× Dismiss

Never Miss an Update.

Refugees Deeply is designed to help you understand the complex web of geopolitical, human rights, environmental, legal and other factors combining to make the refugee issue one of the most challenging of our lifetimes. Our editors and expert contributors are working around the clock to bring you greater clarity and comprehensive coverage.

Sign up to our newsletter to receive our weekly updates, special reports, and featured insights as we widen the lens on this critical – and quintessentially human – issue.

‘I Am Fan Yusu’: A Chinese Migrant Worker’s Tale

The vast scale of the internal migration underway in China presents one of the greatest integration challenges in the world. In this extract from her essay, which has become a literary sensation in China, Fan Yusu offers a rare personal insight into this struggle.

Written by Fan Yusu Published on Read time Approx. 12 minutes
China poverty migration
People walking on a street in the Heiqiaocun migrant village in Beijing, on February 15, 2017.AFP/Nicolas ASFOURI

My life is like a book that’s dreadful to read – fate has made its bookbinding very messy. I am from Xiangyang in Hubei, and started to do private teaching at the local village school when I was 12.

If I hadn’t left, I would have continued to teach and would have become a proper teacher. But I couldn’t bear to stay in the countryside and view the sky from the bottom of the well, so I came to Beijing. I wanted to see the world. I was 20 years old then. Things were not easy after coming to Beijing. It was mainly because I was lazy and stupid, and because I was not skillful with my hands and feet. What other people could do in half an hour, would take me three hours. My hands were too slow – slower than most people. I worked as a waitress at a restaurant and would drop the tray and break the plates.

I just made enough money to keep myself from starving. I wasted two years in Beijing; I was the type who couldn’t see the flame of my dreams. Then, I rushed myself into marrying a man from the northeast of China. Within a time frame of just five or six years, we had two daughters.

But their father’s business was doing worse and worse, and he started to drink heavily every day and became aggressive. I simply couldn’t bear the domestic violence and decided to take my daughters back to my village in Xiangyang to ask for help. He never even came looking for us. I later heard he went from Mongolia to Russia. He’s probably lying drunk on some Moscow street now. In my hometown, I told my mother that I would go and raise my two daughters myself.

During our childhood, my sister and I used to lie leg-to-leg in bed reading novels. When our eyes got tired, we would chat for a bit. I asked my sister: We’ve read countless biographies, which famous person do you admire the most? My sister said: I cannot see or touch the people described in these books, so they can’t really convince me. The person I admire the most is our brother.

I listened to her, but I could not accept what she said. Sure, we cannot see or touch the people in our books. But out of all the people in our lives that we can see and touch, it is our mother I admire the most. Our brother is nothing but a child prodigy. My mother’s name is Zhang Xianzhi and she was born July 20, 1936. At the age of 14, she was asked to become the director of the local Women’s Federation because she was a good speaker and problem-solver. She started doing that in 1950 and held that job for 40 years, even exceeding the time in power of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi.

However, that is not why I admire my mother. When my mother was only a few years old, she was betrothed by my grandfather to the next-door neighbor, my father. The arrangement would later financially benefit my mother’s brother. My father was a handsome and elegant man in his younger days, but the relationship between my parents was not good at all and they would fight every day. For as long as I can remember, the impression I had of my father was like that of the shadow of a big tree: You can see it but it is of no use.

He did not talk, his health was not good, and he did not have physical strength. The care for the five children in the house was fully in my mother’s hands. My mother was a rural woman who was born in the evil old society, and she had never attended a single day of school. But she picked out the names for me and my four siblings. She named my oldest brother Fan Yun [“yun” for “cloud”], and the younger brother Fan Fei [“fei” for “fly”]. She hoped they would grow up like the dragon and the phoenix, riding the clouds and mounting the mist. She gave us three sisters names that were far more casual.

My oldest sister was named Fan Guiren, meaning that she was conceived when the osmanthus flowers were in bloom. My other sister was born at the time of the plum blossom, so she should have been named Meiren [“plum person”] but because it sounded the same as the word for “moldy person,” it was an unlucky name and she was called Fan Meihua [“plum flower”]. I was the youngest child, born when the chrysanthemum flowers were in bloom, so my mother named me Fan Juren [“ju” for chrysanthemum]. When I was 12, I read that year’s most popular romance novel “Misty Rain,” written by auntie Qiong Yao. I then changed my name into Fan Yusu [“yu” for rain, lit: “the nature of rain”].

From when he was little, my eldest brother would study independently but he had no talent for going to school. Every night he would rather sleep than study and he did not pass the college entrance exam in the first year. The next year he was also not admitted. My brother was upset and said that if he would not pass the college entrance examination he would leave the countryside. He wanted to become a writer and go to town. Our family is very poor, and with my two sisters both being disabled and having to see doctors for many years, we didn’t have a dime. But because brother wanted to be a writer, we had to invest in him. He exchanged the household’s wheat and rice for money and bought literary books and classics for it. Without grain, we ate sweet potatoes. Fortunately, not one of mother’s five children starved to death, and not one child complained that there was not enough food.

My oldest brother read and wrote for several years, but he did not become a writer. He had a very thick literary air about him, he did not care about his appearances, and he would talk a semi-comprehensible gibberish. In the village, these kinds of people would be called “literature drinkers,” much despised like the character Kong Yiji in the work of Lu Xun. However, my brother and Kong Yiji were in different positions, because my brother had our brave mother. Thanks to her, not one person would give my brother a look of disdain.

Mother was very eloquent. When she spoke she sounded like a state leader. She was a matchmaker for a long time, the people in Xiangyang would call her “Red Leaf.” She would not charge a penny and just did it to help out – we would call it a volunteer nowadays. In the early ’80s of the last century in rural areas, every family had many babies, and the boys would grow up and marry, the girls would grow up to be married off. People with a talent like my mother were most welcome. That my oldest brother did not become a writer and never left the countryside was not a pressing matter. But it was a big deal for him to get married.

In the village, people like my brother were called “literary madmen,” not worthy of marrying. But since we had such an awesome mother, who could sell black as white, she turned brother’s shortcomings into an advantage. With my mother’s majestic power and prestige, our dirt-poor household found my big brother a wife as sincere and honest as a spring pagoda tree. After getting married, my oldest brother was still pedantic. He said to mother that although the village government body was small, it was still part of the government’s abuse and corruption.

He wanted my mother to quit her job as village official because he found it disgraceful. At that time, although I was young, I thought my big brother was acting silly; what corrupt officials were nibbling on two sweet potatoes for dinner every night? But my mum did not say anything, and she resigned from the village government after 40 years. Five months after my big sister was born, she got a high fever and developed meningitis.

At that time, the traffic was not convenient, and my mother made my fast-running uncle carry my big sister for 13 miles to the Xiangyang city center hospital. But the hospital could not cure my big sister’s disease. My sister did not have a fever; she was mentally retarded. According to my mother, the injections were too heavy in those days, and she said my big sister had been poisoned by drugs. Big sister was imbecilic, but my mother never gave up.

She believed she had the power to change this. She believed in Western medicine, she believed in Chinese medicine, she believed in spiritual healing – she would hold on to any remote chance. Often someone would come to our home telling us that in this or that place, there was this immortal person or some spirit. Mother would let father help my big sister to pray to a talisman, and to drink spiritual water.

Every time they had hope, and every time they were disappointed. My mother never gave up. My younger older sister had polio. She continuously received medical treatments until the age of 12. She had surgery on her legs and then slowly improved. My mother had five children, and not one of them was worry-free.

I used to be very pretentious. I am my mother’s only healthy little daughter, born when she was nearly 40 years old. During my childhood, my mother was busy and never paid much attention to me. When I was about six or seven years old, I taught myself to read novels. This is not something to boast about since my sister and cousin could read books as thick as bricks. The only thing that made me really proud of myself as a child, was when I read a vertically printed version of “Journey to the West” in traditional characters. No one knew it and no one praised me. It was just me being proud of me.

At that age, it was easy to become arrogant. My grades were the best of my class. I never paid attention to class, instead I revisited the novels I read in my mind. I must have read the novel “Mei Laoyue” a thousand times in my mind. When I was in primary school, the literary publications that came out the most were the “educated youth literature,” which would teach people about escaping train ticket fares, stealing vegetables from fellow villagers, picking fruit, beating the guard dogs of peasant households and schemes to make a dog stew.

Looking at these novels, I felt so happy that we were nibbling on two sweet potatoes for every meal. We didn’t need to steal, didn’t need to fight, there were no people hitting me, and we also had two potatoes, and could do some light reading. At that time, the young me developed a way of thinking that if a person cannot feel happiness or satisfaction in life, they simply aren’t reading enough novels. I didn’t just read educated youth literature, I also read “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Mysterious Island,” “Great Expectations,” “Oliver Twist,” “In the World,” “The Stories of Uncle Lei Feng,” “The Song of Ouyang Hai” or “Golden Light.”

By reading these novels, I became thoroughly familiar with Chinese geography, world geography, Chinese history and world history. Just tell me the name of a place, and I know where in the world it is, in which continent. Name a river and I know in which of the world’s oceans it flows. At the age of 12, I was about to burst. I wrote “walk barefoot to the end of the world” on any blank piece of paper in my room. In the summer vacation when I was 12, I walked away without saying goodbye and went down south to see the big world.

I chose the south because of a story in a magazine I saw in 1982. It was about a philanthropist who was specialized in taking care of homeless children. She took in a boy from the streets who slept in cement pipelines in the winter and whose legs had frozen and had to be amputated. It left a deep impression on me, and I knew that if I would go and wander around Beijing, my legs could freeze and I could lose them.

As I had learned from the 72 tricks from educated youth novels, I sneaked in without a ticket and went to Hainan Island, where flowers bloom all year long. There are papaya and coconut trees on the streets. Lying under the tree, you can eat papaya and drink coconut milk. When I grew tired of eating fruit, I went through garbage bins to find something to eat. It was the lifestyle of the heroes in my books. With my short hair and dirty, unwashed face, I looked like a homeless boy nobody cared about.

Human traffickers couldn’t see my gender and didn’t notice me. But I grew tired of this life. There was no school to go to, there were no novels to read, and there was no mother. I’d wandered around Hainan Island for three months, and decided to return home. I stowed away the entire journey and arrived back to my hometown, returning to my mother’s side. Once I came back, there was only my mother who would still love me with her caring eyes, but my father and eldest brother hated me to the bone and said I had made them lose face.

In the village, my oldest male cousin from my father’s side went to my mother and said I had made the entire family Fan lose face and that she should give me a good beating and drive me away. At this time, the 12-year-old me experienced an awakening. In our Xiangyang village, if baby sons (boys) would leave for several days and come home, it would be a trivial matter. But if a baby girl (daughter) would only leave the home, she would be like the eloped criminal from classic novels. In our village, no girl had ever done such a thing.

By leaving home, I had hurt my virtue and shamed my family. I was embarrassed to face people and was too ashamed to go to school. The crucial point was that I also did not have the courage to wander off. How could I go on living? I was just surviving. Mother did not abandon me. This time, my child prodigy second eldest brother had finished college, and as a person with a high IQ and EQ became an official. Mother ordered my child prodigy brother to seek a private teacher’s job for the 12-year-old me.

He let me teach in a remote primary school and found a place for me. The years slipped away and crumbled. In the blink of an eye, mother’s five children were all grown up. My mother had searched for a medical treatment for my oldest sister for 20 years but still had not cured her illness. In the year my sister turned 20, she caught a high fever and medical treatment was ineffective. She died. My second elder sister grew up and became a literature teacher at a rural middle school. When she was teaching, her gifted scholarly boyfriend went to Shanghai to seek a different future.

My sister, a thousand classical poems stored in her mind, bitterly said: “Only those who cannot read a single character have a poetic quality.” My sister then found an illiterate man who had not attended a single day of school and hastily made arrangements for herself. My oldest brother was still in the village working on the land. While he was weeding, spading and shoveling, his dreams of becoming a writer were shattered. Big brother is still farming now, and he lives his days in bitterness. He is no longer asking why, nor lamenting his faith.

My second brother who was already accomplished at a young age had turned to gambling at the age of 40. Maybe it was because he had too much luck as an official, but there was only one word for my brother’s gambling: losing. My brother took on high-interest loans after losing his money. Before long, he could no longer pay off his debts and would spend every day running, moving and hiding to shake off debt collectors. He also lost his official title. Due to the hypocrisy of the world, my brother had no friends or family left.

Late at night, he would pace back and forth over the Han River bridge. At this time, my mother stood up and consoled my brother all the time. Mum said that her 40-year-old son was a good kid. That it was not his fault, that he was misguided by his government official friends. My mother said that she was sorry that she had not let my brother stay in school longer.

If he could have returned, he might have passed the university exam in such a way that he would be admitted to a university in a big city, and would have become a government official of a major metropolis, where the officials are of high quality and where he would not be misguided and would not have become a gambling addict. Mother said: You’re not dead, the debt is not bad, there’s nothing to be afraid of – just keep on living a good life. With my mother’s love, my brother is still living strong.

This extract was translated by Manya Koetse. A full translation of the entire essay can be found on What’s On Weibo.

Become a Contributor.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more