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LAST WORD: A Day in the Life
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altHow many Americans or Europeans, even in today’s sour economy, would be willing to leave their family behind and stand on a crowded train for eighteen hours just for a job? How many would want to share a forty square-foot room with eleven other people and would be willing to work six to seven days a week, pulling ten to twelve-hour shifts? What if I told you this was all for a job that paid about USD 320 per month?  Not very enticing, is it?  Yet, these are the conditions that migrant workers in China face as they flock from the countryside and head for the coastal cities in search of a better life.
 
This year I started a job with a Japanese manufacturing company based in Beichen district in the north of Tianjin.  I spend half of the year on the road, supervising the installation of industrial machinery which we’ve put in over one hundred factories spread out over 13 countries on five continents.  I serve as a project manager and translator and am often sent abroad with several of our Chinese laborers.  My Chinese is far from fluent, but it’s good enough to liaise between the workers and the staff at the factories, and it’s certainly good enough to listen in and chat during break and meal times.  I’ve had a rare glimpse into the lives of these men and may have learned more in a month on the road with them than I have in my previous three years in China.  
 
If you’ve never visited Beichen district, I can’t say that I blame you – it’s a side of Tianjin best seen from a rear view mirror.  That having been said, the area is fascinating for the speed of its development alone.  Gravel, dust and huge chunks of earth are perpetually being excavated, tossed about, smashed, burned and flattened - I ride my bicycle to the factory daily and have watched an 8km stretch of road get completely repaved section by section – I’ve also watched the construction of Tianjin’s Metro Line 3 from start to (nearly) finish.   
 
altThe company I work for is one of hundreds in the area, but is small when compared to giants like LG and Dynasty.  We employ a dozen workers - all male -most are in the age range of 20-30.  Of those twelve, none are from Tianjin and only two have married and started families in the city. As for the others, I’m not sure of their lives outside of work, but I can’t imagine there’s much time for socialising, let alone dating.  
 
The better part of their prime years is spent roomed together with eleven other men - they wake-up, eat, work, shower and sleep together – every day, for years on end.  The incredible thing is, in my eight months with the company and long stretches of time on the road with these men, I have never once seen the slightest bit of animosity between them.  Never a quarrel or a cold shoulder – like they have all come to realise and accept the slow and steady slog of their day-to-day lives and have chosen to ignore the highs and lows that most others (including myself) obsess over.  
 
Regarding their living quarters, they’re far from spectacular but I wouldn’t describe the conditions as bleak or inhuman. From the sounds of things, their flat isn’t very different to a typical Chinese university dormitory.  
 
They sleep on bunk-beds, the food they eat isn’t scarce and doesn’t appear to be bland, they have hot water for showers, heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. But the isolation from their families and the apparent lack of female companionship is what strikes me the most.   Although I admire their stoicism, it’s clear that a few of these men will be part of an alarming statistic: 18-30 million Chinese men won’t be able to find wives.
 
In spite of these hardships, when traveling abroad it’s incredible to hear their criticisms of other countries as compared to China.  The CCP has done a fine job of promoting Chinese exceptionalism and this idea has clearly been internalised by the citizens.  
 
altWe stayed in Busan, South Korea for a month. Busan is famous in Korea for its gorgeous beaches (and women). Our factory was a stone’s throw from the East China Sea, surrounded by gentle hills and lush farmland.  I asked a lot of questions – especially to the workers that were on their first international trip – “Isn’t the scenery nice and the air clean?”, “How about Korean women, aren’t they beautiful?”, “What do you think of the food?”  The responses were, “It’s not bad” and “No - they wear too much make-up.”, respectively.   The criticisms of the food were too various to list here, but every meal was either, “Too salty”, or “Not enough vegetables/meat/flavor/all of the above.”   Nearly every aspect of Korean life drew a disparaging remark and I heard similar comments during our trips to the US and South Africa.  Just when I thought the fevered nationalistic pitch couldn’t get any higher, the London Olympics started.  A friendly rivalry developed as we compared the US/China medal counts every morning, but the unfavorable comparisons between the 2012 Olympics versus the ’08 Beijing games were discussed often. 
 
It’s strange to me that they maintain such fierce reverence for a country that seems to have given them so little. The communist symbol of the hammer and sickle is something they can relate to all too well, as a lifetime of hard labour is probably the fate of each and every one of them. That’s not to imply that they don’t have a lot to be proud of – the history of the country is as rich as that of any other and China’s rise following the 'Century of Humiliation' is nothing short of remarkable.   
 
Perhaps they see themselves as nothing more than a small cog in the machine that is China’s return to prominence, but it’s possible they don’t think in such vast terms.  They, like people in the West, simply dream of providing their family with a better life than they had, just as their parents did for them. But, in contrast to those in the US and Europe, they may be willing to endure more hardship to do so.  
 

By C. Foser 
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