Homesick: Why Chinese Migrants Will Take 3.2 Billion Trips Over 40 Days

Migrants' jobs at construction sites or factories allow them to save a portion of their salaries to send home, but with urban real estate prices skyrocketing, buying a place in the city almost always remains out of reach. In a society where urban homeownership is often the definitive measure of success and belonging, the inability to afford a home can leave migrants feeling like losers, heightening their sense of displacement. Policies ostensible designed to "protect their personal safety" further drive them to city periphery, where they live in walled communities under police surveillance. "Without an apartment, we can quarter in small space," a migrant wrote in a letter he posted on a web forum popular among city dwellers. "But please don't ridicule us: Is it our fault that we cannot afford a home?"

The support network of families and friends is essential for survival in rural China, where the social safety net is ragged and often nonexistent. When migrants arrive alone in a new city of strangers, they seek to replicate that network by relying on the help of laoxiang, or fellow landsmen, other migrants from the same town or province. Facing uncertain prospects at recruiting fairs and among the middleman employment agencies known for their questionable credibility, many newcomers land their first job through laoxiang connections. It's not difficult to find construction teams of men all from the same town, or shoe production lines composed of girls speaking the same provincial dialect. In the absence of an effective labor union or other channels to voice grievances, these regional bonds also help workers come together and bargain with their employers. The famous 2010 strike in a Honda factory in Foshan, which sparked a wave of copycats across China's east coast, was organized by two migrants from Hunan province, also the hometown of Mao Zedong, known for its revolutionary spirit.

Discrimination from city elites and recruiters who look down on their regional background may also help deepen migrants' provincial identity. Migrants from the most populous but less developed Chinese inland provinces can be particularly victim to these prejudices. Urban families hiring babysitters or housekeepers often inquire applicants' province of origin before making their decision; recruiting fairs routinely feature signs claiming "only interviewing Zhejiang workers," "not considering Anhui applicants" or "no Henanese." Indignant and helpless, many migrants find solace in tightening their bonds with their laoxiang, or may choose to confront these prejudices by associating themselves even more strongly with their home province, in a sort of proud defiance. In a bestselling book on regional stereotypes, Who Did the Henanese Offend?, the three Henanese co-authors living in Beijing defend their provincial heritage by singing praise for the greatness of the land that bred philosophers such as Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu. "Not everyone can live up to their names like the Henanese can," they wrote.

As migrants move from city to city, the meaning of home becomes both broader and richer. The sense of confusion and displacement that chases nearly every migrant, perhaps an inevitable byproduct of China's breakneck economic development, can often only be escaped when late January rolls around and the migrants step onto homebound trains and trucks. This year as the ticket war rages on, even this brief comfort seems to be in jeopardy for many. The new online ticket purchasing system, the main venue for booking chunyun tickets this year, is poorly designed and too technologically challenging for migrants unfamiliar with computers. Many resorted to the old means, waiting outside ticket booths at train stations, often in line for days, to be told that the Internet buyers had bought up all the slots. In a letter to the Ministry of Railways, Huang Qinghong, a Chongqing migrant working in Wenzhou wrote, "Lining up for tickets during chunyun is a torture for us migrants every year, but when we were eagerly waiting for it this year, we don't even get to have it anymore. ... You came up with the Internet ticket-purchase system while sitting in air-conditioned rooms, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, but have you thought of our life?"

On an Internet forum discussing the letter, another migrant added, "If we have a choice, we won't be going home only during Chinese New Year."

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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