Migrant Couple Struggles to Earn in New China Yi Bin and Cai Zisheng moved from their rural village to Chengdu, China, a thriving Chinese metropolis. But the country's economic boom has left them behind. They live in a tiny space on the outskirts of town and barely make ends meet.
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Migrant Couple Struggles to Earn in New China

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Migrant Couple Struggles to Earn in New China

Migrant Couple Struggles to Earn in New China

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From NPR news, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michelle Norris in Washington.


And in Chengdu in southwestern China, where we're reporting from this week, I'm Melissa Block, along with Robert Siegel.


Now life around the Third Ring Road; that's the big Chengdu road that was completed in 2002. It's the most recent attempt to encircle this ever-expanding city. In the countryside, just 30 miles to the north, there's been massive destruction and loss of life. But here in the city everyone was shaken but the damage was mild. As Chengdu returns to normal after the earthquake, we're trying to get a handle on what normal life means here. That was what brought us to China in the first place.

BLOCK: Yesterday, Robert talked with Lei Lei, a 26-year-old English teacher and expectant mother who's bought a brand new apartment. Today, Robert visits a couple that dreamt of an apartment like that one but has had to settle for much less - the Third Ring Road and the City of Disappointment.

SIEGEL: This neighborhood is a warren of two-story houses; each has a courtyard. A half-dozen families, each with a bedroom or two, share this courtyard. They also share a bathroom. And in such cramped quarters they share much else. Everyone's laundry hangs in public. One neighbor's pet parakeets sing for everyone. The sizzle of another neighbor's supper on an outdoor stove is heard by all.

This is where 11-year-old Ling Bo is growing up, and he's learning English at school.

Mr. LING BO: We don't have cat. This afternoon let's go to the movie, okay? There's a good movie this afternoon. Let's go. Bye-bye.

SIEGEL: We met Ling Bo through his aunt and uncle who lived in only slightly more commodious circumstances a block away. Ling Bo's aunt is named Yi Bin and his uncle is Cai Zisheng. We met them a few days before the earthquake. They are envious of their nephew's progress with English. Their own son lives with his grandparents in the rural village they came from near the town of Neijiang. It's about 70 miles southeast of Chengdu. It's the opposite direction from the epicenter of the quake. They say the rural school that their son attends there isn't as good as his cousin's school in the big city.

Mr. ZISHENG CAI: (Through translator) The schools there cannot compare with the schools in the city. We lived in a village that's surrounded by big mountains. Where we were, you really can't make a cent. You know, you raise a little livestock, some crops, but that's really not sufficient.

SIEGEL: Yi Bin and Cai Zisheng live in a second-story room, 10 feet by 10 feet, in a converted warehouse. There's a second room, it's only about a third as big, where they have the television set. There's a kitchen with a single-burner coal-burning stove on the balcony. The shower and toilet downstairs are shared by four families. They and their neighbors in Chengdu are among the hundreds of millions of Chinese who in the past few decades have left a village in the country for a shot at life in the city.

All around Chengdu, all around this city, new buildings are going up with apartments in them. Is it possible that you might someday be able to get one of those apartments?

Ms. BIN YI: (Through translator) Originally, we wanted to buy an apartment but we can't afford it for sure. We lost money because of our truck and we're still in debt. I thought that we could make some money and bring my parents here and have my kids here so they could get the same kind of education the city kids get. But now I don't know how long it would take to get there.

Mr. CAI: (Through translator) Based on the kind of money we make as laborers, it would be something out of "1001 Arabian Nights." An apartment in Chengdu would cost three or four hundred thousand yuan.

SIEGEL: He makes 2,000 a month driving a cement truck. She makes 600 as a housekeeper. Here's what happened. Cai Zisheng was a carpenter with ambition in a small mountain village. He became a truck driver, got a van and headed for Chengdu. Soon his wife joined him. They borrowed money from friends and from the bank and bought a bigger truck, business was good. Then there was an accident. Yi Bin was in the truck, the truck was finished, she hit her head and was hospitalized. It left them both with big expenses, 20 percent deductibles on their health and auto insurance, and repayment of the loans they took out, not to mention tuition and living expenses for their 17-year-old daughter, who's at a public boarding school.

Mr. CAI: (Through translator) We talk to her on the phone once a week. We tell her to study hard and it will help her to change her destiny, the way we couldn't, and leave behind the impoverished life of the village.

SIEGEL: Cai Zisheng and Yi Bin have two children. Under China's one child policy, they had to pay a fine when their 11-year-old son was born. He used to live with them in Chengdu, but they can't care for him now so he's back in the village. Three of his old study sheets from kindergarten are still hanging on the wall - the numbers, the animals and the sounds of the Latin alphabet. Not having him with them, they say, hurts. As hard as their urban experience has been, they express no sense of grievance. I asked them if they thought life in China is fair. Do study and hard work pay off or do connections and luck count for just as much?

Ms. YI: (Through translator) Yes, it's pretty fair because we're not educated. And these days anything you do, you need an education.

Mr. CAI: (Through translator) Yes, we're not educated so we can only do the kind of work we do. It's not a punishment. It's fair.

SIEGEL: I went back to see Cai Zisheng and Yi Bin a few days after the earthquake. They were alright, they said. But back in the village, far as it is from the epicenter, the quake did some property damage to the family's house, the house that he had built.

Mr. CAI: (Through translator) Nobody got hurt. It was daytime. A lot of the roof tiles did come off and my parents were working in the hills. So for the first few days we couldn't get in touch with them.

SIEGEL: Everyone is well. When Cai Zisheng and his wife moved to the city, the area where they now live was still farmland. The Third Ring Road wasn't yet open. Now they suspect they only have a year or two before their migrant neighborhood is demolished, new apartment buildings go up, and they have to move once again. We'll hear about some other people whose homes stood in the way of this spawning city tomorrow.

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