Going home for Chinese New Year

Rob Schmitz Jan 20, 2011

Going home for Chinese New Year

Rob Schmitz Jan 20, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: Chinese President Hu Jintao’s on the move today. After lunch on Capitol Hill, he’s having dinner in Chicago with the mayor and the governor of Illinois.

Back home, meanwhile, Hu’s countrymen are gearing up for what can only be called an epic travel challenge. The lunar New Year is approaching. Over the next couple of weeks, the Chinese will make an estimated 2.5 billion passenger trips.

Train stations are beyond packed, as our China Correspondent Rob Schmitz found out.

Rob Schmitz: For the Chinese, New Year’s is a time of re-evaluating your life: Where you’ve been, where you’re going.

Sound of whistle, crowds

…And where you’re staying put. There’s little else to think about while you’re standing, motionless, in line with hundreds of thousands of others for two straight days just to get a train ticket. Just ask Wang Donghe.

Wang Donghe: I got here last night, about 24 hours ago. It’ll be another day before I can get a chance to buy a ticket. Even then, I’m not sure I’ll get one.

A megaphone on a police car belts out a looped recording, warning people to stay away from scalpers. Wang’s greatest hope is that by this time tomorrow he’ll have a ticket that’ll let him to stand, wedged between other migrants, on a 36-hour train trip back home to Sichuan province so he can see his son.

Wang’s 39. He assembles furniture at a warehouse for $500 a month. Half of that goes to rent for a bed in a crowded room; the other half to his family. But lately, he’s set more aside to cover the rising cost of food. Rapid inflation makes him wonder what how he can go on.

Wang: I can’t stay in Shanghai long term on such a low salary. I’ve been talking to a colleague about starting our own business making furniture, but who knows how that’ll turn out. I really want to stay here. In the end, Shanghai will dump me before I dump her.

Men laughing

Further back in line, Yuan Shiping’s found his own way of dumping Shanghai. He’s making the break with some help from a bottle of 120-proof baijiu, rice liquor.

Yuan Shiping: The price for everything is going up, and my salary’s the same. This year, I’ve lost a lot more money living here.

The 45-year-old construction worker poses a question: Why live in a crowded room in a crowded city when he’s got a house on a farm back in Sichuan? Yuan takes another swig of his baijiu, wipes his lip and announces to his friends he’s had it with Shanghai.

Yuan: These days, a lot of us aren’t crazy about living in Shanghai. Why live so far away from our families when we can get a decent job back home? Things in our hometown have improved. So this time, I plan to stay there for good.

Yuan’s friends stare at the ground, smirking. They’ve heard this before. And they’ll hear it again on the two-day trip back home. And after New Year’s is over, they’ll most likely hear it yet again, on their return trip back to Shanghai.

At Shanghai’s Railway Station, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: There’s more about Rob’s jaunt down to the train station on his blog, pictures of very long lines as well.

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