I spent the past weekend in Tianjin, visiting family I haven’t seen in over 8 years. It was a strange yet wonderful feeling to be so welcomed by relatives I’ve barely known. It felt like I was home again.

My father grew up in the countryside of Hebei with his older and younger brother. Due to the hukou system, rural dwellers were not allowed to move into the cities. Since my grandfather had been working in the city of Tianjin before the restrictions, he was given “city dweller” status, which he eventually passed on to my youngest uncle (Lao Shu). It was Lao Shu and Lao Niang (his wife) who picked me up from the train station. What used to be a 2 hour trip was now a quick half hour ride on the new high-speed train between Beijing and Tianjin. Rapid improvements to infrastructure can be seen everywhere in China.

Lao Shu said my father would always tell him off for playing cards instead of studying hard when they were children. He eventually wisened up at age 19 when he moved into the city, realizing that coming from the countryside (nongcun), he had to work extra hard to prove himself. Lao Shu started at the bottom of the ladder as a meat cutter, but through years of hard work, he eventually became a high-level manager of a large department store. His condo is located only a few steps from the train station due to the frequent business trips he had to make.

I walked in and my eyes landed on the couch where we had posed for a family photo during my last visit. Not much has changed except for the addition of a glowing aquarium full of koi (one of which is missing an eye). Lao Shu moves a lot more carefully though, having suffered a minor stroke a few months ago. The unbearably high amount of stress of his job has taken a huge toll on his body. He can’t feel hot or cold temperatures on his left side, only needleprick sensations. “Retail is a difficult business to be in. There is so much competition and very little profit margin. Consumers are price-sensitive and are more savvy now because of technology. Many stores that you see are actually losing money. Walmart just closed 3 locations. We have to constantly think of new ways to attract customers.”

Lao Shu continued to talk about work conditions: “Companies don’t care about their workers. Despite being a manager, I have the most basic coverage of medical insurance. I had to go back to work within days of getting the stroke because there was no one else to deal with problems at the store.”

The fierce competition for jobs has forced early retirement for many older Chinese workers. The standard retirement age for men is 50, while it is 45 for women. Lao Shu was given a choice between a higher position at a store in a different city or a lower position at his current store. He chose to stay at the current store. “It’s closer to home and right now my health is the priority.”