For the past six weeks, campus has been deserted and The Street – the strip just off campus, stretching to the main highway has been quiet. Shops closed, street vendors gone… everyone went home to celebrate Chun Jie (Chinese New Year).
For the past six weeks, as I drifted in and out of town through my travels, I enjoyed the quiet, peaceful environment. No music blaring at 6:00AM for morning exercise, no clomping in the dorms above me, no shouts and screams. No delectable smells coming from the alley over the wall, no music from the KTV, no impromptu visits and no erratic knocks on my door. No dorm mothers monitoring my activity and my comings and goings, no security personnel to walk past. No farmers to buy fresh produce from and no restaurants to score a quick meal at.
But now they’re back.
The students are back. Singly and in groups, they have repopulated the campus. They bring with them the joy and comfort of home, along with the anticipation of what the new semester will bring. They have girded themselves for another difficult four months of sharing a space smaller than the average bedroom with three to five other people, and living with less luxury, privacy and privilege than prisoners in America do. They’ve already shared their holiday experiences and many have exchanged gifts. Once again they walk arm in arm down The Street, meandering into shops, stopping for a snack, enjoying being free of parental tyranny.
The vendors and shopkeepers are back. As early as 7:00AM you can hear them trundle their roll-up doors, and setting goods out on the sidewalk. You can hear the delivery trucks bringing the latest merchandise to the shops in the hopes of tantalizing the students into spending their money. You can hear the squeaky wheels of the pushcarts as they set up for the day, and in an hour or so, you will smell the food grilling or simmering or baking or steaming right on these self-contained serving carts. The food vendors will occupy the street for more than 14 hours each day, making their few Yuan per serving. They will annoy those who, for the past six weeks, could drive their cars down the uncluttered alleyways.
The migrant workers are back. A whole new crop of migrant workers are now laboring on the construction site at the other end of The Street. They will perform menial tasks such as carrying rebar and scaffolding parts and wooden planks to help build the freeway that is under construction. These men are from villages far west of here, coming to the city in the hopes of earning decent money to send back to their family. They will spend an average of eleven months away from their home and their loved ones, mostly living in shared quarters and working up to sixteen hours a day, 7 days a week.
There is great concern for these migrant workers. Their healthcare is an issue, as well as their mental and emotional well-being, because they are far away from home. They get paid only minimally as the are considered unskilled, but it is still more money than they can hope to earn in their villages. The battle rages over migrant workers because they are needed in the big cities for all of the ongoing construction, as well as across Eastern China to help build and maintain the infrastructure. However, if everyone leaves their village to work construction, who will farm the land?
The Chinese government is currently giving incentives for people to stay at home and farm. Food production is becoming a huge concern because, as people get used to a standard of living akin to the West, more food is consumed per person than was the average even 20 years ago. But, is that money enough to keep farmers on the farm? What about those who are not farmers but can’t survive on the median income of smaller towns and villages? They must find work elsewhere.
I know these are a fresh crop of migrant workers, unused to big city noises or the hustle of constant, hard physical labor. They startle at car horns, they stare at everything and they… gape unabashedly at me. Yes, these migrant workers are fresh from the Western provinces, where foreigners never go. I was at the bus stop just yesterday and a few of the workers just stopped dead in their tracks, slack-jawed and awed at the foreigner standing there, just a few meters away from them. Unfortunately they were in the middle of the road when they stopped dead, and they had to be yanked out from in front of oncoming traffic. In time they will get used to seeing me; I am a fixture in this neighborhood and I do get out a bit. But for now, everything is novel to them, including the tall, blonde woman. They will stare.
For six weeks I’ve not had to endure this staring. I’ve enjoyed watching grandmothers leisurely strolling the uncluttered Street with their little grandbabies; family coming, laden with parcels to visit residents in the alleyways behind the school, and the occasional farmer driving his three-wheeled scooter to parts unknown. For six weeks I’ve enjoyed waking up to my natural rhythm instead of to shouts and stomps, and I’ve enjoyed the view of virgin snow just outside my window. For six weeks I’ve been a lone drifter across the landscape of this campus.
But now they’re back. First as a trickle and then a flood, until masses of people swarm the neighborhood.
Like a hibernating animal shaking off its winter sleep, yawning and stretching, and now foraging for the existence it knew prior to this long hiatus, the community is reverting to the noise and bustle I too had gotten used to before Winter break.
The Street is alive again.