First Person: No soft landing for returned women migrants
Gender | Labour and Migration | First Person
In Xinzheng (新政), a town 40 kilometres to the south of Zhengzhou in Henan, a Returned Migrant Women’s Friendly Association (返乡打工妹联谊会) provides mutual aid for its thirty members and other women who want to start their own businesses. Christine Warmer met Gao Wei, Li Feng and Yang Yi, who helped found the Association in 1999. Having also started businesses, the three women are regarded as success stories. But success isn’t their whole story, as they tell here in their own words.
Gao Wei: "You don’t always get what you want"
I was born in 1976, Year of the Dragon. I’m a country girl through and through, the fifth of six children. My parents wanted me to be like a boy, so they gave me a boy’s name, Gao Wei. Right from when I was born my family really loved me, maybe too much. They brought me up to be self-confident, strong and independent, though I have a bit of a temper. If I want to do something, no matter how hard it is, I’ll reach my goal.
The year I was in the second grade at high school, things were pretty hard at home. Because we were six kids there were a lot of things, money things. I have three older brothers, one younger brother and an elder sister. My brother had just started junior middle school. If I didn’t drop out of school he’d have to. In those days it wouldn’t do for a boy to have no schooling, I knew that, but even though I loved school I made the sacrifice. At least I’d made it to high school, but there’d be no more studying for me.
Back home, you’d call it the confidence of youth, a teacher of mine asked me what I dreamed of being when I grew up, and I said I’d like to be in the People’s Armed Police. My dream was passing the entrance exams for military college. My teacher asked who the person I admired the most was. I said it was Empress Wu Zetian, I wanted to be a talented woman like her when I grew up. She had her ups and downs, but her reign was glorious. Even if I never got famous, I’d live a glorious life too. I didn’t want to live a dull, ordinary life. I was very self-confident, but things in life taught me there’s a big difference between your dreams and reality and you don’t always get what you want.
I’d already left school by then; I was going to work, earning money, earning my own money by my own work. I was earning good money back then, 150 a month. That was back in 1993, I’d spend 50 a month and save the other 100. The way I felt then, I didn’t want to go back to school, I’d never realize those old dreams, all I thought about was money, making money. I realized how important money was. I went away to work, and was lucky enough to land a job in a hospital as a general orderly. Working there, I got interested in nursing. I studied by myself and passed the entrance exam for the Zhengzhou School of Hygiene. But when I showed my parents the letter of acceptance my dad said no way could I go. They had no money and plenty of debts. My elder brothers were only a couple of years older than me and would be getting married soon, and they’d need money for that. To tell the truth, even back in my school days our family never had enough to eat. The grain we grew wasn’t enough to feed us, still less have any left to sell. Other families at least had enough to eat, but we were six kids. So I dropped out a second time. That was in 1995, there were no grants or scholarships back then. That was the second time I had an opportunity come my way and I passed it up just like that. A friend helped me get a job and I was working again.
In 1996, when I’d just turned 20, I got married. My husband had been introduced to me by an acquaintance. You want a good man, with enough money, at least one who can earn his own keep. This was a new start. I got married so young because I wanted to get going as soon as possible, I didn’t want to waste any more of my youth! Imagine if I’d hung around at home another four or five years. So I got married.
My husband is a quite open-minded person. After we got married he encouraged me to find something I wanted to do in life, not just hang about doing nothing. He wasn’t the sort who marries someone then just leaves her at home. He knew what I was like, and he encouraged me to do something I’d like and that I could show my worth at.
By then our family was doing OK, all my brothers were getting on pretty well. One brother had gone into partnership with a few others in a beauty salon. He wanted me to work there, but he didn’t come to ask me about it, he asked my husband first, who then asked me what I thought about it. He thought it would suit me because I’m an outgoing person who shouldn’t be stuck at home all the time not seeing other people. I said yes.
I’d been working at the salon about a month when my brother said I ought to go off and study, consolidate my skills. He said he was away a lot and would need me to look after things for him. He found me a school, but I didn’t have much money and my brother couldn’t afford to pay everything for me; though he did offer to pay my fees if I could find the money for bed and board myself. My husband wasn’t working for the airline then, just some labouring job. He supported me, sent me money every month. I was very selfish then–-if it wasn’t for him there’s no way I’d have gone to school.
I chose a beauty care and hairdressing school in Xi’an. The fees were affordable and I had distant relatives there who were willing to let me live with them for free. Graduates of the school got certification that meant you could sell a famous brand of cosmetic products. So I went there. A classmate helped me get part time work in a local beauty parlour. I worked every day after class. I’d get there at half past four and work til gone ten. The boss only paid when you’d gone enough hours to make a full day. I was earning about 260 yuan at month. If I wasn’t serving a customer they’d have me to do all the odd jobs, even washing clothes, all the menial stuff. It’s a hard life away from home. My husband was earning around 300 yuan per month back then. He needed 200 for his living expenses, and he would send me the other 100. My uncle helped out too.
So when I wasn’t studying I was working. The bosses’ wife was pretty mean. If I came in late, even just 10 minutes, she’d dock my pay, or dock it and bawl me out. And she had me hard at it all the time, even though I tried explaining my situation to her.
Six o’clock was dinner break at the parlour but they didn’t feed me. I had to wait until I finished work at 10, when I go home and have a couple of packets of instant noodles. That’s how I lived for a year until I graduated. I went straight back home and started working in my brother’s salon again.
What happened next knocked me a bit sideways. In 1997 I gave birth to my son. Of course I had to spend all my money on him after that. I kept working in the shop for another two years though, up to the winter of 1998. I’d given my son to my mother in law to look after when he was three months old. I’d get off work any time between 6 pm and 11 pm depending on how busy we were. I’d ride my motorbike back to my mother-in-law’s where I was staying too while my boy was so small.
I remember, it was a night in November in 1998, after 11 pm. I’d just seen off the last costumer, a young lad in his early twenties. I was all ready to go home, went to get my bike but I saw it had snowed. So I went back into the shop and called my mother-in-law to tell her that I wouldn’t be able to get back that night. But she said that the baby had a fever and I had to go back.
My boss, who was a relative of my brother’s partner, was planning to sleep over to look after the shop and she wanted me to stay with her. There’d been some differences between my brother and his partner already. Anyway, I said no, I had to go because my baby was sick, even if it is the middle of the night and snowing. She said, “If you go out that door tonight, don’t bother ever coming back.” I told her that her threats didn’t mean anything and I was going anyway. I was really angry and feeling pretty low as I started pushing my bike out into the road, pulling my thin cotton jacket tight.
I remember what happened next really clearly. I’d just turned onto Dawo Road when I heard some calling to me from across the street. It was the young man who’d been our last customer. He said: “Sister, sister, where are you going this late? It’s half past eleven and it’s snowing, what are you doing?” I said I’m going home; I’ve just had a row with my boss. He was very good, he made me promise to wait and then he ran off. A few minutes later he was back; he’d run home to fetch a leather jacket to lend me. It made me feel warmer inside just taking it off him.
After this happened I said I wouldn’t work there any more but I had to carry on. But I was determined to become independent and make my own decisions for myself. But this incident had another big impact on me; it showed me there were people who cared about me. Not everybody was so unfeeling, and it helped me to be better about how I treat other people. I still think about it when I’m feeling down, and it also reminds me that even when things gets bad now, it used to be a lot worse. I usually try not to let people see my softer side though.
My husband is the kind of person who expects people to make their own decisions. It wasn’t much good taking problems to him and I rarely bothered. He assumed I was a strong woman and left me to deal with anything that happened at home.
My husband understands what a hard time I was having back then and the kind of pressure I was under because of work. It’s not the kind of thing it’s easy to talk about, even with friends.
I wanted to realise my potential, and this workshop [held for women migrant workers in 2000 in Xinzheng] helped me believe that I am capable and that I ought to try and do something for myself. I don’t want to have to rely on other people anymore. I’ve always been quite an independent woman.
I finally managed to open my own beauty salon in September 2000. I sorted everything out by myself. My husband had started working at the airline by then; he was very busy, hardly ever at home. He left the salon completely up to me. All the administration stuff, permits, tax, even hiring the staff, I did by myself. It’s hard for a woman to get these kinds of things done with no help--even getting the shop decorated was hard. I was always exhausted, working late, barely sleeping, hardly knew what time it was.
I told myself I had to see it through, no matter how hard it was. I was only 25 in 2000. It seems part of growing as a woman is putting yourself through it like that. I used to be so sensitive; I’d be in tears at the slightest setback.
It was hard at first with cash-flow problems, but thanks to my training I was able to contract-manage other people’s shops too once I’d got my own up and running.
I’d learned the hard way what working for an uncaring boss could be like, so I made sure that anyone who worked for me wouldn’t have a bad word to say about the experience. I made sure they got contracts, which is more than I ever got. Having done it myself I’m more sympathetic to my workers.
My life has taught me the true value of being an independent woman. I’d count myself as an empowered woman with a vocation, well at least by the standards of this little county town. I can handle looking after a family and a business at the same time and make a success of it.
People can say what they like, but they have to admit I earn for myself and I think for myself. I don’t need anyone’s say-so; I sort things out for myself.
When I was little my parents had it hard. Now I do everything I can to make their lives easier, and I don’t stint the money. My mum’s just an old farmer’s wife, but I’ve bought her gold earrings and nice clothes to wear. I visit them at least once a week no matter how busy I am. It’s the same with my husband’s mother.
The money for opening the shop came from what I’d saved from my wages and also from my husband, who was earning quite well by then. He came up with most of the initial capital. Now I’d like to expand the business, open a bigger shop, make a success of this beauty business.
Of course, in a way I am also a quite traditional woman. I want my family life and the business to both go well. I would never sacrifice my family for my career. A woman who wants success has to do twice the work and put in twice as much of herself. She’s under pressure from all sides. I’ve been asked how’ve I’ve dealt with the men I meet in business, whether any of them have tried it on, whether you need a man to protect you from that, whether you’ve used men to get ahead. Well, I’ve never had trouble handling that. The key is self-respect and trust in you marriage. Of course I’ve had my run-ins and there’ve been misunderstandings, it’s unavoidable, but mutual trust and respect between me and my husband have got us through it.
I do feel tired and burned out now. I’m looking after my son, running my business and running a home. It’s all down to me, but I don’t mind the tiredness. It’s worth it if it means I can keep doing the thing I want to.
Li Feng: To her son, “just a voice on the end of the line”
I failed the entrance examinations so I couldn’t get into university, and I didn’t want to study to try again. I made a bundle of my textbooks and burned them. I wanted to be rid of them completely. Failing the entrance exams really hit me, I hadn’t expected it, and hadn’t planned what I’d do if I didn’t go to university. I felt really stressed. I just hung around at home for a long time without looking for a job. I didn’t feel like doing anything--going out, studying--I did nothing, I just stayed at home. My father wanted me to go out to work, he said I couldn’t just stay at home forever. He helped me get a typing job at the Justice Department in Xinzheng. I worked there for four years. In the second year I was made head of department. That was when I was 19. But the office was closed down and I ended up back home again. I’d been at home for about three months when the boss of a textiles wholesaler came to our house and asked if I’d like to work for them. I refused at first, but he came back several times and eventually I accepted his offer of a job as a buyer. I worked for him for a couple of years, travelling to Hangzhou, Shanghai, Dalian, Qingdao, lots of places. The business was booming and in those years my boss was making plenty of money. Not me though, I was just a worker on a wage.
Going out in to the world of work broadened my horizons, I realised it’s a big world out there. Also I got to know city life, which seemed more civilized and refined. I saw a lot and learned a lot but I didn’t really think too much about it or make concrete plans to move to the city. Lots of young people from the countryside were doing that then. Why not me? Because I was only there to do my job. If you’re not the boss, you don’t think about other possibilities.
The years went by; I got married and gave birth to my son. My husband got a chance to work in Xiamen in Fujian. He went first on his own. I stayed behind running a little business I had got going together with my cousin. I could take my son with me doing that. Whenever my husband called he’d always be on about how much more developed and prosperous Xiamen and the coast were than our hometown. He wanted me to join him. But our son was still very small. But in the end I decided to go. I sold the business and got my mother to look after the boy.
When I arrived in Xiamen it turned out to be much harder to get a job than I’d expected. The whole place is full of people on the make. I don’t have any special skills or even qualifications. You go there for work, because of the difficult job situation at home, but it’s no easier there. I spent two months without finding a job. During that time I felt anxious, I couldn’t bear it any longer, so I decided to teach myself a skill. I went to my sister-in-law’s who’d already been in Xiamen for two years and learned how to use a computer and how to type. I also studied a little bit English and did a lot of reading. I don’t like not getting on in life, so rather than sit around with no job it was good to study. I also just wandered the streets, seeing what was going on, trying to see what sort of business was doing well. My husband managed to get me a job as a cleaner in the sanatorium run by the Ministry of Railways where he was working as a cook. After a year he got a job in a torch factory where the pay was a lot better than in the sanatorium. We only met on the weekends, he’d come to me. The sanatorium was a pretty nice place. It seemed to me that the Northerners I was working for were more kind and sincere. I worked hard for them and the wages were good. They trusted me and were kind so I was happy to make an effort for them.
The way it is in Xiamen and along the coast, people are much more conscientious and value time and punctuality more than folks back home. The environment is very beautiful and very clean and it seems like it’s green and spring-like all year round. I remember coming back from a day’s swimming at the seaside and feeling so fresh and clean. Everywhere you go there’s flowers in bloom, it’s so beautiful!
The locals seem so much more sophisticated than us people from inland. Their attitude to time is so different too. One person may hold down three jobs at once; sometimes you see people walking down the streets eating lunch out of a takeaway box on their way to their next job! Then in the evenings they’re out working as traders on the streets. Yes they have money there but they have to work very hard for it.
So how come we came back home after only two years? In our second year in Xiamen I called my parents one time, when my son was about three years old. My mother let him speak to me on the phone. She said “Why don’t you cry for your mum?” But the idea of ‘mum’ just didn’t exist for my boy. When we left him, he still was very small, only a year old. He had no memory of us at all. All I was to him was a voice on the other end of the line. I said “Bangbang, why don’t you call me mum? Don’t you want to speak to your mum?” But we just didn’t exist for him. He wouldn’t say a word to me on the phone. I was at work when I called and all my workmates, all of them women, were listening to me talk to my son. I felt very embarrassed. I felt sick at heart; some of the other women began to cry. “Li Feng left her son for work, and now he won’t even call her mum,” they said. They could see how hard the life of a woman migrant worker is. I’m a tough old soul, of course my heart was aching but I wouldn’t cry even though they all were. Nobody could understand me. That was the main reason we came back home.
When we first got back I felt really out of place. It seemed so backward, dirty and poor, more than I’d noticed before. I was depressed. But I always remembered the entrepreneurial spirit of the people in Xiamen and set this as the ideal for my future.
After a few false starts of self-employment and running little business ventures, I finally settled on pigeon rearing. I’d heard about it on TV. I started with nothing and built the business up gradually. As time went on I got more and more into it. I was rearing top quality pigeons for eating. I was starting to believe I’d got the hang of it and that I’d already been through the worst of setting up the business, but then came a setback which had a profound effect on me.
I read an advertisement for a private company that was buying pigeon chicks. I got in touch and began selling my pigeons to them. This was the third time I made a delivery. They were in a county town in the north of Henan, about eight hour’s drive away. It was in the coldest period of the winter with a lot of ice and snow. I hadn’t had my driver’s licence very long and I’d borrowed the van from a friend of mine, so I felt a little bit nervous and uncertain anyway. I could hardly make out the road because of the snow, but after a hellish journey I finally arrived. The first time I’d delivered I handed over the pigeons and they paid me there and then. The second time the bosses’ wife had given me an IOU saying she’d settle up the next time I came to deliver. This time, I’d started unloading when she said the price for pigeons has dropped a lot, she’d pay me half what we’d agreed. Of course I was having none of that and demanded my money. She said if we couldn’t agree a price let’s forget about the deal. That left me no way out but to give in. I knew the pigeons would all die I tried to take them back home. She said she’d pay me the next day when the boss came back. So I left the cages there and stayed over night in a cheap guesthouse. The next day I went to see her again but the boss still hadn’t shown up. I was at the end of my tether and wanted to take the birds and head home. I thought I’d rather the pigeons freeze to death than me get stiffed like this, but they’d already taken the cages away. By the third day I was ill, I was worried about my family and back then I had no way of calling home. The boss finally showed up on the fourth day. But instead of the 9,800 renminbi he owed me, he fobbed me off with 1,300 and some over-date pigeon feed. I said to him: “How can you treat me like this? I’ve come miles in freezing weather to bring you these pigeons” He replied: “It’s only to let you save a bit of face and with the weather being so cold, that I gave you this bit of money, otherwise I wouldn’t have paid you a penny!”
It’s hard for a woman in business. It’s hard enough just being born as a woman in this world and if you want to succeed, it is even harder. You can’t just concentrate on your business; you have to think about family, your husband, your child and all the other family members. You’ve got so many things to deal with. If you just concentrate on your business, then when you come home everybody has complaints. So a woman who wants to make something of her career has to pay a much higher price than a man. Men can do what they feel like, regardless of their family. If a man stays away for one month, nothing much changes at home. But for women this is not possible. Once, I went to Shandong on business. I was away for over 40 days. My son was eight at the time; while I was away he fell and broke his arm really badly. I came straight home. His arm was in a cast, and he wasn’t supposed to move it or it wouldn’t set properly. I had to look after him constantly. I was there for him when he got his medicine, his injections and when he went to sleep. I stayed over 40 days in the hospital with him; I didn’t leave him alone there even for one day.
No, it is not easy to run your own business as a woman. It’s not like you can sell your stuff just by saying the magic word, and you have to have you wits about you when you’re dealing with strangers. If you’re not able hang in there and take the knocks you’ll never get anywhere.
But despite all of that I’ve taken a lot of inspiration and encouragement from starting and running a business. I discovered I have a lot of potential and that I’m actually worth something, and there’s probably more to come from me yet. I realised that if a woman wants to count for more in her home she has to achieve something first. You’ve got to see questions of gender and status clearly. I’ve never thought that the old idea that a man runs things outside the home and the woman in it matters too much so long as you can be valued in whatever you choose to do. Everyone has potential as long as you look for it in the right place.
In the future I’d like to focus more on social engagement. I’ve been involved in some NGO work here. I’ve been to all the 14 townships in Xinzheng, speaking to women, telling them they don’t have to spend their lives tied to the kitchen sink, they can get out and start up their own businesses, feel a sense of their self-worth. I’ve also been helping to counsel women in one of the local detention centres, a lot of those types of things.
I realised that although I’ve put a lot in to life, I’ve got a lot back too. My material well-being has improved and so has my spiritual life. That makes me very happy. I want to keep a balance between those two things.
Yang Yi: “Exposed as a cheat, the boss disappeared”
I’m from a rural family, my parents are farmers and we were very poor while I was growing up. When I look back on my schooldays, I remember how at the start of every school year my mother gave me two yuan for the school fees. I’d buy an exercise book and a pencil with the money I’d saved myself during the year. Growing up poor taught me that I needed to work hard and live simply. I got good marks so the school provided my textbooks for free. One day, I spotted one of my classmates eyeing the pencil I’d been given by the school, and the next day it was stolen. I didn’t want to make my mother angry, so I just used the core of an old battery for writing. In the middle school I was keen on sports, especially athletics. Unfortunately, I was too physically small in comparison to my competitors. Still, I devoted nearly all of my free time to training. Around this time, and in part because I was rarely home, my mother started having mental problems, becoming more and more unbalanced. I was the eldest, I have a younger brother and I also had two younger sisters, but one sister died in an accident. This was another cause of my mother’s mental health problems.
I was captain of our basketball team at school and spending all my spare time at the school so there was less and less time to study and the situation at home came to a head. My mother often came to the school looking for me. My classmates were all saying my mother was a madwoman. This affected my studies and my school grades began to fall badly.
I’d hoped to get into the Henan provincial sports school, but they wouldn’t take me due to my small size. In middle school I started to show an interest in engineering. I would have liked to go further into it. There was a school in Xinzheng that specialised in this, but I could not afford the school fees. So I finally dropped out of school and went to work on the land.
In the countryside the general opinion is that young girls are only good for helping round the house. Of course, my mother did not understand my ambitions at all and I lost hope. By the time I reached 18 I just wanted to get married and leave home. My husband was a boy I’d already known for a long time, we grew up in the same village. I knew he was kind and hard-working. We got married in 1992. I thought that once I got married I be able to live the kind of life I wanted, I was still very young and naïve.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that my husband shared the same conservative attitude towards the role of women as my mother. He expected me to treat him as the head of the family and act like his servant. I wasted three years trying to change him until finally I gave up and decided to divorce him. I would have been happy with just a separation if it meant I could go my own way. By 1997, my son was getting old enough to start to copy his father, so I filed the divorce papers.
It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other, really it was just having different ideas about how we should live our lives. At first, my husband wouldn’t consent to the divorce, but I said all I wanted was our son and he could keep all the assets. I moved out and landed a temporary job in a store in Xinzheng. Once I’d got free of the marriage I really had the itch to go out in the big wide world. I took a job as a buyer because I thought I would get to travel. Before the job started we had to take some training courses. Our company used to attend an annual trade fair in Beijing. I was 25 years old while the rest of my colleagues all were about 20; anyhow we all had no business experience at all. At this event most of the supplier factories were from the South and we couldn’t understand their dialect. I did my best to talk with them in Mandarin but it was obvious once they heard my accent that they were prejudiced against people from Henan. There’d been a lot of swindlers coming out of Henan in those days and the province had a bad reputation.
I was new to all this, didn’t know anything about trade and business; I was just a girl fresh up from the countryside and of course the habits and the way people in the city think was very different. I had no idea what city people are like. I said to myself if I want to make a career of this I have to be careful about my reputation, especially since I was from Henan. I had to avoid anything that might confirm people’s stereotype.
I guess my naive sincerity must have worked, anyway suppliers started to trust me, and I could get into negotiations about prices for goods. I managed to get a contract signed with a textile company from Fujian.
The phone conversation I then had with my boss back in Henan has always stuck in my mind. I told him to transfer the money by a certain time for the goods they were due to deliver. I was convinced that this was a great deal and everybody was going to be happy. My boss said no, that the company had no money at that moment. He was still keen to make a deal though, if he could have the goods immediately, but pay them 30% in three months time and the balance if he sold everything. When I heard that I immediately knew the deal was off, because this is not the way you do business. I was left with no option but to meet the suppliers again and cancel the contract, especially because if there was a dispute in future I’d be liable. I apologised profusely. When I got back to the trade fair word was already out about the kind of methods our boss was trying to use. Exposed as a cheat, he’d already disappeared.
While I was away in Beijing my ex-husband kept going over to my company looking for me. He didn’t like living on his own and wanted me to go back to him. I said I’d give our marriage another try but only on the condition that he change his attitude towards me and treat me equally. I wanted to find a way to go back too, as in the end I did still love him. He knew in his heart that his past behaviour and attitude were wrong, but he’d grown up with the usual chauvinist attitudes and couldn’t bring himself to say it. Still, I could see he was ready to change, so I wanted to try again, because it’s not easy making your own way in this world without a partner. My time in Beijing made me realise I needed to make my home life more settled so I could think more about my next step. I thought this might be a chance to change him. Although we’d been separated and had some rough times, I think I also learned a lot form that time and it showed me that my husband truly loves me. Not that I said all this to him, but anyway I was able to start over full of hope for the future.
So it was just as my domestic life had settled down that I heard about the gender equality workshop Ms Liang was running in Xinzheng for returned migrant women workers. I wouldn’t say I really fitted that category because I’d only stayed in Beijing for a total of three months. At that time I had no qualifications and no job. But I still had my love of learning something new and I wanted to take this. I asked my husband what he thought about it, if he liked the idea I’d go, then again even if he didn’t like the idea I was still going to go!
At the workshop I learned a lot about the outside world, I learned a lot of things they would never have taught me at school, like about gender and its use and value for us as a concept, why it was relevant to our role and status as rural women in family and in wider society. After all I’d just been through I found myself almost in tears being given this key to understanding my experiences. Ms Liang’s way of teaching focuses on exchanging experiences, thoughts and ideas; learning by doing; using some action, a joke or one of our stories to help us understand a principle. I realised that this was the understanding I’d been needing for such a long time and I learned how to avoid future mistakes and how to relate to other people better.
Even during the training I had already decided to help set up a club for returned migrant women workers in Xinzheng. We decided that if we wanted our organisation to be sustainable and a success we’d need a regular source of funding. We decided to start a small enterprise like stock-rearing or market gardening to cover the cost of our activities. Ms. Liang helped us to apply for some grants and small loans from an organisation based in Hong Kong so we could investment in this plan. If we got a sound business going it would both guarantee our organisational development and be the means for us to extend a helping hand to the underprivileged in our society. I’d always been keen on doing charity and welfare work right from when I was small; helping others makes me very happy. I could see that this was the ideal opportunity to act on those feelings, so I spent much of the next year writing letters and going to the web cafe to help sort out a plan.
The government had a policy of promoting a new water-saving technique for cultivating lotus root. I wasn’t too keen on taking advantage of this at first because it needed quite a big initial investment, and the price fluctuates a lot. Still, even though almost half the membership were against it, we included a lotus root cultivation scheme in our proposal for grants from the organisation in Hong Kong. They turned it down, saying that potential gains were too small and unreliable. After that failed to get support, the whole strategy was abandoned. I’d spent a whole year on this and in the end it came to nothing. My husband hadn’t been too happy about the time I’d spent on it, he complained that the work I put into it in the evening was interfering with his rest. But I still had faith in the idea and I was determined to succeed whatever the setbacks and pressures I encountered. I was talking over plans with a friend. We both still wanted to do something and decided to try marketing instead. It’s a job that doesn’t require cash investments, just communication skills, trustworthiness and good time-keeping.
The Returned Migrant Women’s Friendly Association was started with the help of Ms. Liang Jun (梁军), a veteran woman activist who, in 1998, created a Henan Community Education Research Centre. The Centre has received funding from Oxfam Hong Kong for various outreach activities with and for migrant working women.
Christine Warmer is reading East Asian Studies at the Duisburg University. In 2004 she spent six months working as an intern with China Development Brief.