LAWRENCE – Do you ever wonder about the lives of the people who make your consumer goods half a world away in China?
After all, the lives of people on the other side of the tracks, or even the upstairs-downstairs social split within the same household, are traditionally rich fodder for literature.
So it’s not surprising that the experiences of a huge new class of migrant workers are of interest to their fellow Chinese, whose lives in central Beijing are much different than the lives of those who come from the countryside seeking the bright lights of town, but who can never penetrate the mega-city’s fifth-outer-belt road.
Now writings by this overlooked, even exploited, group are reaching an even broader audience as a result of a special section in the Spring 2021 edition of World Literature Today, co-edited by Hui “Faye” Xiao, professor of modern Chinese literature and culture at the University of Kansas. This special section includes a set of essays and poems composed by migrant workers and several scholarly articles discussing the literary and social significance of their creative writings.
Xiao’s own article focuses on an essay by one of the so-called “new workers,” in this case a nanny for an upper-class family. Xiao writes of how this nanny’s autobiographical essay, “I Am Fan Yusu,” went viral in a particularly Chinese way in 2017, going from a WeChat social media phenomenon to wide coverage in the mainstream media, resonating with millions of readers.
“I Am Fan Yusu” was co-translated into English for the special journal section by Philip Bradshaw and Keegan Sparks, two undergraduate students who studied Chinese language and literature at KU.
A former schoolteacher from rural China who moved to the big city to work in her employer’s home, leaving her own child behind, Fan Yusu’s “life trajectory is typical of hundreds of millions of women migrant workers from rural China,” Xiao wrote.
Male migrant workers typically perform the “dirty and poorly paid and dangerous jobs — construction workers and transportation and delivery,” Xiao said.
Women often “work as waitresses or cashiers at the supermarket, and then domestic workers,” Xiao said. “The traditional name is nanny, but the more formal name for that type of worker is now domestic worker or domestic helper.”
But even if they labor for years in one of China’s major cities, these new workers usually don’t qualify for the benefits – education, health care, pension – that urban residents born in the city do. They are held back by virtue of their ongoing rural household classification, leading to second-class citizenship.
Xiao began trying to bring these stories to light a couple of years ago, working with a writers’ group in the outer Beijing suburb of Picun. A handful of the stories in the new journal edition come from there.
“They're so important to your everyday lives, yet they seem to remain invisible and silent,” Xiao said. “We don't really hear much about their own voices, their own narratives, their perspectives and their concerns, and particularly for domestic workers in this new trend of care work. Not only do they produce very concrete commodities like iPhones we’re using every day, but they also they provide care ... for your family members. So that means the nature of their work is emotional. But on the other hand, their own emotional needs, their own concerns, their own stories and everyday struggles are brushed away and neglected, considered something trivial or insignificant.
“So I saw this as not only social and economic inequality, but also cultural inequality, because they lacked access to the system as a representation to tell their own stories, not only to their employers but also to fellow workers so that they can form a sense of community, a sense of belonging — coming together through writings and through storytelling.
“So that is why I want to remedy the situation. I want to ... have their stories told, not only within China — because a lot of Chinese readers already can have access to their stories — but also to bring their voices to the English-speaking world. I hope some American workers can get inspiration by reading their stories and pick up a pen to start writing their own stories, to form this kind of transnational literary network.”
Such a network is already taking shape: New Workers Literature, a grassroots literary bimonthly edited by the Picun worker writers, has also published translated poems and essays by migrant workers in the United States, Italy, Egypt and other parts of the world.
Currently, Xiao is editing a special section on female domestic workers’ writings for the journal Chinese Literature Today to further explore the cultural and socioeconomic inequalities at the intersection of gender and class.
Image: Members of the Picun Literature Group (at right) and the inaugural edition of their grassroots magazine, New Workers Literature, featuring a cover story on the “I Am Fan Yusu” phenomenon. Credit: Fu Qiuyun