Hi, I’m Jacob, and I’m writing this Yak on a bullet train from Kunming to Dali, officially bringing our time with our Kunming families to a close and formally beginning the expedition phase (X-phase), a roughly 36-hour period where instructors temporarily defer to us, the students, and together we plan and execute our own adventure into the wild. For me, although brief, this period of our transition was thought provoking, as it forced me to reflect on the unique freedom I had during our time in the city, the interesting stories I heard, and the people that I met.
One of my favorite things about Kunming was the privilege to roam free in a “small” Chinese city, and having four hours in the afternoon to interact with any of the 6 million people our interests drew us to. These afternoons, 4 in total, were our independent study projects.
I’ve always know that China, like any country that is in the process of rapid economic development, is experiencing massive rural to urban migration, with tens of millions of people of working age leaving their small towns and villages in hopes of finding more money and services in the city. However, intra-national migration is only something I’ve learned about through articles and statistics, and it was only in Bangdong where I observed how much of an influence rural to urban migration had on the present state and future of the village.
When I arrived in Kunming, my mind was full of questions that had accumulated during the conversations I had with villagers, and I was eager to begin using my ISP time to learn the stories of migrants, who in the last 15 years have been the main cause of Kunming’s maturation from a mid-sized city into a bustling metropolis. On Tuesday, during my first ISP session, I walked to Salvador’s Cafe, an American owned cafe crawling with foreign tourists and expats. Although I wasn’t really a fan of the food, it was a perfect starting place, since all of the employees at Salvador’s are young women from villages in Yunnan, and almost all are from the Lincang (Lin-tsang) prefecture and there are even a handful from Bangdong.
When I arrived at Salvador’s, I took an hour to sit down and speak to Luo Ting, the daughter of the music-blasting man in Bangdong who’s always dressed in a PLA uniform and lives in a three story house with an aquarium, one of my favorite characters in the village. Luo Ting and her sister moved from Bangdong to Kunming 6 years ago when she was fresh out of high school and 18 years old. She told me that in Bangdong, almost every young person wants to leave the village, even though the economy and the conditions in almost all tea villages in Lincang have improved exponentially in the last five years. Luo Ting also highlighted the changing culture when it comes to marriage and returning to the village. For every previous generation, she said, migrations to the city were always expected to be short term moves. Many people still feel tied to the village, like her sister, who got married a few years ago to a man from Bangdong, despite having their criticisms about the slow and mundane pace of life. However, deciding whether to go back to the village is more voluntary than ever, and now many young people, women in particular, feel a lot less of a stigma of leaving their hometowns permanently and settling in the city.
I spent my second ISP session walking around the city and conducting brief interviews with employees, mainly at restaurants, who worked at businesses specializing in things from other prefectures in Yunnan and provinces in China. Even though all of the people I spoke to were technically migrant workers, since they moved to Kunming from elsewhere for work, none of them matched the story of Luo Ting or any other village workers who move to the city. All were business owners or large stockholders in family-run franchises, and all came from cities in other parts of China, not villages. Though each person I interviewed had a unique and interesting life story, for the most part, their stories had each of the following: first, all of them said that Kunming was a great city for entrepreneurs since labor was cheap, second, all had their parents and siblings in Kunming, and third, all explicitly stated that they had no meaningful attachment to Kunming as a home and that in their later years, they want to return to their hometowns. Rural to urban migrants are found in virtually every country regardless of their position on the developmental spectrum. But to me, these migrants were uniquely Chinese, as they were representative of how the giant Chinese middle class and poorer village workers were mixing together and shaping Kunming, a new Chinese city.
On my third and final day of my ISP, I returned to Salvador’s to meet with Colin, one of the cafe’s cofounders, a gringo born and raised in Colorado who has lived in Yunnan for over 15 years. Colin has travelled to many villages in Yunnan, and was even the first foreigner in Bangdong, so it was a relief to talk to someone whose shoes I fit into. He runs an interesting business, and he’s seen firsthand how Kunming and its people have changed as China has developed. He was able to clarify and explain a lot of factors that affect people who come to the city that I had never known or thought of. He explained that as the Chinese government has aggressively pushed equal education for females, many village families are seeing more value in sending their daughters into the cities for work, as they are much less likely to fall victim to vices like gambling addiction and alcohol, things that tear apart the lives of many young men in the city. Colin, being both an outsider and an insider, helped me understand how migration, rural life, and urban life have changed so dramatically over the span of less than 20 years.
My ISP experience was one of most interesting and freeing activities I had during my time in China, and the conversations I had with all the people I met completely reshaped and rejected many assumptions I had about Chinese migrant workers. China is developing at a rapid and constant rate, and being able to not only live in rural and urban China, but study the interactions between the two was a deeply moving and enriching process.