Whilst the expat will be taken aback by the brazen displays of extreme wealth, they will also be shocked by how tough life really is for the majority of Chinese.
I returned from work one evening to find that my wife was quite upset. She told me that she thought that we should employ another ayi (maid) for a few weeks. I told her she must be joking, we weren’t made of money and one maid was certainly more than enough. Anyway, the full story then came out. Our neigbour’s ayi had come around earlier that afternoon and had begged Heather to give her some money so she could buy rice for herself and her baby.
Our Chinese neighbours were very rich. He frequently boasted that he was the largest importer of Brazilian timber in to China. I suspected that he was actually the front man for the party and his company must have kicked back big amounts to the communist cadres to achieve such an exalted position. However, his claims were no doubt true. I had seen the numerous pictures at his house, showing my neighbour with the President of Brazil, the Chinese Poliburo member responsible for Trade, etc etc…
Anyway, the story was that he and his family had yesterday set off on a 5 week trip to Brazil and they had informed their Ayi, Ru Fen, that they were not taking her with them. They had also informed Ru Fen that as she would not be working for them over the next 5 weeks, then they wouldn’t of course be paying her anything.
Ru Fen’s husband was hundreds of miles away back in here home province of Anhui. In Shanghai it was just her and her 11 month old baby that a friend looked after whilst she was at work. She was desperate, hence her plea for money for rice from Heather. Needless to say we did “employ” her for several week so she survived intact for her employers return from Brazil.
However, what struck my wife and I was how unsentimental, even harsh the Chinese attitude was to Ru fen’s predicament. Almost all Chinese I spoke to, whether well off or poor, were generally unsympathetic to Ru Fen’s predicament. The usual response was “Well if she’s not working for the next 5 weeks then why should her employer pay her !”.
It’s true that in China there is a safety net. This safety is very limited indeed. For the likes of Ru Fen and the millions like her the realities are very harsh. As a migrant from the provinces, she and her kind are virtually non people in Shanghai. Any state benefits they are entitled to are linked to their Hu-Kou, the household registration that binds them to a particular administrative.
The millions of provincial migrants in Shanghai have Hu-Kou (registration) for their home provinces such as Henan, Hubei and Hebai. Consequently, even though they work in Shanghai, they are not entitled to housing, education or any other benefits locally. Therefore if adversity strikes then there is no safety net for the likes of Ru Fen.
Hu-Kou attempts to tie the Chinese to the place they were born. When they inevitably leave in an attempt to better their lot, the Hu-Kuo system ensures that they become 2nd class citizens in their new home. For this reason, Hu-Kou has often been likened to the Caste system.
The people from the provinces are frequently looked down upon by the Shanghainese. Some contemptuously refer to the regional migrants as the “shownies” which derives from phrase Xiang Woo Nin meaning “country low people” i.e. the people who come from the country to work in Shanghai as servants.
Their lives in Shanghai are typically very tough. These desperate outsiders are of course given the dirty work that the local Shanghainese would rather not do. Despite this, these regional migrants invariably appear to be much happier than the locals ! Our own Ayi, Xiao Zhao, once explained to me why. “Here Shanghai people think I am poor because I only earn 2,500 rmb (250 pounds) per month. However, back in Henan I used to own just 300 rmb (30 pounds) per month working hard in a carpet factory. Therefore I am very happy. If my husband and I work maybe 5 years in Shanghai, we can then return to our home town in Henan and be able to build a nice house…”
So, I guess it’s all relative however to the western eye, it all seems very harsh indeed.
A conversation I once had with our first Ayi, Twin Sha (Quin Xia), brought it home to me how tough it must be back there in the provinces. We had been talking about the Chinese Zodiac when Twin Sha said ;
“I am not really a tiger”
“I know that Twin Shah ! It’s just an astrological sign. You are of course really just a human..” I replied
“No. I don’t mean that. I mean that my sign is not really Tiger in Chinese Zodiac….”
“So why do you tell everyone you are ? “
“ Really I am rabbit but my mum said to me, you must pretend you are one year older. You must tell everyone that you were born in year of the tiger….”
“Why did she do that ?”
“Because when I was little my mum and dad go out to work and there is no-one to look after me. My mum has a great idea to get the school to take me a year earlier by telling everyone that I am a year older than I really am. That’s why I tell everyone I am a tiger not a rabbit”.
“Oh I see….. So up until the age you could go to school, did they have to pay someone to look after you ?”
“No, there is no way they could afford to do that !”
“So what did they do ?”
“Well, before they left in the morning, my mum used to tie me to the table by a length of rope. It was to keep me safe. I was able to move about 1.5 metres before the rope ran out….” ….. She stopped suddenly. She must have noticed that my jaw had dropped. I tried to return to an unsurprised, life as normal visage and said ;
“Interesting…. how many ours were you left tied to the table for ?”
“Maybe 9 hours. Mum left the window not properly locked and the woman next door came home for lunch. She would open the window and push through a bowl of rice for me around 12 o clock….”
To our spoilt western mind set this is all of course so shocking. To Twin Sha and the millions like her it is just another every day run of the mill anecdote that for some reason captivates the sentimental lao wei (foreigner).
Anyway, my advice to the expat coming to China ? You don’t know you’re born so toughen up !