The long trip home
By Carlos Barria
There was not much emotion left after crossing central China on a 50-hour train and bus journey. Just a soft touch on the face and a forced hug was all that Li Jiangzhon and his sister Li Jiangchun got from their parents after a long year of absence.
They are just one story among millions of Chinese migrant workers, who have to leave their loved ones behind to look for a better future for themselves and their families.
Every year millions of migrant workers travel to their hometowns during the Chinese Spring Festival, a massive movement of people that is considered the biggest migration in the world in such a short period of time. Public transportation authorities expected to accommodate about 3.41 billion travelers nationwide during the holiday, including 225 million railway passengers, according to Xinhua news agency.
The 2013 Spring Festival will begin on February 10th, marking the start of the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese zodiac.
Li Anhua and Shi Huaju met twelve years ago, after they migrated to Shanghai and took their place among the millions of Chinese migrant workers that play a key role in today’s second largest economy. After working for a few months in a restaurant they decided to work together as street food vendors in the suburbs of Shanghai. Every day they push a wooden cart with two wheels to street corners where students from a local university buy their food.
Life is hard on their combined monthly income of 2000CNY (USD320) — just enough to send a little money home to support their two children, who live with their grandmother and for them to rent a room just three meters by three meters in an old apartment far from Shanghai’s city center. Shanghai is one of the most expensive cities in China.
Preparation for the trip began early this year. They managed to buy their train tickets online (116CNY each, or about USD19), which saved them the headache of fighting for a place in hours-long lines, as in previous years, among a swarm of workers and bulky packages.
They got good seats, basically a place for each of them, which is considered very lucky. Many migrants can’t get a seat on the train and have to travel standing or curled up in any free space they can find.
They left their home on a cold Sunday night. Ahead of them: 50 hours of hard traveling conditions and cold, followed by the reward of spending 30 days with their children. Li and Shi have been doing this trip every year for the last twelve years, following the birth of their son Li Jiangzhon. Back then the couple decided to leave the boy with Li Anhua’s mother in a rural village south of Luzhou, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the provincial capital of Sichuan province.
At the Shanghai South Train station, travelers rushed to gate five as the speakers announced the departure of train L633 with final destination Chongqing. The couple sat on hard seats in a sleeper train. They would share the next day and a half with four other people in front of them and two people next to them.
As the train departed after midnight, the freezing cold, the noise and the smoke of cigarettes made it almost impossible to sleep. Shi Huaju tried to lean over her husband’s shoulder looking for some warm place to rest for a few hours.
Sleeping is a challenge for those with seats. They look for any free inch of space to rest their tired bodies, and the spaces between cars are the most valuable.
Passengers played cards, some listened to music, others spent their last minutes of battery on their mobile phones, texting or surfing the internet.
Occasionally a vendor came by selling toys for children, battery chargers, food and beverages. For those who want to watch the landscape as the train crosses industrial stretches, farm country and polluted rivers it’s not very easy; the windows haven’t been cleaned in a while.
Li Anhua went for short walks to stretch his legs along the aisle and stopped in the space between cars, designated for smokers. After two cigarettes he returned. Next to the couple, a young man ate peanuts and threw the shells on the floor. As the hours passed, more and more food ended up on the floor. An old man cleaned the area with a rudimentary broom; in a few hours he would do it again.
After the train arrived in Chongqing, Li Anhua and Shi Huaju rushed to the next terminal where they waited in a jostling line to buy bus tickets for the three-hour journey to Luzhou, near their hometown. A Chinese action movie on a television terminal made Li laugh. He looked happy as they got closer and closer to home.
In Luzhou, loud taxi drivers offered their service at the bus station. The couple picked one and started the last 30-minute leg of their trip. At a dark intersection, on a dirt road, the taxi suddenly stopped. Li looked around but he couldn’t remember the way to their house. He couldn’t recognize the way with all the new construction around. He said, “This factory area was not here last year.” Finally a small sign indicated the road to Dayan village.
As the taxi stopped in front of a three-story building a little girl screamed, “mammy, mammy,” and the couple got out of the car. For her and her brother, their most cherished present of this Chinese New Year just arrived.
The family will spend 30 days together, after that they will do the same journey back to Shanghai for another working season.