Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

Li Jianying

Working for Myself

I am an ordinary country woman with four years of primary school education.[1]

The year I started out as a migrant worker I was only fifteen years old. At that time my family was very poor. So as to help alleviate our family's poverty, after each spring planting season, my sister, who was two years older than me, and I went with other women from the village to a rice growing area in the neighbouring county to work as day labourers. We planted rice seedlings. At that time of the year, even though the weather was turning warm, the water in the rice paddy was still icy cold during the morning and the evening. Every morning as it grew light, my sister and I would already be in the icy cold muddy water, barefooted. There was not a moment's rest from bending down to plant the seedlings, because each mu planted would earn another twenty yuan[2] and that would be enough to buy a bag of flour. I was seduced by the meagre pay, so that even though my back hurt from bending over I was never willing to stand up and stretch a little. Sometimes my feet would cramp from the cold water, but that was not enough to make me give up. At midday, we would sit on the wet bank bordering the paddy, and, wiping the sweat off with our clothes, we'd gnaw the corn cakes and scallions that we'd brought from home. When we were thirsty we would run to the pump and fill ourselves up with cold water from the well.[3] In the evenings we'd be covered in mud and we'd lift our legs, heavy as lead, and hurry home unsteadily.

Even though it was exhausting, I was happy. With the thirty odd yuan that my sister and I earned from planting rice in our pockets, our happiness was beyond expression. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we would fantasise about how to spend the money and how our parents would praise us. One day we worked very late. On our way home it was late at night and pitch black, so that holding out your hand you couldn't see your fingers. The other girls had all left with their bicycles. Only my sister and I were left behind because we couldn't ride bicycles. Our hearts pounded with fear. In this place in the middle of nowhere what were we going to do if we ran into a bad person? The cawing of a crow and the sound of its flapping wings scared us so that our hair stood on end. My sister and I leant against each other and our feet unconsciously sped up. After a while, the voice of our younger brother came to us. It turned out that my parents, watching the sky grow dark, but not being able to see me and my sister, had sent our younger brother and some other people to find us.

I planted rice seedlings every year for five years. Our family had lots of land and not enough farm hands, and also I was still very young, so my parents wouldn't let me leave home to work far away. But every year during this short month my sister and I made between 800 and 1000 yuan. When I proudly handed over a pile of cash to my father, his wrinkled old face would light up with a smile.

The year I turned twenty, I started life as a real migrant worker. I went to a restaurant in Harbin to work as a waitress. Every day I got up at four o'clock in the morning and worked continuously until eleven or twelve at night when the restaurant closed. I served food, washed the dishes, looked after the guests and cleaned up the tables and chairs. I was so busy my feet hardly touched the ground, but still I was often scolded by the boss. Overwork, poor wages and not enough sleep made all the waitresses exhausted, and we all wanted to leave. The boss didn't let us go, and threatened to hold onto our belongings and our wages. This threat was really effective. As you'd expect, the other waitresses stopped asking to leave. But I couldn't stand it, and lied, saying that I needed to see the doctor, and I left the restaurant with nothing. After that, I worked as a shop assistant, as a labourer in a brick factory and I made plaster figures in a craft factory ... all strenuous and poorly paid jobs. I could put up with low pay, but what I couldn't put up with was insults from the boss. I can do without anything except my dignity.

For the sake of my dignity I ditched one boss after another and changed from one job to another. Finally, I thought to myself, how come all the bosses I met were of the same nature? I decided to learn a skill and work for myself. In line with my level of education, I went to a hairdressing and beauty school to study hairdressing.

In the school, I went to great pains with my study and practised hard. Some students were a bit timid, and didn't dare have a go. Often they hurt their customers and once they made a mistake they didn't dare try again. I didn't worry too much about such things. Otherwise, what was the point of paying more than 1000 yuan in fees and coping with just two pancakes and a glass of water for meals every day? Wasn't it in order to learn a real trade and skills so that I could run my own business? So it was that I finished the required three months' apprenticeship in a month and a half. The principal and the teachers were all very pleased with me, saying I could set up on my own. Afterwards, I ran back and forth to the trade, tax, and public health bureaus to obtain a permit and registration. Braving the hot sun, I went in search of a place to start a hairdressing salon.

The hairdressing salon opened as planned. I felt so fulfilled. In less than a year I paid back all the debts my family owed. Later on, with a fellow student from the school, I ran a beauty parlour for two years.

Now I am married and have a family. Holding my one-year-old daughter, I think back on my bitter days as a migrant worker, and I think how tiring and full of hardship my life was. I can't help my bitter tears falling onto the face of my daughter, sleeping in my arms. I can't bear looking back on those years, but they've left indelible memories.


[1] Li Jianying's story was originally published in Nongjianü Baishitong [Rural Women Knowing All], 7, (1999): 28-29, translated by Tamara Jacka and Song Xianlin.

[2]One mu = 0.0667 hectares. One yuan = US$0.1.

[3] Most Chinese readers would consider this a potential health risk. The usual preference is to drink hot, boiled water.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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