I fought for 18 years to have a cup of coffee with you

Reports on Rural China from Shanghai by Maizi (麦子) – a popular read on the Chinese Internet.  Translated by Cathy

Cathy is a recent college graduate who tweets here. If you’d like something translated on ChinaHush or offer her a job, you can reach her at xiaosongbird[at]gmail.[dot]com


Here’s a question I pose for my white collar friends: what if I never graduated from middle school, and had become a migrant worker? Would you sit down for a cup of coffee with me at Starbucks? The answer, unequivocally, is that you wouldn’t. That is simply not a possibility. If we compared our experiences growing up, you will find that for the things that you take for granted, I have sacrificed and exerted huge amounts of efforts to acquire.

From the moment I was born, our life’s path swerved away from each other. I was given a rural resident card while you got a city one. If I grew up keeping my rural residence, I wouldn’t be able to work in the city today. I would also be denied social security, and proper medical care. You might ask: “Why must you come to the city? Isn’t the country good enough? The air is fresh, and it’s never crowded.” But the country has no proper healthcare system. During the SARs scare our country seemed to “suddenly” realize that its rural healthcare was completely defunct. Plus, we have a very small consumer market. Because farmers make very little money and can’t afford much, companies refuse to distribute products in our areas. During the New Year only a tiny percent of families can afford the color T.V to watch the New Year’s broadcast. The majority of families are still fighting for their basic survival. This is why I want to be in the city. For the object you were simply born with, this city resident card, I have had to fight and struggle.

College was the only way out of rural China. I needed to work very hard to graduate from elementary school, to be accepted into a middle and high school. I was a lone traveler on a narrow and precarious bridge above a deep valley, and while I was on it, I watched my friends and classmates fall one by one. Meanwhile, the road ahead of me became increasingly narrow. Should I have been happy or worried? Because of fierce competition, I was terrified that any misstep might drag me off course. Apart from studying, I was never able to have a hobby or partake in extra-curriculars, not that the school ever offered any opportunities. On the first day in high school, our principal told us that we had only one goal during those three years– Gao Kao.(college entrance exam) So, during that time, I woke up at 5:30 every morning, and went to bed at 11:00 PM. During holidays, I was memorizing test questions.

For you, there is no question that you’ll graduate elementary school and go onward to middle and high school. The competition isn’t that fierce, and your homework load isn’t that heavy. You can take the time to develop a hobby, to read the books you want, to play basketball, to take excursions to the countryside to enjoy its blue skies. If you don’t want to work so hard for Gao Kao, and your grades aren’t atrocious, you can opt for a school who’s willing to recruit you without test scores. And even if your scores are indeed atrocious, a third tier university will still accept you. Meanwhile, I have to earn exceptionally high marks to get into that same third tier university, since universities demand more from out-of-state students.

We take the same test. The minimum score requirements for you and me are not the same. But once we’re accepted, our tuition fees are again the same. Every person pays 6000RMB per year – that’s for tuition only, which comes out as 24,000 RMB for all four years. Housing (1500RMB), and books (1000RMB) add up to around 4000RMB – and I’m only talking about eating cafeteria food the entire time. Four years of college comes down to 50,000 RMB. In 2003, a university in Shanghai announced that it was raising its annual tuition to 10,000 RMB due to the “campus renovation” That means 40,000 RMB for four years of tuition alone. Count in living and text book costs and a university education adds up to 66,000 RMB. For families who live in the city, 66,000 RMB isn’t much. For a rural family, 66,000 RMB is a life time’s worth of savings. I come from a coastal province that has been getting steady foreign investment. We were better off compared to some inner provinces, but still, after a year of hard labor, we were hard pressed to save much. A family of four who consume only the very basics can save 3000 RMB each year. That means to send one child to a four year college at 66,000 RMB a family needs to save for 22 years. That’s assuming that no one gets sick. It also means that no matter how talented the second child is the family must still deprive him or her from attending college since they can only afford to send one.

I was lucky compared to others. By throwing together all the funds we had, and by taking out student loans, I was finally able to pay my first year of tuition. Meanwhile, I watched those students who’d been accepted and the heartbreak their families experienced for being unable to send them to school. I felt a pervasive sense of wrongness. Our education industry nowadays don’t only recruit the best students, they recruit the students with the richest parents.

But, finally I found myself on a University campus! I worked hard and earned a scholarship. During the holidays, I worked to save spending money. I couldn’t bear asking my parents for money. Every cent they made was an exchange of their sweat. That money was sweat money, blood money.

Upon coming to Shanghai, I realized that compared to my classmates, I was green beyond belief. I couldn’t draw, couldn’t play an instrument, didn’t know who the hottest pop stars were, had never read a best selling novel, didn’t know what an MP3 was, didn’t even know what a Walkman was. To understand what our management professor was lecturing about during his class on “Warehouse style supermarkets” like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, I spent a day at “McDonalds” watching with astonishment. I’d never seen so much stuff.

I’d never touched a computer, so I spent half a year sitting in a computer lab learning the skills you’d learned in high school. My English is the English spoken by a deaf or a mute person. Neither westerners nor Chinese people can understand what I’m saying. But that wasn’t my fault. There were never any foreign teachers in my village. When teachers don’t even know the language, how can they possibly teach students to speak? With a poor foundation, I spent an entire year correcting my pronunciation. I admired city students for how talented they were, how much they knew. I only knew how to study. I’d only known studying, test taking, graduating, because only by getting into college could I study amongst you and become a part of you. Everything had to be geared and pointed towards this goal.

I could bear the mockery of my classmates, could go weeks without eating any meat, could spend my entire weekend cooped up in a library, could come back from studying on the weekend to see boys and girls dancing, could go running at the deep of the night out of loneliness and boredom. I dreamt that one day I would graduate, and find a job in the city. I wanted to work with the city-dwellers of my generation, and like them, to become a city resident. I wanted my parents to be proud because they had a son working in Shanghai!

Finally, I graduated. Finding a job in Shanghai was hard, but going back to the village was not an option. The average salary for our class was 2000RMB per month. Perhaps you think that 2000RMB is an adequate salary, but I still needed to pay for rent, to pay for utilities, to pay back my student loans, and to send money home to put my brother and sister through school. What was left, I used for food. After all of this, I still couldn’t join you for a coffee at Starbucks!

Since that time I’ve earned a master’s degree, and currently live in Shanghai where my annual salary is 80,000 RMB. I fought for eighteen years, and can finally sit down with you for a cup of coffee. I’m now a resident in this big, international city, and I’m no different from the white collar workers here. However, I can never forget the struggles my family and I went through. I can never forget my classmates who will never see their dreams come true. For this reason, I’ve written this in the first person. What I’ve written is nothing special. It’s the typical tale of those who come from rural China. Every time I see a student who’s been dealt same hand I got, I feel a heavy sense of responsibility.

I didn’t write this to complain. The terrifying thing isn’t that justice is relative. The terrifying thing is to witness injustice and to act as if one sees nothing. While I was getting my masters, I once had a conversation with a girl who at the time had 3 years of work experience under her belt. She is now the HR director of a joint stock company. We were talking about a marketing strategy for Weida’s paper industry. Her idea was to carve out a new market by advertising Weida’s high quality dinner napkins to China’s nine hundred million farmers. Surprised by her cocksureness, I asked her if she knew how farmers wipe their mouths after each meal. She returned my question with a misgiving look. I raised my hand and wiped my mouth on my sleeve. She looked at my graceless action with contempt.

During a macro-economics class, a classmate attacked blue collar workers who’d been laid off, and unemployed high school dropouts: “80% of them are where they are because they don’t work hard. They chose not to specialize in something when they were young, so they can’t get jobs now! Those kids are perfectly capable of studying and working. I’ve heard that a lot of students use their holidays to make thousands to pay their tuition.” You can’t find a person who knows less about the struggles of rural China than this classmate of mine.

I was born during the 70s. People my age are starting to become leaders and our actions affect the social and economic development. I wrote this essay for the young people who grew up in well-heeled communities, and for those who grew up struggling but have since forgotten. Pay attention to the classes beneath you. For this world to be fairer, we need to do what we can for others, to be aware that social responsibility warrants a permanent place in our thoughts and actions.

  1. When, oh when, will people recognize that what we DO is not WHO WE ARE? The value of 24 hours is the same for everyone – priceless. It can’t be measured in the marketplace. Even the sultan of Brunei can’t buy another hour in the day – we are all equal because 24 hours is all we have in a day.

    1. Actually, the sultan can buy another hour in day. Suppose the sultan’s garden had many weeds that needed to be pulled and it would take an hour to do so. The sultan could pull all the weeds himself. Or, he could pay someone a bit of money to pull the weeds for him. The sultan just bought an hour of time. He’s no free to do what he wants with it.

      I do understand what you were trying to say, but you can buy time in a sense. It’s when you waste time that you can’t get it back again.

      1. True, then again I could go out buy a jar of poison, pour over the yard and the weed are gone.

        Alternative, boil a lot of water and spray that on the lawn, all weeds are dead.

  2. Very well done. I knew that it’s a huge struggle for those in rural areas to “make it”, but reading this gives a face to the struggle. Thanks for a great post!

  3. What called Hu Kou in China (a registration system that separates rural and city people) is the most flagrant violation of human rights of the Chinese people. People are divided into classes at their birth, and because of that, those who are born in rural China don’t have the equal access to education, employment and many other things. Interesting, and also stupid, thing is that a lot of Chinese say all kind of bad things about the caste system in India while their own Hu Kou system is much worse than India’s class system.

    Only two countries in the world have such system, China and their buddy, guess who……., North Korea.

    1. The system is not ideal, but in fact it is expected that over 100 million people will move from rural China to the cities by 2020. So therefore, it is not true that those born in the rural areas will never be able to move to the city. What is the alternative to the present system. If everyone was permitted to move to the city, you would have a situation like exists in third world countries. Every city is surrounded by makshift communities like favalas in Brazil. They become fetid slums. It is better to have a system to gradually increase rural migration as the infrastructure of cities is developed. In the US, the system is that you can live anywhere you want as long as you have money. I lived in San Francisco. It is a wonderful city. I had to move because I could no longer afford to live there. Now someone rich lives where I once lived. This is no different than if the government had ordered me to leave so someone else could live there

      1. what do you called the makeshift communities on the outskirts of Beijing, Shanghai of migrant workers? They lived in tin/mud shacks. You get fetid slums in the ‘developed’ chinese cities PLUS seriously underdeveloped rural areas. This is what you get for having Hu Kou system. (BTW, countries in the middle east also have systems similar to Hu Kou called resident registration systems.)

        actually housing in major cities in China rivals major American cities..the chinese government effectively told the poor and migrant workers to leave so someone richer could live there.

        There are ways to live inside SF (or most US) city limits cheaply. Americans are inefficient in managing their personal finances.

  4. never understood why there’s a need for the Hu Kou system after so many centuries of social mobility.

    and seriously, no offense to him but for him to ask his fellow country men to be fair?

    just look at the ones who think its their god given right to deny basic rights to others,
    he should just pray that they don’t try harder to make life more difficult for the rural folk.

    1. “never understood why there’s a need for the Hu Kou system after so many centuries of social mobility.”

      It is a mean for the Chinese government to control the Chinese people.

  5. Thank you for the reflections and observations. Thoughtful and articulate.

    These injustices, worldwide, are really saddening. I think this may be one
    of the reasons the Bible is so popular in many countries, as it gives a hope
    that one day in the future, under rule by God, these injustices will be no
    more. It probably seems improbable for many, as we have never seen
    anything but as the Bible stated, ‘man dominating man to his injury’.

    Still, if we keep those in mind who are disadvantaged, there is much to
    do, while we await those things that are stated as ‘God’s promises’, from
    ‘God who can not lie’.


    1. Here’s my favorite Bible passages.

      Numbers 31:7-18

      They attacked Midian just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed all the men. All five of the Midianite kings – Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba – died in the battle. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder. They burned all the towns and villages where the Midianites had lived. After they had gathered the plunder and captives, both people and animals, they brought them all to Moses and Eleazar the priest, and to the whole community of Israel, which was camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho.

      Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle. “Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. “These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.

    2. Very good comment.

      I was born and educated in China. When I was in elementary school. The textbook tells us “Religious are poisonous”. I remembered this clearly and as a kid, I was affected by this and believed this is true. Therefore after I moved to North America in my 20’s I still isolated myself to any religious group.

      But after a decade live in western world. I start to believe that Religion maybe the only cure to Chinese society now.

      1. actually there is another solution. Place all the CCP members in a city and microwave them til crisp.

        CCP is the evil of China.

  6. Zoning, zip codes are the more “subtle” counterparts in the U.S. in addition to ghettoization. They trace and affect shopping patterns and options, and of course schools and eventual college, job options. The disparity isn’t as stark as in China but still fast crumbling in the current climate. The haves & have-nots (and growing gaps betwene them) are never just limited to PRC and NK.
    Beautiful writing, Cathy Song.

  7. P.S. The original piece by “cloud who wears pants”, is actually more provocative in ideas than style (more pragmatic & nonsentimentally curt in comparison). The power of Cathy’s piece must be a combo of her beautiful flow, sensitivity to the original’s intent, and the fact this perspective is so rarely available in English? Kudos!

    1. Thanks a lot for your compliment. If you know of any well-written, insightful, and perhaps even popular first-person essays or blog posts that you think ChinaHush should translate, please let me know! i’m at xiaosongbird[at]gmail[dot]com

    1. Is your name “anal”? In that case, whether people look or not, it depends.

      Could be worse. Your name could be “banal”, and then no one would look.

    1. Hey Takuro,

      That sounds like a wonderful idea. Please be my guest. Can you also link ChinaHush on your translation?


  8. Hi Cathy, this is excellent. Maybe you could translate this one as well: 我奋斗了18年不是为了和你坐在一起喝咖啡? It’s sort of a sequel to the one above. Thanks!

  9. Why won’t they have coffee with you if you were a dropout migrant worker? Because they judge you based on your income? In that respect it’s sad to see the mainland becoming more like HK everyday

    1. what is even more sad is that HK is becoming more China everyday with their actions and attitudes (not using their brains much, nor common sense.) all attributible in laws, people’s views on society and universal ideas. (i.e enactment of Article 23, hatred toward ‘ah-mahs’ for getting residency, ability to assemble, ability for journalism/voice their opinions/displeasures.)

  10. China has adopted and is ‘perfecting’ the worst aspect of America: vile, “winner take all” Capitalism. Exercising personal greed without concern for others’ well-being is supposed to lead to the greatest good, according to American ‘religion’ that we (I am Amercan) have promoted. If China does not search for its own soul very soon, it will be tragic.

    1. Try looking at it the other way around:
      America has cleverly managed to mitigate the worst aspects of the world: villainy, corruption, greed, inequity, exercise of trivial power, etc.

      Of course, a lot of people criticize America because those things still exist (or maybe they criticize America because media bigwigs do, and most people are media-led sheep). Of course those unwanted things are not completely absent, but criticizing America for having them is like criticizing airplanes because covered wagons were sooo much better.

      There are legitimate reasons to criticize America, but comparing it to nations like China generally offers a context to criticize the other nation.

      Think of what China was like before it was cold and heartless? That’s right, it was cold and heartless. It’s been that way, on average, for all of recorded history.

      1. riiight and thats the reason why people are “occupying wall Street” now, yes?

        cos Corporate greed and money politics doesn’t exist in the US?

        1. The reason why people are occupying Wall Street in the US is the opposite of why they aren’t in China – because they can.

          No wu mao for you.

      2. and let’s not forget why did they become cold and heartless?

        it’s largely due to the eight country union armies carving China like it was a free for all buffet when they were still a united country. If it was me, I’d be pissed to. Imagine the UN carving up the US, giving Washington DC to Britain, Carolinas to China and Florida to Brazil.

        what would your reaction be, when you finally get a chance to pull yourself out of that humiliation?

        would human rights really still stand in the way of restoring your glory?

        1. actually China was carved up due to the stupidity of the chinese emperor for closing off the country, isolating itself. Furthermore, corruption and selfishess (continues today) witin the government and society is what caused more decay and probably eventual destruction of China.

          Back in history, the foreign powers came in and fnished the job with technology and opium.

          Today, polluting the environment, corruption, stupidity will cause history to repeat itself.

      3. Actually America was carved up by multiple countries. At various times in American history England, France, Spain, and Mexico all owned parts of the US. In fact, the State of Texas flew under the flag of 6 different countries. Have you ever thought about the unofficial motto of the US – “e pluribus unum (out of many, one)”. This is why it is called the UNiTED States of America.

  11. Something has to give with this economic disparity between the different regions in China and other areas. Government will have to do something about housing, affordability and interest rates.

    1. If you have been paying attention, the Chinese government is very much aware of these problems and has a plan to begin to deal with it in the current 5 year plan. Does India have such a plan? No. Does the US have ANY kind of plan. Yes, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer and to destroy the middle class.

      1. Unfortunately, Chinese government isn’t going to do ANYTHING about it even with their 5 year plan…have you heard about the CCP cadres in Beijing having their entire compound air-filtered (200 clean air machines) and their food supply grown organically outside Beijing (or imported) while the air in Beijing is deemed hazardous by instruments measured using world pollution standards?

        US can turn things around by rid of conservative republicans and idiots (widely known hypocrites) like Perry, Bockman, Cain, Gringrich, etc. Get rid of laws allowing corporations to contribute to campaigns.

        Then allow shareholders to decide the salary of the Executives.

  12. I think the relevant point of this whole essay is: if a person from the country side is this angry, just think about the ones who didn’t make it. And, there’s a lot of them.

    The wind is changing direction.

    Also: we didn’t hear much about that cup of coffee that was 18 years in the making. I guess this person likes their coffee bitter?

  13. I am going through a similar situation in middle east, I taught English to myself since age 10, I’m majoring chemistry and looking forward to future. College is the only way out to a good, prosper life.

    Most of western people take their rights their fathers established for granted. They just don’t know or appreciate how good they have over there.

    1. unfortunately, at this rate, graduate school is the only way out to a good, prosper life (in the US)

      even today college don’t necessary a path to a good, prosper life…

  14. 麦子 & Cathy,

    Thank you for that! 好运,许多祝福你! I too came from a poor rural area. I know the trials and tribulations that I’m sure are not as hard as you went through. Congratulations!

  15. The Chinese think they’re so smart, but I bet you she probably eats cats and whatever vermin those villagers eat, which makes her worthless in my book.

  16. “Since that time I’ve earned a master’s degree, and currently live in Shanghai where my annual salary is 80,000 RMB. I fought for eighteen years, and can finally sit down with you for a cup of coffee. I’m now a resident in this big, international city, and I’m no different from the white collar workers here. However, I can never forget the struggles my family and I went through.”

    If you landed in the west or somewhere like Canada, you will have to go through this same experience again, but do not expect any whitey to sit down with you .

    And may be you will never get a good paying job, may be you will work in a factory, in a warehouse or in the back of a bank.

    Even if I don’t know all of them, I do know a lot of Chinese expats went back to China to sit down and have coffee with people like you, migrant worker/white collar friends.

    Do not come here looking to make friends with westerners and don’t expect a white man to give a shit about your life, you are Chinese from China and that makes you a commie in their eyes.

  17. “…From the moment I was born, our life’s path swerved away from each other. I was given a rural resident card while you got a city one. If I grew up keeping my rural residence, I wouldn’t be able to work in the city today. I would also be denied social security, and proper medical care. You might ask: “Why must you come to the city? Isn’t the country good enough? The air is fresh, and it’s never crowded.” But the country has no proper healthcare system. During the SARs scare our country seemed to “suddenly” realize that its rural healthcare was completely defunct….”

    This is exactly why China MUST STOP THIS SEGREGATION…. Why Chinese born in the rural and chinese born in the city get different benefits from the China gov’t and different ID cards? The China gov’t needs to break down this segregation and pour their gov’t resources into the rural area and CLEAN UP pollutions, relocate people to better housing, establish medical facilities, public school, etc…The rural people at this moment need to control their population by stop giving birth and take better care of themselves and their environment first.

    1. Some times I wonder about those crazy Chinese leaders that are taking China out of communism and into who the hells knows what.

      The Chinese commie govt is sending thousands of doctors to Afrika, of all places and not to rural China to help the poor Chinese peasants in the run down dirt poor villages.

  18. Some immigrants hoping to say hello or bonjour to Canada are now going to have to prove they actually know how to say it.

    Starting this July, certain people (Asians more like Chinese) immigrating under the provincial nominee program will face language testing, in English and French.

    So if you want to come to Canada, you will have to go through that same experience again, but do not expect any whitey to sit down with you for coffee if do not speak like a Canadian.

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