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My Life as a Migrant Worker

Attorney Gao Zhisheng recalls his life as a migrant worker after dropping out of middle school.

It was in late 1980. When I told my mother that I had been accepted by a prestigious high school, she didn’t say anything. Instead, she turned her back to me and sat on the threshold. Since then, we never mentioned the subject again. My 14-year-old brother had to quit school at that time. We became the youngest migrant workers in our county.

Back then, in the county capital, one could make one yuan (US$1 is about 8 yuan) for a 12-hour shift carrying rocks at a construction site. After weighing different options, my brother and I decided to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Therefore, right after the Chinese New Year in 1981, we left our tearful mother and began our journey as migrant workers.

Our first stop was Yan’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. As we walked on the street with our bedding on our backs, we felt lost and scared. Soon we learned that one could make only 1.2 yuan a day for carrying rocks but would often end up without getting paid at all. We finally went to Huang-ling County, which is 200 kilometers (125 miles) away from Yan’an.

We worked as lumberjacks for the first six months and then did road construction for three months. We put ourselves in harm’s way and endured nine months of inhuman labors. Then one day, after a long day’s work, we went back to the place where we usually ate and slept only to find that the foreman and his relative, who used to cook for us, had both disappeared. They had left without paying us a penny. Everyone burst into tears. My brother was screaming. I walked over, held him in my arms, and we both cried.

After nine months, still penniless, we made a tough decision to become coal miners.

"Mining’s dangerous; mining’s tough. Nine out of ten will not survive." For generations, that’s how the locals described a miner’s miserable life. No one would want to go down into the mines if he had any other choice for making a living.

My brother and I picked a mine where we could make one yuan for each ton of coal we hauled out.

I had two worries. I worried about the possible collapse that could kill or injure my brother. I also worried that someone might bully him. It had happened before. Every time I heard some loud scolding, my heart would jump into my throat. I would pause and listen carefully to make sure that it was not my brother who was being berated.

The foreman used different excuses for delaying our pay. He kept promising that we would eventually get paid in full. The local miners were not easily pushed, and they usually got paid in full every month.{mospagebreak}

My brother was only 14 at the time but was more productive than I was. I had never hauled more than nine tons of coal a day, but his daily output was never below 12 tons. The highest was 17 tons.

During those days, we were physically exhausted but mentally excited. We were living in an abandoned, doorless, windowless cave dwelling. Every day we marked on the wall the amount of money we would bring home to our mother. We wrote numbers that only we could understand.

Whenever we thought about this, we had joyful tears in our eyes. However, these numbers never turned into real money. After six months of slave labor, my worst nightmare came true.

The coal pit collapsed. My brother was wailing with pain. I forgot my own fear and rushed to my brother’s rescue. Carrying him on my back, I scrambled to a safe place. I put him down on the ground and ran like a crazy man to our dining place where I found some newspapers. I quickly ran back and burned the newspapers. I scooped up the ashes and put them on my brother’s wound. Then I carried him out of the pit.

We barely made it to a place to rest. Before I had a chance to lay my brother down, the owner kicked us out.

That started another miserable chapter in our lives. I had to work for the local farmers in exchange of crackers and water to save my brother.

After more than 40 days of rest, my brother was fully recovered. By then, 19 months had gone by since we had left home, and we were still penniless despite the fact that we had worked like slaves. We decided that my brother would go to Xi’an to look for work, and I would stay where I was.

I talked to the farmer I was working for and asked to be paid in advance for 20 days of wages-14 yuan (0.7 yuan a day)-so I could pay for my brother’s bus ticket to Xi’an.

My work with the farmer ended 23 days later. The farmer himself was also poor. When I was ready to leave, to my surprise, he held me in his arms and burst into tears. "How come your life is so miserable? You’re such a nice kid. You could have simply disappeared after you got paid in advance. But instead, you worked for me for three additional days." He tried to squeeze two yuan into my hand and pushed me to hit the road. I refused to take the money. I bowed to his family for having taken good care of my brother and left.

What I did afterward was, in hindsight, a big mistake.{mospagebreak}

I could not get over the fact that my brother and I had been kicked out of the coal mine without getting paid a penny. I thought that I had the right to ask the owner, named An, to pay us. Besides, I was penniless and could not go home anyway. So I put in quite some effort to find out where An lived. To please An, I volunteered to harvest his crops during the day and slept in his cowshed at night. Of course it was a senseless move. I wasted another 40 days and became really desperate.

I did some hard thinking during those 40 days. I realized that being a migrant worker offered no light at the end of the tunnel. I decided to go home first and then join the army.

It was not an easy decision to make. However, it paled in comparison to the difficulties of actually getting home. I was penniless, and home was 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. Nevertheless, I began the journey. This was my only hope for survival.

I walked about 45 kilometers (28 miles) the first day and reached the downtown of Huangling County. The only thing I was thinking about was how to get something to eat, since I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink on the road. I went to a few state-owned cafeterias to beg for food. I even took my clothes off, hoping to exchange them for some food. None of my efforts worked. In despair, I walked on the narrow street of Huangling with an empty stomach.

My spirits lit up when I saw an army officer stepping off a military truck across the street. Back then, people truly believed the propaganda that "the People’s Liberation Army serves the people wholeheartedly." I walked over to my "beloved" officer, squatted down, and grabbed his leg.

While tears ran down my cheeks, the words poured out about my ordeals. But when I looked up, I found that my "beloved" PLA officer was not listening at all. He was staring at a girl walking toward him. Apparently he wasn’t even aware of my presence. Disappointed, I quickly left him.

All I could do was to sleep at the entrance of the long-distance bus station so I could follow its route home the next day. I didn’t know how long I had slept. I felt someone’s hand on my head. I didn’t even have the energy, physical or mental, to feel scared.

"Hey kid, why are you sleeping here in such cold weather?" Someone squatted down next to me.

"I’m starved to death," I answered.

"Poor kid, come with me."{mospagebreak}

I followed him to a cave dwelling. He turned the light on, and I saw he was an old man. On his shoulder, he was carrying a mason’s tool commonly seen in this area. It was made of half a basketball. He put me down on his bed. All I can remember now is he went to the other room and came back with some flour on a plate. He poured the flour into a washbowl and started to knead the dough. Soon, there was a half washbowl of noodle soup in front of me. I gobbled it up and hit the pillow, drifting to sleep in the darkness.

I had no idea how long I slept until the old man woke me up. "Kid, let’s get up. It’s time to go." I opened my eyes and saw him smoking a pipe in front of me. "Here is the bus ticket to Yan’an. Here is five yuan. That’s all I can offer. I’m also poor. I make only 1.5 yuan a day. Take the money, OK?"

Without saying a word, I took the money and followed the old man to the bus station.

I arrived in Yan’an in the afternoon. I spent 14 fen (2 U.S. cents) for seven dumplings and another five fen for a cooked lamb hoof. I spent the night in front of the bus station again.

When I got up the next morning to follow the bus to Suide County, my legs were numb from sleeping on the icy ground overnight. I didn’t have any feeling in my legs until I had walked quite a while.

After walking about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles), I saw a man by the roadside busily working on his truck. Subconsciously, I picked up his bucket. Seeing that he did not stop me, I sensed that I was close to something I had been hoping for. Twice I walked half a kilometer to fetch water for him.

We didn’t say a word to each other. When the truck was ready to leave, he signaled to me to get on. I was so excited that I was ready to climb onto the passenger’s seat, but he grabbed me and pointed to the back. I understood him and got in the back.

After a long day’s journey, I reached Suide County. I was only 95 kilometers (60 miles) away from home!

The driver never said a word to me during the entire journey. He pulled the truck over and asked where I wanted to be dropped off. I asked him to drop me off at the long-distance bus station if it wasn’t too much trouble. I was afraid of getting lost.

I slept again in front of the bus station. By midnight, I was awakened by some heavy kicks. Someone was shouting at me, "You petty thief! Who allowed you to sleep here? We’re the militia patrol. You’re arrested."{mospagebreak}

They started to search my body. Obviously they were disappointed with the results. One of them fiercely kicked me again and cursed, "You wretch! Do you carry any ID?"

I didn’t say a word. I was relieved that the 4.8 yuan I had hidden in my shoe were safe.

Apparently they didn’t want to carry around a penniless kid as they continued on their patrol. They turned me over to the old man who was the guard at the bus station. "We’ll deal with you in the morning!" they warned me and left.

The fire the old man was using to keep warm reminded me how cold it was outside. It wasn’t until then that I realized that the warmth had drained from my body. Actually I had to thank the patrollers for "arresting" me because without them, I might have died from the cold.

I had nothing to fear anymore. I couldn’t be in any worse situation. Nonetheless, I worried that what might happen next could destroy my chance to join the army. I cried and begged the old man to let me go. I told him that I wanted to change my fate by joining the army.

The old man didn’t utter a word. When I finished talking, he left the room and locked the door from outside. I figured he was tired of my story.

To my surprise, the old man soon returned. He took out two big boiled yams and started to roast them on the fire. Still, he did not say anything. I began to have an uneasy feeling.

When the old man finally opened his mouth, my fate took a drastic change.

"Come, kid. Hurry up and eat up the yams while they’re still hot. Then leave here as soon as you finish eating. It’s almost dawn. If those patrollers come back and see you, they’ll beat you up badly. Those bastards dare to do anything. I work here and I’m old. They can’t do anything to me."

Although I had no intention of seeing the patrollers again, I had to thank them for taking me from the freezing outdoors to the heated indoors. Furthermore, after having nothing to eat or drink for nearly 40 hours, I was able to fill my stomach again.

When dawn came, I was a dozen kilometers away from Suide County.{mospagebreak}

When I was about a dozen kilometers away from Mizhi, I saw a grain truck from Jia County (my hometown) slowly climbing a slope. Without any hesitation, I threw my bedding on the back and climbed onto the truck. But when the truck reached the flat road, I sensed that something was wrong. The truck was slowly pulling over to the roadside. It was going to stop!

I quickly tossed my bedding on the road, jumped out of the truck and ran toward the wheat field as fast as I could until I couldn’t run anymore. The driver finally caught me and kicked me. I started to cry but not because of his kicking. I was pouring out all my grievances with my tears.

"Can’t you stop crying?"

I was surprised that the guy didn’t leave.

"Maybe I shouldn’t have kicked you. I frequently haul relief grain on this road. On this slope, people often climb onto my truck and steal the grain. I thought you were one of them. Now tell me where you want to go."

That good-hearted driver gave me a lift to Jia County!

I had planned to get home in 20 days. Instead, it took me only three days. I was penniless when I left Huangling County. By the time I got home, I had 4.8 yuan. When I gave the money to my mother, whom I had not seen for nearly two years, her face was covered with tears.

In November 2003, the Power Plant in Huangling County retained me for a legal case. Thus I was able to revisit the place where I had worked as a coal miner 22 years earlier. I went to the village where An, the owner, used to live. An’s family was quite influential in the area back then. An had died in his early 50s several years earlier. His brother was a hunchback. After so many years, I recognized him immediately when I saw him.

"Boss An the Second," I addressed him as I had back then.

He looked me up and down with a wooden face. "Do I know you? Who are you? No one has called me that for many years."

His wife suspected that I was some town government cadre. "What do you want from him?" she asked. Calmly I recounted the ordeal my brother and I had suffered in the mine pit and how we had been kicked out.{mospagebreak}

Still showing no expression on his face, An the Second turned around and lowered his head. "You can’t make up a story like this. There was no such thing. I’m not the guy you are looking for."

I told him that I didn’t come for money. Also, 20 years of time had turned a sharp cut into a dull memory.

Walking from memory, I found An’s house and pointed out the locations where the coal miners used to cook and sleep. An the Second actually smiled. He tapped my shoulder and said, "Kiddo, this is fate. This is fate."

Then he began telling me his story.

By 1982, he had saved more than 300,000 yuan (US$37,500). His son, who’s one year younger than I am, got married in late 1982. His grandchild suffered serious polio, and he spent all his savings on his grandchild’s medical bills.

"I finally got it all figured out and quit the business," he said. "Take it easy now. Man never has the final say."

Written on January 30 and 31, 2006, in the cave dwelling in northern Shaanxi.

Translated by CHINASCOPE from The Epoch Times.