ZHANG JIE: I often dream about the time when I was living in the countryside. Once I dreamt I was very tired, I couldn’t lift up anything and I couldn’t move my legs. Then suddenly I jumped down from a hill and lost consciousness. When I regained it, I started to cry. Life in the countryside is very bitter, the hill was so tall, I wished I could live in the city. My house was broken in the dream, so I was crying all the time. When I woke up, I found that I was actually living in the city. I looked around my house and I saw that it wasn’t broken.
When I was a child, I didn’t get a good education. Our economic situation wasn’t bad, better than that of other people from our village, but we lived in a rather remote place. We had to walk for almost two hours to go to the market. After breakfast, I would pick up a bamboo basket and set off to the market. This would take up the whole morning and I’d get back home at noon. I used to get very hungry on the way but I didn’t dare to spend even ten Jiao on a bowl of noodles, although noodles were really cheap back then. I just wanted to save my money. I studied with my father, he was the teacher at our village school. I didn’t finish middle school. My father didn’t really have a good teaching method, he would tell us to study and if we didn’t do well in the exams, he would send us to do farm work. If we passed the exams, we could continue to study, otherwise not. He didn’t let us have another try. So later on I dropped out of school.
My mother was taking care of the fields, there was a lot of work to do on the fields in our village. So after dropping out of school, I went home and started working in the fields as well. My job was to get the fertilizer. I had to go up and down the hill many times each day, it took a lot of time. I have two sisters and one brother. My older sister and I used to take the fertilizer to the fields whereas my younger sister and my brother would go to school and study. Later they went to university. I was the one who studied least, so I had to work in the fields. Later I heard that a lot of private companies were looking for workers, so I thought I could go to work in a factory. I told my father and he said, if you want to do that, then do it. I think my parents changed their mind about their children around that time. I had always been quite lazy at home, and they didn’t really care. But now they thought that their kids should find a way to live in the city and have a better life. So I took a test and started working at a factory in the city. I worked there for two years. Then I met my boyfriend, who is now my husband.
After we married, I went back to my village and took care of my son. When our son was three or four years old, my husband was working in the canteen of an office building. He quit when our son was in second grade of primary school. Then we went to work as migratory workers. I went to Shenzhen and he went to Shanghai. It was hard in Shenzhen. The factory that I was working for had a boss who was Japanese. We worked twelve hours per day in a two-shift system. The day shift was all right, but the night shift was difficult. Sometimes I had to stand up from 8 o’clock in the morning until 8 in the evening, I was so tired that I could hardly keep my eyes open. The payment wasn’t very good, either. If you worked twelve hours per day, they would pay you 800 or 900 or in the best case just little more than 1.000 RMB. If you only worked eight hours, they wouldn’t pay you more than 700. Those are very bad conditions.
I think only poor people would do this kind of work. If you are in a good economic situation, you wouldn’t do it. My family’s situation was all right at that time and I didn’t want to have such a hard time, so I quit the job. My older sister is still working in a factory today. I quit after ten months. My husband was working in Shanghai at the time, he is an accountant and he was working in finance and management. He told me to come to Shanghai and work for the same company that he was working for. He said I could do the warehouse management, that was easy. So I went to Shanghai and worked there for three years. During that time, my son was staying with my father in my home village. When he was in the last year of primary school, he started spending all his time in Internet cafés and at one point my father couldn’t handle the situation anymore, so he told me to come back and take care of my son myself. So my husband and I went back to my village to get our son. We bought an apartment in Shanghai, apartments in the city were cheap back then, only around 60.000 RMB. My husband used to say: There are so many people who have no real talent and can still survive in the city, so we can survive as well. Now we have our own place to live, we can start some small business and live from that.
We took our son with us after we bought the apartment. At first it wasn’t easy to start our own business, we didn’t know how to do it. We didn’t dare to purchase goods because we were afraid that we might not be able to sell them. We had no experience and no money, we had spent almost all our saving on the apartment.
But the good thing was that our son was doing much better in school after coming to live with us. He told his father that he suddenly found mathematics very easy. When he had been living in the countryside, he hadn’t found it easy at all. He had studied in the village school with my father, which was quite a good school compared with other village schools, but still very far away from schools in the city. We were very happy about this. Now our son can ask his father when there is something he doesn’t understand. Our business also improved over time. But when our son was in the second semester of the first year of middle school, he started going to Internet cafés again.
Sometimes he would stay at the Internet café for whole nights on weekends. Normally, our shop closed around 9 o’clock in the evening and then we went back home. Our son knew that, so he would come home at about the same time. He usually finished his classes at 8 p.m. and he knew that we came home around 9. One day his teacher called us to meet him at the school. He asked us if we knew where our son went in the evenings after class, because he would often fall asleep during classes. I said I didn’t know, I thought he didn’t do anything. Then the teacher told us that he had asked other pupils to follow my son, and they found that he was going to the Internet café every day after class. My husband and I didn’t know about that at all.
The teacher suggested that we should send our son to live in the school for some time, they would take care of him. If we didn’t want that, we should take better care of him. But our son said he wanted to stay in the school’s dormitory, he said we were too strict with him. So he lived in the school for one semester. The teachers took good care of him and he never went to the Internet café again afterwards. Anyway, after that semester he wanted to come back home because the dormitory wasn’t really very comfortable, of course. Once I read an essay he had written at school, he said his parents were too strict with him, he didn’t want to live in the school anymore but he didn’t want to be controlled by his parents, either. He wanted to be free. So after I read that, I tried to give him more space, but I still tried to talk to him in a reasonable way. Now he is going to university. Some time ago my husband started working for a real estate company, he knew some people who work there. This job earns him good money, so our life is quite all right now.