Chapter 71: Migrant Workers in Our Staircase

Chinese migrants
When a noisy Shanghai city works project brings migrant workers into our home -- literally -- I begin to wonder: just whose life is being disturbed?

Our neighborhood still echoes with a sour symphony of drills and hammers as the city of Shanghai makes water line repairs and fire extinguisher replacements.

The project finally reached our house in mid July, 2003, with work starting at the convenient hour of 6am (convenient, that is, from the point of view of Shanghai, which would never have its workforce toil in the heat of the day). The swarthy-faced men descended on our home like an invading army, with the grimaced, sweaty brows of exhausted soldiers in a foreign land. The truth is, Shanghai probably was a foreign place to them, because they had the look of migrant workers, perhaps from Anhui Province (which supplied many of the Shanghai migrants). I should know, because I walked over them, napping on the wooden staircase leading up to my apartment — the entire house oozed with grimy, slumbering men, as if they had just magically grown out of the cracks after I left for work that morning. They startled me, these men, and I desperately jammed my key in the rickety wooden door to escape their glance. I didn’t want them to look and stare at the foreigner, to marvel in something so fresh and new to their eyes.

But the thing is, I couldn’t help but stare and marvel at them, after a while. These men could only find refuge from the heat in the cockroach-infested stairwells and floors of the homes where they worked. As I looked at their faces, glistening with sweat and oil, and their bodies wrapped in tired old T-shirts and polyester pants, I wondered just how much they made for their work. Was it worth it for them to leave their hometowns, and suffer the heat, early hours and strangeness of it all? I thought about my anger over the lost peace and quiet. Surely mine will come when the work is over, but what about these men? Will they ever find peace in a string of migrant laborer jobs?

What’s been your experience with migrant laborers in the big city?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 71: Migrant Workers in Our Staircase

  • June 2, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    I currently reside in Israel and here are many Chinese foreign workers – most of them being males working in constructions.
    Their situation is the worst among all other foreign workers here 🙁 , but they still come and are ready to pay big money to local “dealers” in China in order to get a ticket and work permission abroad.
    .-= Crystal´s last blog ..How Educated Chinese Girls Become “Leftovers”? =-.

  • June 3, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Many Chinese, especially people I ran into in Suzhou last week have an interesting view of the world…if you look Indian, you are Inturen…could be Mexican, Peruvian or Colombina…but if you look dark and have what they consider “South Asian features” you are an Inturen. If it is an Indian married to an East Asian, you must be a Singaporean…they tell me that nothing inhibits Singaporeans. If you are a white married to an Asian, you must be a Meigoren (American). If you are an all-white couple, you must be Bairen (just plain white).

  • June 3, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Things like this can put our own lives into perspective I find. Hope may be on the way with talks of migrant worker status reform. These are being tested in ChongQing but I’m sure they will find their way to Shanghai eventually.

  • June 20, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Forget all the fancy cars, gucci handbags, beauty salons and grand shopping malls. Seriously, screw that shit because that’s nothing more than a pretty face. That’s not the real China.

    These people are the heart and soul of China. These people work their butts off at ridiculously low wages not only to keep China running, but to make products for the world. The economic miracle of modern China (“Made in China”) lies on the backs of these dusty, sweaty, oily guys who get to see their families only a week or two per year. Some of them are too poor to have a family.

    I’ve sat with and talked to these kind of guys and they’re the most honest, hearty, down-to-earth bunch I’ve met during my visit to China. Urban centers are like the Wild Wild West for these dudes. They have no money for healthcare and no time for personal hygiene. It’s saddening to see while the homeless wanderers on the streets of America are by choice, while the homeless wanderers on the streets of China work much harder than your average American.

    To me, this is the real China. These guys represent MY China.

    • June 22, 2010 at 11:38 pm

      Hi Chris, I love this comment about the migrant workers — reminds me of conversations John and I have often had about how so many migrant workers have built China’s cities, but don’t benefit from them (beyond the project that, hopefully, they’ll actually get paid for).

  • June 23, 2010 at 2:15 am


  • June 23, 2010 at 2:35 am



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