You have to respect the sacrifices made by China’s migrant
workers. Many of the hundreds of millions of people who build the cities, work the factory floors and man the shops and
restaurants have, en masse, left their wives, husbands and children behind. If you could measure the scale of their sacrifice (which you can’t, of course) by multiplying lost time spent with loved ones by the number of migrants, over a period of time, it would surely rank among the biggest peacetime sacrifices in human history.
And I do respect them, of course. But – and I know I’m setting myself up for opprobrium here – in a guilty place at the back of my mind, I have always wondered how they could bring themselves to leave behind their families, especially their children, often for a year at a time. Of course, I know the answer: They do it to give their families a better life. A noble sacrifice indeed – but is it always worth it? Does what is gained make up for what both kids and parents miss out on?
If I ever had any right to question others’ decisions to leave loved ones behind for work, it has now been revoked. I am going to leave my wife and child for several months this summer to do an internship in London. I will be working in the media, which is a far cry from construction, I know, and it’s only for a couple of months. But I do feel guilty about leaving my family – especially, with apologies to my wife, my 2-year-old son, Daniel. True, the internship is partly about improving my career prospects, which could eventually help put more bread in the jar. But unlike many Chinese migrants, for us it’s not really a matter of necessity. And, don’t tell my wife, but I am looking forward to the work I’ll be doing, and to living in (albeit Depression-era) London.
Guilt and expectation are mixed with parental paranoia: Will my
little lad (who is again going through a phase in which “da ren” – literally “hit people” – is his catchphrase, frequently accompanied with a big right slap) go further off the rails without a firm father figure around? Who will fill my role as the health and safety police while I am gone, moving cups of hot tea away from edges of tables, and returning knives to drawers, and disinfecting soiled clothes? And what will happen to Dan’s spoken English, which already lags his Chinese? Above all, I suppose, I’m worried that I’m going to miss him and his mum like mad.
There’s not much I can do about a lot of this, of course, except think of Queen and country, so to speak. On the safety front, at least, I tell myself there’s not too much to worry about. We recently had to find a new ayi, and (just like the last one) she is very careful. Besides, it has been pointed out to me that in terms of minor accidents in which Daniel’s blood was drawn, baba’s safety record is the poorest of all his supervisors. You can make a case that he may be safer without me around.
So far as him going off the rails at 2, or his English vocabulary vanishing while I’m away, I know that’s probably just me thinking too much as usual. But as for the pain of not being here while he changes day by day, that’s inevitable. Skype will be a poor substitute for blowing raspberries on Dan’s belly as he tries to control his giggles long enough to yank my nose off. But, like hundreds of millions of nongmin gong parents over the years, I suppose I will have to live with my decision, and think of the future payoffs. My sacrifice will be slight compared to theirs. Martin Adams