Spring Festival Ode to the Migrant Worker
Jan. 30, 2013
By Tom Fearon
He first arrived in Beijing in the spring of 2003,
A wide-eyed high school leaver from dusty Urumqi.
He had no skills but was eager to learn a service or a trade,
It didn't matter which career he chose, as long as he got paid.
The day before he'd boarded the train and sunk into a hard seat,
Gazing out the window he saw his mother weep.
But for him there was no turning back because destiny doesn't wait,
Leaving the Silk Road far behind was really an excuse to escape.
The train rolled into Beijing West at dawn the following day,
He learned to elbow his way through the crowd or else be led astray.
Shouldering a giant rice sack that held all his possessions,
He did as so many had done before and many more will do in succession.
He worked odd jobs here and there, seven days a week,
Learning the Beijing dialect so he could understand others speak.
From construction sites to restaurants, he gave everything a go,
Living in a dank basement because the rent was low.
His chestnut eyes hid behind windswept hair that fell across his brow,
His hands bore blisters that looked as if each day he worked a plough.
He learned to blend into the crowd of a city of 20 million,
But never felt like much more than a second-class civilian.
He spoke to his family when he had some credit on his phone,
But hearing their voices reminded him he secretly missed home.
His father was indifferent but his mother would shed a tear,
He assured her he was fine and would be back for Chinese New Year.
Gradually, he made some friends and even fell in love,
With a girl from Gansu who lived in the apartment above.
They were both shy at first until his compliments did drop,
The next week they rode a bike, her on the back singing Mandopop.
His affection for his adopted home steadily did grow,
Until he remembered he didn't belong because of his hukou.
Seeing his peers across the street attend university,
He couldn't help but think aloud, "hey, that could have been me."
He saved his money but sent some home, no matter what he earned,
Some weeks he lived pay to pay but never grew concerned.
As long as he had food to eat and a roof over his head,
Life was better in Beijing than stuck at home instead.
He quit his job at the end of fall after a boss withheld his pay,
By winter he was street sweeper to avoid being in disarray.
His birthday was spent on the road shoveling heavy snow,
But he made sure he celebrated that night with a bottle of erguotou.
Time passed quickly, seasons changed, as one year became two, then three,
But he always found new excuses not to return to Urumqi.
"I have a new job," or "I can't get a train ticket," so he would often start,
"It's fine, son. We understand," even though it would break their hearts.
See the original poem here.