Development and migration are often closely linked phenomena for obvious reasons- mainly people go where there is work. Global migration of which I had studied a bit about before coming to China is often and almost always, if it is labor migration, marked by the trend that ” developing countries” migrate to the ” developed countries” . In China the trend is people from the village migrate to the city but the ongoing and expansive development in China also means that the “village” and “countryside” is rapidly changing and now there are more and more cities and more and more developed towns as well. So migration happens on multiple levels and in multiple directions whereas the early migration was more often to mostly cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Yet now the patterns although still overwhelming to these cities are much more complex and diversified. Yet Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou remain the cities which maintain more stringent hukou- registration status- policies, more so than other cities, because of their large populations and the desire to control the impact of urbanization on these cities.
The growing development and complexity of current migration trends made my initial project, which had been to travel along a migration route more difficult than I had expected. The idea had come from a project I had done on a newly constructed road in nepal. In Nepal there had been only one route- one road and one direction (towards the city of Pokhara). No one who was from a small village in this region of Nepal was really “migrating” to another small village along the route or off the route or to anywhere besides the destination of the one road. In china, the question of studying the migrant population and the route was firstly how to define the route. Would I define it by the existence of a road, which may eventually end up leading to Shanghai but may connect and lead and intersect with many other cities where people are migrating to as well? Or I do I define the route by people, because people may come from one place to Shanghai and then I would determine the route as the way they- a certain community- travels there. Therefore a series of roads, car rides, train rides etc. that connect their community and their destination city. So, this question was my initial challenge.
Yet, in china, migrants are coming from so many towns and villages and other cities even, I had no idea what community this could be and how to get in touch with people in that community. It is quite hard to just find villages or places off the beaten track as a foreigner without connections a community from my experience so I felt I would need to reinterpret my plan a bit. Also originally I had wanted to find a student to travel with me which I think would have made the original idea more possible but I originally didn’t find this while in the U.S. or once in China after looking through different connections I had here my first couple weeks. Therefore, I had made a connection with one organization working in different migrant schools and community centers in Shanghai, so I decided to reinterpret the initial plan and learn what I could from being involved in this way at least for the first five weeks.
So, I coordinated and volunteered with the organization at two community centers and two different schools in their summer programs pretty much all week long for the month of July. So through these experiences I had the opportunity to have many brief conversations and informal interviews with different families about their experiences moving into the city and also about the opportunities for their children in terms of accessing education in shanghai. One of the social services that is derived from ones’ hukou ( which is their place of origin) status is access to public education. So for many years, it was nearly impossible for migrant children to attend school in Shanghai yet in recent years this has been reformed.
Therefore the schools I was volunteering in were both a mix of private migrant schools and newly government funded and legal migrant schools. Although now, most of the private migrant schools in the city have been shut down if they have not been registered and become funded through the government. The reform in many ways marks positive steps to improve the education opportunities for the children of migrant workers, yet, there still remains very little, practically none from what I experienced, opportunity for migrant children to attend high school in Shanghai unless they have money to pay for private Shanghainese high schools.
So many 15 years old children, will either return back to their hometowns to take their exams in there to enter into high school in their hometown or will drop out and begin working in the city. Also, many kids will be sent to live in their hometowns when they are younger with their grandparents. Mainly the reason for this that I encountered is either that the parents believe the educational opportunity will be better for them because they may continue to high school more easily as the exam and the curriculum will be the same instead of having a different curriculum and exam in Shanghai and then returning home to try to take the hometown exam to enter high school. The other major reason that I found was just the cost of living was more expensive in Shanghai so it costs more to support a child there so it is easy for them to stay in their hometowns. Mainly all of the families or people I spoke to were women either grandmothers or mothers themselves. Mostly the fathers were working and if it was the grandmother often both parents were working. This was another interesting thing was many grandmothers I met who migrated to the city to live with their children’s family. Most people who I have met plan to return home and say they just are there to make money. Most are from Anhui province but many from Sichuan, Henan, Hubei and others well. Everyone also said that there hometowns are changing rapidly and many said they could find work there but they wouldn’t make as much money as they can in Shanghai. This is also a new and interesting change in what defines the (actually too large to define in any way but still ..) the migrant population in Shanghai which is there are definitely now more wealthy migrants, which I have understood was not at all the case in the past. A few people when I asked them about their traveling home now, they told me how they don’t take the bus or the train anymore because now they own their own cars so they can drive themselves. So this is another interesting new trend among the community but mainly I tried to remain focused on the education: their plans for their kids, were theirs kids in Shanghai or in the hometown and why etc.
Almost all of the research has been very qualitative. It has mainly been just speaking to who I could in the time that I could and asking them about their lives and organizing someone to help translate as well. The translation always made things feel a bit more formalized than I would have liked them to feel. I think it would of made a significant difference in this part of the experience If I could have been able to really speak the language and more casually understand the people I was around. One thing I have realized and been reflecting on in terms of translation is that a conversation never really carries on that well or naturally. I feel the translation kind of prepared or made people expect the next question and therefore they didn’t really elaborate. Of course they very kindly really tried to answer my questions but therefore, everything I knew about the lives and experiences of the people I met and spoke with has kind of been formed through my questions and what I maybe was understanding or finding important and interesting about their lives, hometowns or education.
Therefore, I think a great flaw of my research was that I don’t think in Shanghai I really understood the “issue” of education or the ideas of migration which I have been thinking over, in the deeper sense of the way they interact as just a part of different people’s daily lives and thoughts etc. I think a large part of the challenge of this and the time spent in Shanghai was this distance from people’s daily lives. For most of my time, I stayed in a hostel in the center and daily commuted out the different communities. There was no place for me to stay in those communities. There were no hotels and there is very little space in most people’s homes in Shanghai so therefore I felt a great distance from understanding these issues and ideas with a greater understanding of the context of just their role in people’s everyday lives. This was very big challenge for me in Shanghai but still I think the challenges still served to be important learning experience about how hard this whole “research” process is really . Yet still, the volunteering was wonderful and the kids were wonderful and everyone I spoke to was very kind and generous and so were all the organizations that allowed me to come and help and let me learn from what they do!!!!!