Peoples of China

Hearing the Different Voices in Urban China


China is a complex place. For people outside this ancient land, "the Chinese" are one people, just like "the English" or "the Brazilians." After living in China for years, it becomes apparent that the Chinese are a wide variety of people—56 ethnicities in all and thousands of dialects that are completely incomprehensible from each other. Indeed, the regional differences between the people are striking. Everything from cuisine, tea varieties, superstitions, languages, bone structure and appearance varies from place to place. These differences can be a source of beauty and fascination. We have seen how China's leadership wished to showcase this diversity during the Olympics opening ceremony, highlighting the costumes of the different ethnicities, all as a part of a unified China.

However, these differences can also be a cause of fear, misunderstanding, anger and division. These manifest themselves clearly in the way Chinese people perceive other Chinese from different regions. For example, in Guangzhouwhere petty crime is relatively highmigrants are blamed by urban residents for having property stolen. In rich and modern Shanghai, migrants are laughed at and looked down upon for their lack of social manners, poor driving skills and general backwardness. In Beijing, urbanites simply do not understand migrants. Although they make up at least one-third of the urban population, they keep themselves distant and do not spend much time or thought upon them. Likewise, migrants often perceive urbanites as conceited. Naturally, this is just from my experience and what I have heard. Yet, this illustrates the power of ignorance and misunderstanding within today's China.

Moving into the City

There are several different types or categories of migrants. In Beijing, where I live, the most common are the low-level wage workers. This group includes the cleaning ladies, men who work on construction sites, massage girls, and others. There are also higher skilled migrants, such as hair stylists. Next, there are entrepreneurs, such as people who open small clothing outlets.

The types of migrants we read about mostly in the news are those wage workers on the construction sites. Responsible for building the cities, these men are easily the focus of the journalists' lens because of their poor working conditions and contribution to urban society, which is often unrecognized by the larger public.

There are two people, from the "lower level" wage workers that I come into contact with on a regular basis that I would like to illustrate here.

The Cleaning Lady and the Bike Guard

Aunt Zhang comes to our house every Sunday. She works at a local cleaning agency, cleaning three to four apartments and office buildings daily. Each one takes two to three hours. She is happy to come to our place on Sunday because we pay a premium and give her leftovers. Her normal rate is twelve renminbi per hour, or less than two dollars per hour. Even at this rate, she is happy to clean all day and is able to save several hundred dollars a month. She is saving to help put her daughter through university later. From Sichuan province in the southwest—the province that suffered the catastrophic earthquake recently—her daughter, a future English major, wants to know what it is like outside China. Ever the opportunist, Aunt Zhang is curious about what kind of living I make and what kind of living my wife (a Chinese married to a foreigner) makes. I am often surprised by the candor of some of the modest Chinese. Inquiring of one's salary is not at all inappropriate, and I tell her openly. She does not just want to save up for her daughter's tuition; she wants to store up wisdom and insights about what her daughter's future life might look like. One day, perhaps her daughter can live in a place like this and hire a cleaning lady like her every week. I facilitate the process by giving gifts of music, magazines and other items that might encourage her daughter in her studies. I am impressed by the clear humility of Aunt Zhang, and at the same time, her opportunism when given the right time to ask questions and express herself.

Aunt Wu is a bit different. Bold from day one, she is over fifty, short and portly, always wearing large sunglasses and a smile. She guards the bikes outside the office where I work. Usually rushing into work every morning after locking up and passing her my daily fee, I emerged from the office recently just before midnight. It was one of those rare days when it rained all day and I feared a wet ride home, dragging out an impossibly long day. Standing alone on the wet sidewalk, I was touched when I saw my moped covered with a collection of tarps and garbage bags with stones keeping them in place. As I rode up the next morning, Aunt Wu moved another bike to give me room for my big moped, just like she always does.

She actually spent five renminbi of her own money to buy me a full cover for my moped. She charges one-tenth of that price to guard a bike all day, just to provide some context for her investment. I express my appreciation to her and she wags it off as saying it is just "her job."

You are great, Aunt Wu. Why do you offer such great service?

Hey! This is my job! Do you know what? I have been interviewed by newspaper journalists and even been on television!

You're kidding. How long have you been guarding bikes here?

Five years.

I felt really guilty for some reason, and thought I should give her a tip. China is not a tipping culture, and I rarely feel guilty. But, it just seemed strange that there was this elderly woman guarding bikes for pennies with an amazing customer service attitude and ready smile.

She proudly refused my tip adamantly with a frown. I found other ways to reward her, such as with gifts of fruit and snacks from Starbucks. Through time, I have also found out just how strong her opinions are concerning China's public policy. An ever-optimistic person, she has no qualms about discussing some of China's woes with me—particularly because I am a foreigner, and she finds it her job to educate me about the way things are.

Aunt Wu is also from Sichuan, close to the earthquake devastation. She talks about her family and home and how the earthquake was particularly unlucky, as everyone's homes were reduced to rubble. She does not know what her family will do, but luckily everyone was safe. Strangely, she does not seem too depressed. Her optimism steers her forward and allows her to see the brighter side of life.

The Olympics Provide a Chance for Change

These past few months have been an incredibly tough time for China as people have been waiting and preparing for years in nervous expectation for the Olympics that recently finished. The Chinese are somewhat superstitious, with a stronger than usual belief in "fate" and "fortune." More than a few people I know wonder what the signs of this year bode for China. First, the protests in Tibet, then the ambushing of their Olympic pride as it made its way around the worldthen, a mind-blowing earthquake shaking the foundations of their hearts. This is not turning out to be an easyor auspiciousyear for anybody.

But, the Olympics were an undeniable success. The Games also drew a spotlight upon the lives of the migrants here in Beijing. Hopefully, the event will continue to improve their situation over the long term. I know this city needs more people like Aunt Wu and Aunt Zhangand their husbands and families.

Image credit: Parking lot by jesabele, on Flickr

Brad Burgess

Brad Burgess is a public relations consultant and freelance writer. He has been based in China for over six years and is fluent in Mandarin. He can be reached at burgess.bradATgmail.com View Full Bio