Meeting the migrant workers

Cool experience on the way home this afternoon: We met our first two migrant workers, and they met their first two foreigners. Judging from the looks on their faces, I think they might still be in shock as I type this. Of course, the fact that I’m blogging about them might say something, too. Crazy world…

Anyway, we’d started chatting with one of our retired neighbours outside our stairwell, which is also right by the migrant labourers’ camp. (I took the photo at right while we were talking.) We asked him about the work they were doing on the roofs, and got more of an answer than we were expecting. He said that not only are they building fake roofs on all the buildings visible from the main road, but they’re also going to paint the sides of the buildings that are visible from the main road.

He said it’s because our neighbourhood is opposite the Sheraton (one of the ritziest public places in Tianjin) and during the Olympics lots of foreigners will be there and China wants the foreigners to see good looking neighbourhoods, not ugly ones with flat roofs. (Of all the things that could be changed to make things look better in the eyes of foreigners, the shape of the roofs never would have crossed my mind….) Then he went off about how China is still a poor country and not fully developed, and that spending money on projects like this is a waste when so many people need food. Jessica asked him if it was about “face” and he agreed and said, “Yes, it’s about looking good.” He pointed at their open air kitchen, saying that the workers don’t get meat; just cabbage and bǐng (饼 – Chinese biscuit).

While we were talking, two really young looking workers with a wheelbarrow passed by, staring at us. Then they backed up and stood just outside the circle of conversation, and stared at us some more before asking our neighbour first if we were foreigners (we have no idea why) and then if our neighbourhood had a lot of foreigners. We started talking with them, and although they had that shocked look – the one that you get when you discover that the exotic animal in the zoo can speak – they were really friendly, and just a little shy. 18 year olds, working long days far from home (one was I think from Henan province, the other from Hebei). They said we were the first foreigners they’d ever met, but wouldn’t shake my hand, saying their hands were too dirty. We chatted a bit, asked some of the basic questions that always get asked, and then I headed off to the vegetable market.

I’d already planned to talk to this group of migrants as much as possible, since I didn’t with the last couple crews that came through. I figured it might take a few times to really get things warmed up with them – we’ll see how it goes!

p.s. – I am continually glad that we decided to ditch the foreign ghetto that we’d been placed in by our n.g.o. and move into a regular Chinese neighbourhood (as in, a neighbourhood full of Chinese people instead of foreigners). Yes, the plumbing is bad, the toilet’s in the shower, and you get woken up in the morning by groups of old ladies slapping their thighs in unison (assuming the migrant workers hadn’t already started hammering into the roof directly above your bed at 6:30am), but even on the “bad” days, having a friendly community around is so worth it!

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