First Person: "I felt too embarrassed to ask for my wages"
Labour and Migration | Subscription-only Content | First Person
An unexplained growth disorder meant that Zhang Xuanbao, 23, never reached four feet tall, but that didn’t stop him from leaving his village in search of fortune. Tina Qian listened to his story.
My name is Zhang Xuanbao (张选宝) but friends and people I know usually call me Xiao Bao. I was born in 1982 in a small village in Fuyang (阜阳), Anhui Province.
There are six people in our family: parents, two older sisters, a younger brother and me. My father is 50 this year; I can work out his age because I know he was born in a Year of the Monkey. And my mother was two years younger than him. My sisters were born in 1979 and 1981 and are both married now, one to a guy in our village. The other married into a very common family in Yingshang County (颍上县), just southeast of Fuyang.
Neither of my sisters went to school. I didn’t start first grade until I was twelve and stopped after junior middle school. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy studying and didn’t get on too well. But now I’ve been working in cities for the last few years and I’m thinking more and more of studying again. My ten year old brother is now in primary school. Unfortunately he’s not a top student either.
My parents and I didn’t realise I was different from other boys until I was in third or fourth grade. My height reached 105 centimetres, but I didn’t keep on growing like my classmates. So my parents took me to hospitals in Fuyang, and later to the provincial capital, Hefei, for medical check-ups. But they couldn’t find anything wrong with me apart from being short. Doctors couldn’t really explain what illness I had, but they made my parents understand it couldn’t be changed.
The rest of my family are all normal height. When I was young, Dad didn’t let me play outdoors, for fear that other people would look down on me and my family.
A singer in Shenzhen
For a while my dad worked on a construction site in Shijiazhuang (石家庄), Hebei. He lost the job after he hurt a leg in an accident at work. He more or less recovered after several months, but could no longer take on heavy work.
In 2003 he began to make a living as a tricycle driver in Yingshang. The same year, I dropped out of school and went to Yingshang with him. Most of the time I wandered round the streets, doing nothing.
Then a middle-aged local woman spotted me as a possible performer in a singing troupe her brother runs in Shenzhen. She kept on at my dad to let me take the offer. The way she described it, life in the south would definitely be ‘a lot of fun’—eating well, no need to wash clothes by hand because there would be a washing machine. And she promised I’d get one or two thousand yuan a month. I decided to take the job. I could earn some money and it would be good for my future.
After nearly 24 hours on a packed train I finally arrived at Shenzhen. As soon as I got there, I found the reality was totally different from what I had imagined. I had to share one small room with two or three guys. Every day we had to cook for ourselves and hand-wash our clothes. There would be at least one performance every day, usually lasting for half to one hour. I can’t recall all the places we went to, except Bao’an（宝安）and Longgang（龙岗）in the suburb. The boss grabbed every possible chance to make money. We had no regular place or fixed time to perform. In the daytime it was usually in front of some big stores, in the evening it tended to be in night clubs. We didn’t have any weekends off.
Most of the 30 or so members of the troupe were young girls, under 20, from different parts of China. As far as I know, they earned a basic wage of about 1,000 yuan per month, but they would get extra if they went off with clients. Some of them had done some dance training at local art schools.
I and another short guy were the only two male members of the troupe. He came from the same place as the boss, and had been working with him for six or seven years. He said the boss paid him more than 20,000 yuan (USD 2,500) a year. But they didn’t give me anything, and no one remembered to mention my pay. I felt too embarrassed to talk about money directly to the boss.
My part in the shows included singing and drama. I sang ‘Save the Earth’ and ‘Enraptured,’ by Hong Kong pop star Du Dewei (杜德伟). And I acted Fahai (法海) in the “The Legend of a White Snake,” (白蛇传, adapted from a classic story about a snake who assumes the form of a beautiful woman and falls in love with a Hangzhou scholar; Fahai is an interfering monk who tells their secret.) It was really funny to see me in make-up, but I enjoyed the show very much.
A doorkeeper in Beijing
In June last year I left for home. The only pay I got from the boss, for one and a half year’s work, was 2,000 yuan when I asked for money at Spring Festival. I gave it to my parents.
But I only stayed at home for a month. My dad often blamed me for ‘offering no help to the family,’ making me feel I was useless at home. Sometimes I tried to educate my brother to study harder, using my experience as a migrant as a lesson. In my opinion, if he could only get into college or university he could ‘eat fragrant and spicy’ [ie, would be set up for life]. He responded with silence, but no visible change happened in his study.
One of my sisters, who had migrated to Beijing with her husband, invited me to spend some time there after she learned about my difficult situation at home. I accepted at once. To me, Beijing is where I can realise my dreams. I want to see the 2008 Olympics, as well as the solemn national flag rising ceremony.
In Beijing I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law, who make a living at an interior decoration wholesale market on the outskirts. During the day I just played around at the market. One day someone offered me work. I accepted the job—in a restaurant very close to Beijing Railway Station.
In fact my job there is very simple: standing on the door welcoming customers, foreign or local. If the customer arrives by car I have to open the car door for them politely. And I hold back the restaurant curtain to let them in.
Guests all like to talk to me. They always ask the same old questions, like ‘How old are you? Where are you from?’ After a while I get fed up and ignore them.
My mum works as a cleaner in the same restaurant. The manager, who’s a couple of years older than me, treats me well. The boss wants to make his restaurant special, to attract more clients.
I’m paid 700 yuan a month. I can’t say I’m satisfied with the salary. There’s another short guy, from Shandong, who has been working here for a few years and earns more than 800 a month. I know the takings in the restaurant are 80,000 to 90,000 yuan every day.
We have no weekends off, just two rest days a month. My twelve-hour shift starts from two o’clock in the afternoon, until late evening. I live in a dormitory rented by the boss, close to the restaurant.
It’s a privilege of mine that I don’t need to buy a ticket when on trains or buses. I just get on. Even public buses don’t charge me. Once a conductor asked me ‘Who are you with?’ I answered ‘Nobody.’ Then she just let me on board. I know she must have supposed that I was a little kid neglected by my parents.
Friends and hopes
When I was in Yingshang, I got to know someone who became a ‘godfather’ [‘ganba’—a non blood relative who becomes a close family friend and paternal influence]. He worked at the County Transport Bureau, and often rode round town on a motorbike to monitor the road conditions. After we got to know each other, he often took me home, entertaining me with delicious food and interesting things.
He has two daughters so I often comfort him by saying that I will take care of him when he gets old. He treats me extremely well. Before I left home, he bought me a set of clothes. When I was in Shenzhen he called me from time to time.
In Shenzhen I got to know a girl of nineteen, working in a bar. She said she came from China’s northeast. Every day she came to chat with me after we finished the performance. One day she suddenly said ‘I like you’ and I just said ‘I like you too.’ Then she asked, ‘Do you really mean that?’ I replied ‘Yes.’ But when she invited me to her place I refused, with an excuse that my boss wouldn’t allow it. That was true, too, we were never allowed to go out without permission.
We kept in touch for three months in this way. Later she went back to her hometown for some emergency in her family, but kept in touch by phone. Soon I decided to quit the job in Shenzhen and returned to home. Unfortunately I lost her phone number and never heard from her again.
Sometimes the idea of looking for a girlfriend tormented me. But now I’ve decided I will never get married. Could anyone in the world really be meant to fall in love with someone like me? I don’t believe it! My parents never broached the subject of marriage in front of me. If you ask what kind of girls I like, I would say I appreciate the gentle and refined type.
My only wish is to support my younger brother through getting an education, and taking good care of my parents, who are getting older and older.
If I had a lot of money I would open a shop in my home town. Mainly for my brother’s sake. Like me, he is not good at studying. So I can’t really expect him to get into university. But I don’t want him to leave to work outside. With a shop, he could stay home, managing it. Migrant workers are always the targets of bullying by others.
My dream is to travel around the world.