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.