Nearly all of my mornings in Jincheng begin with a trip around the corner to the Luo 罗family baozi 包子 (Chinese steamed buns) shop, which makes the best baozi I have had in Sichuan. In the past few weeks, as I have chatted with the Luos each morning when I come out to buy breakfast, I have learned the moving story that brought them to this street corner in Jincheng. Their story is a powerful example of the dilemmas facing the rural families struggling to make a living in contemporary China.
Originally from a small village close to the nearby town of Rixing, Mrs. Luo and her husband only just opened their baozi shop two years ago. Before that, they spent five years in Beijing doing migrant work, mostly working in hotels. Two years ago, however, they felt the pull to return home. “We’re not young anymore,” Mrs. Luo explained to me, “we decided it was time to come back. All of our family is here, this is our home. In a person’s life, you have to return home eventually.” Their daughter, Luo Jia 罗佳, who is 26, also worked outside the home for several years, selling makeup supplies in Chengdu and Chongqing. However, when her parents decided to move back home, it was decided that the two of them could not manage the shop by themselves and she came back to help.
The pull of family is strong in rural China. However, in talking with the Luos, I was struck by the difficult tradeoff that they faced in deciding to return to Yilong. Migrant labor has a lot of perks that simply cannot be replicated working back in one’s rural hometown. Not only are the wages much higher, but the hours are more relaxing. “We made enough money, but we still had enough time to see Beijing and to have fun occasionally,” she explained to me. On the other hand, stable economic opportunities are scarce in Yilong. “There’s no money to be earned in this place,” she explained to me. The family sells 10 big steamers of buns a day for 0.5 RMB a piece, but earns only 0.05RMB of profit for each one. Mantou brings in a slightly higher profit of 0.1 RMB each, giving the family just enough to get by.
Luo Jia, their daughter, similarly faced hard sacrifices in coming home to help her parents. She shared with me the struggle to readjust to small-town life after the fast pace of a big city. “When I first came back here, I was depressed, all I could think about was how there’s nothing here, no technology, no culture, nothing to do for fun.”
While being close to family helped her get re-accustomed to the rural setting, Luo Jia’s life still lacks much of the flexibility that she had gotten used to in the city. “When I was in Chongqing I only had to worry about taking care of myself. Now that I’m back here, and I’m responsible for helping to support the family, I’m under a lot more pressure. I don’t have the freedom to do what I want with my time like I did in Chongqing.” The hours at the baozi store are long, leaving Luo Jia little time left over for herself. The first time we talked, she asked for my account number in the Chinese online chat program QQ. However, she glumly admitted that she doesn’t get the chance to chat online often. “In Chongqing I could use the internet whenever I wanted.”
Many of the families in Yilong with whim I have spent time face this tradeoff between the higher wages and greater flexibility of migrant work on one hand, and the stability and family ties of working at home on the other. This dilemma, furthermore, gets at the heart of what ARDY’s microfinance initiative is trying to accomplish here. One of ARDY’s primary objectives in distributing microfinance loans is to fund sustainable opportunities for economic advancement in Yilong, so that peasants do not have to sacrifice economic stability in order to stay at home full-time.