Sunrays curl up on my blanket. The alarm didn’t go off yet. I merely squint, so I don’t lose the dream that’s still running somewhere in my head, muted, far away; what was it about?
“GOODE MONIN!!!”, a woman yells. Without a knock, she stormed the room and then quickly went back into the kitchen.
This is not a dream. This is breakfast time. Now! I’m a kid again.
“My son is biking across China, like you. Do you need a place to stay? What do you eat?”, the woman asked us the evening before. She has a little barbecue stand and doesn’t speak English, so she called the principal of Middle School Nr.1. Who called the school’s English teacher at his home. Who interrupted his Sunday violin practice so that we could finally understand what this barbecue-wielding woman wants to tell us.
“She wants you to stay at her house!”
The English teacher and the woman lead us to her apartment. They show us our room and where to turn on the gas for the hot water, tell us the wi-fi password, and make us talk on the phone to her son in Beijing. Then the teacher goes back to his violin and the woman goes back to her barbecue.
The place is ours and, like kids on a treasure hunt, we inspect the apartment.
One hour later, the husband comes home. He puts a bag of sunflower seeds on the sofa table. Have some! Then he watches TV like we were sitting in his living room every day.
He is a taxi driver, self-employed like his wife. Four years ago, their son moved to Beijing, almost 2000 kilometers away, to study. Their daughter moved away too.
There are two big empty rooms now.
We ask them about their lives. They ask: “Do you want a midnight snack? Do you eat spicy? Do you like our stinky tofu?”
Currently, dozens of millions of children in China grow up without their parents because they migrated to bigger cities or richer provinces in search for work. And there are also dozens of millions of parents who stay behind when their kids move on to lives that were not possible for their parents.
The family is the smallest and most important cell of the fabric that builds a society. Thus, in the West, its integrity is politically supported and any kind of migration is seen as a sign of crisis – now that a broke autocrat can’t just sell you as a slave anymore and war is a far away memory.
You may take your time to study abroad. You may have to find work abroad. But “when will you come back?” will always be the question following you, no matter how vainly asked. Family and home come first; then come the rest.
But in China, “the country is first, then comes the family”, as a mother tells her appalled son in the documentary High Tech Low Life.
Officially, the family’s integrity is also held dear, but in reality, migration still is an instrument of politics.
Chinese have always been on the move. Throughout millennia, young people were sent to far away patches of the realm because this emperor or that dictator wanted them to cultivate one province or protect another from bad-ass tribes, or build communes and industrialize the country. To stop being decadent and learn from the peasants or to stop being peasants and become city dwellers.
Fifty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, you had to move because supposedly, fatally, you were rich. Now you have to move to get rich. A few years ago they told you to have only one kid. Now you’re supposed to have more than one.
In many cases, people are still literally forced to move as local police, party officials and real estate guys, who often build informal networks, subcontract gangs to throw people out of their houses so that they can build big “western style” high-rise complexes instead.
And so, they move.
“Don’t you want to stay some more?”, the mother asks after breakfast, “I don’t go to work if you stay.”
Thanks, we have to keep going. But we leave with pockets full of sweets ?