the darkness in the corner.

We asked some workers the simple question: Are you happy with your life? To our surprise, many of them answered “yes”. I wondered whether what we were feeling and doing made sense if they were already satisfied with their lives. But a friend reminded me that a person’s dream is only relative to their condition. If he can earn 3000 yuan a month now, his dream may be to earn 5000 yuan, which is within their reach. Their reality restrains their desires. They can’t change anything big, so they can only answer “yes” to give themselves comfort, and continue living.

For a time we pretended to be workers, trying to find jobs in the factories. Some elements of factory life can damage your health, such as poisonous plastic products. There are many other problems too: wage delays, under-age workers, sexual harassment. Many young girls become pregnant because they have not had proper sex education, and have to get an abortion. Some of them are harassed during work by male workers and their bosses.

Overtime is very common. Only by doing overtime can the workers cover their expenses and save money to send back to their families in the countryside. Their work is with machines and they are like machines – the whole day they just repeat the same movements. You can’t help thinking it’s ironic, that those who do the most tiring and dangerous work earn the least. With a population of 1.3 billion, there are just too many people in China, and so the value of people decreases.

Before we left, we spent the night in the railway station, to experience the “spring migration” (春运). The moment we arrived at the station, the sheer amount of people there made me dizzy – every available space was filled with migrant workers. With long hours of waiting ahead of them, some lay down on the ground, some sat on a piece of paper. Our group formed a circle, and sat down on some newspaper.

We asked the workers what their new years wishes were, and how they felt about going back home after being away for a year. Then we encouraged those around us to sing songs with us. But our singing brought out some of their homesickness, tiredness and dissatisfaction, and some of them even cried. Around them, thousands of others just sat alone, silent, thinking to themselves.

What were they thinking about? Their ill parents at home? Their uncared for kids? Their poor wives? Their unpaid wages? How to continue living next year? We had no idea, but the truth is that the fleeting happiness of the new year can’t solve their difficulties, and after a short stay at home they will have to hurry back to the city to work like a machine again.

What should we do? What can we do? I don’t know.

Crayon (蜡笔) is a student of English at Wuhan University

This essay was written in English, and edited by Alec Ash