(Header Photo credit: CNBC)
I’ve come back to the village of Mengjinzhuang, Hebei – my lao jia, “old home”. This is where my father grew up and where my oldest uncle and two cousins still live. To get here, I traveled two hours by bus from Beijing to Baigou (aside: Baigou is where much of China’s cheap goods are distributed).
On the bus, I happened to sit next to Xiao Wang – a round-faced 24 year old man with an infectious smile. After breaking the ice by offering him a cookie, I asked him where he was headed. Xiao Wang was visiting a friend in Baigou in hopes of finding a new job there. He had been working in a Beijing factory making boxes for the past 2 months and had grown tired of it. “I don’t have any specific job in mind. I’ll see when I get there. It takes about a day to find work, at most 3 days.”
Workers looking for factory jobs don’t have to look long. They can be fairly choosey with where they want to work. They tend not to trust postings on job sites since many of them are scams. Instead, people like Xiao Wang prefer to travel to the factories in person so they can see for themselves. I told him he had better job prospects than university students (now factory workers can earn even more than new graduates). “Haha, yeah. University graduates don’t know how to chiku (endure suffering). They think a lot of work is beneath them and are very picky. It must be nice to attend university though – to be educated and learn so much about the world.” Xiao Wang seemed rather self-conscious about his lack of education and humble background.
Xiao Wang has been working for the past 5 years. Originally from the countryside of Gansu province, he left home so he could see what the world had to offer. Since then, he has worked in 3 factories making toys, wrapping, and boxes. “The working conditions aren’t that great, but the larger factories are relatively better than the small ones. There’s a lot of pressure on the assembly lines since others are waiting on you. You also have to be careful since there’s a lot of machinery. The floor managers aren’t that strict. They get paid more but they don’t do much.”
I asked Xiao Wang what his goals were. “Ah…if I ever earn enough money, I would like to open my own shop. I could sell what I want and work when I want.” He then asked where I was from. When I told him, he looked up with a bit of longing and sadness. “Canada! It must be so nice to chuguo (leave the country). People like me couldn’t imagine going so far. I don’t think I’ll ever have enough money to travel there. I just worry about earning enough to get by.”
My conversation with Xiao Wang truly put things into perspective. We are almost the same age and yet in such different life circumstances. Things I’ve taken for granted are luxuries Xiao Wang could only dream about.
Near the end of our trip, Xiao Wang pulled out his smartphone and taught me how to play Angrybirds Starwars Edition. I guess some things are still the same despite borders and circumstances.