The cute Chinese waiter from Hebei was flirting with me outrageously. I’d asked him if it was pretty where he was from and he’d replied, “it is, but not as pretty as you.” Smooth, huh? Unfortunately, my Chinese was truly appallingly back then and in hearing the words “not”, “pretty” and “you”, I’d thought he was saying I wasn’t pretty. He tried again over the noise of the thumping club music, but I still didn’t understand, so he gave up.
The nightclub was a typically Chinese affair, tables loaded with ice buckets that cooled bottles of whiskey, and trays of fresh fruits. There were patent leather lounges and coloured LED lights flashed as the DJs played almost exactly the same top 40 and dance tracks as the club next door. All the waiters and bartenders were cute, androgynous young men. It was no accident. These were the boys who had left their countryside villages and headed to the “big smoke” in search of work. Boyband good looks meant they could escape the drudgery of manufacturing or construction work and instead serve drinks to the rich Chinese or foreigners who would typically be making 5-10 times their salary.
That evening was my friend’s birthday and we were in an ostentatious mood. I had spotted this waiter as soon as we’d entered the club. He was tall for a Chinese guy–Northern guys often are–and he came over to take our drink orders. As he listened to my friend’s order for the table he snuck a quick look my way. The corner of his mouth lifted; just a hint of a smile that I found very sexy. We’d ordered shots and with a rare burst of confidence I asked him if he wanted one as well. I poured them out and the seven of us clinked glasses and threw back the vodka.
He looked young, and he was, only 23. Three years younger than me. He didn’t speak much, but that suited me fine seeing as I barely understood what he was saying when he did. He promised to call me the next day.
In China, a migrant worker typically means someone from an impoverished region who has moved to a more prosperous one–often a big city or the more developed coastal areas of Eastern China. According to the China Labor Bulletin, the migrant worker phenomenon was a “by-product of two seemingly opposite policies”: the household registration system (in Chinese known as “hukou”) of the 1950s that identifies a citizen as a resident of a certain area thereby restricting their benefits to that place and consequently also their movements; and the economic liberalizations of the 1970s, that led to a tidal wave of formerly rural citizens leaving family farmlands and traditional villages to seek better prospects elsewhere.
10 years ago the number of Beijing residents who were migrants was one in five. These days, at 7.045 million of a total 19.6 million Beijing residents (including those with or without a hukou), it’s one in three. Gu Yanzhou, deputy director of the Beijing municipal bureau of statistics, in speaking to the The China Post adds that the majority of these migrants now work in the service industry instead of manufacturing and construction as they did 10 years ago.
The kinds of difficulties migrant workers face closely mirror those of illegal immigrant workers in the developed countries of the United States, Australia and Europe. Without official status they often live without access to social security, health insurance, work and rental contracts, legal representation or schools for their children. They may have trouble speaking the local language, face discrimination, be taken advantage of by unscrupulous employees and then also deal with all the emotions and psychological hardships of being away from their hometown and network of friends and family.
Of course, none of this was on my mind as I jumped into a taxi, excited to be meeting up with my new Chinese crush. I had made sure to pack a little paper dictionary in my handbag. He’d said he lived near my university, so I was surprised when 25 minutes later I was still in a taxi seemingly heading to no man’s land. People in Beijing have a different concept of distance; “close” is anything under a one and a half hour commute. I watched the ring road numbers climb; 3, 4, 5… all of Beijing’s tall buildings had given way to grasslands, hurtling trucks and shabby neighbourhoods. One of which I was finally dropped off at.
A few minutes later my cute waiter turned up, shuffling in flip flops, with an embarrassed look on his face. He mumbled hello, and in pointing up the street indicated we should walk. Outside of the club setting my waiter suddenly seemed so very obviously (and for me at the time, unexpectedly), a boy from the provinces.
He led me up a set of rickety stairs, and we entered a two-storey apartment block that looked like crushed shoeboxes: thin walls, concrete floors and taped together windows. We went to his room, a tiny space that fit one bed and a table. A bed sheet was pinned over the window, and a few clothes hung up on a makeshift line. A shard of mirror was taped to the wall, along with a couple of posters of Chinese celebrities. He didn’t have much stuff.
I sat on the bed, he turned on the TV, and we just sat there, watching television. I was beginning to find the whole experience utterly surreal. My few stabs at conversation were not returned. Before long he got up, left the room and ran a few chores: collected a sheet that was out to dry, washed his hair, talked to his brother next door, and cleared out his nose–sans tissue–a few times in the dustbin by my feet. All the while I sat on the bed, flicking through television channels, chewing a stick of gum and wondering what the hell I was doing there.
Eventually he asked if I was hungry so we went to eat at the little restaurant across from his place. He ordered for both of us, and when the food came we ate. In silence. Again I made some pitiful attempts at speaking Chinese to which he responded with a few grunts. We returned to silence, only to be broken by the occasional spit on the floor (his, not mine) and the chatter of the television. Which, by the way, was behind him, so he sat turned around to watch it.
After we were finished he paid the bill and we left the restaurant. Standing on the street he pointed out the direction of where I could find a cab home, and said goodbye.
China’s 2010 national census revealed that the mainland population was at 1.34 billion, with more than 260 million of those living away from the place of their hukou. Almost one fifth of the population. So it’s no surprise that the issues of migrant workers often dominate public discourse here. Earlier last month Guangdong police attempted to quell large-scale protests from migrant workers, sparked by the mistreatment of a young couple from Sichuan working as street vendors.
In the time since that day, I ended up actually dating a different migrant from Inner Mongolia for almost two, very lovely, months. He worked full-time as a bartender (and was also a university student) making around 3,000RMB/month ($450US), which is on the high-end scale of low-skilled work in China. Recently I met a 21 year old kid, newly arrived from Shanxi, who was selling computers in Zhongguancun–Beijing’s ‘Silicon Valley’–and making a devastatingly low 800RMB/month. He lived in a dorm room with six other occupants and worked six days a week, but still the pay wasn’t enough to cover living expenses. He said his parents had to send 300RMB a month while he was waiting for his pay to increase.
China’s gaps are large indeed. There are gaps in languages (over 292 different languages are spoken in China), gaps in culture (33 distinctly different provinces), gaps in education and of course, gaps in wages. The waiter and I qualified in each of these aspects.
But in the end the reason why it didn’t work was not because of these gaps, but because neither of us knew what to do with each other. He didn’t have the confidence, or experience, to be with a foreign girl. And at the time, I likewise lacked both the confidence or experience to be with a migrant worker. And really, it was doomed to fail seeing as back then–unlike now–I couldn’t speak Chinese. To this day it was my own ignorance, on so many levels, that makes me cringe most of all.
The only other time I ever saw him again was in the club. He seemed as embarrassed as I was so we simply waved hello to one another. I still thought he was very good looking.