"The conditions are appalling in so many cases, and [migrants] keep coming back for more," Robin Munro of China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong. "For those living in the country, this is a once in a lifetime chance to make a separation between the farm - the life of a peasant - and the city. And they are grabbing for it. They have no concept of unions, benefits, representation."
Yet change also creates new expectations and frustrations among migrants. Take Xiang Li, from Shang Xi. He's shy, well groomed, wears turtleneck and blazer, with only tell-tale white socks giving away his background. He eats a plate of rice and vegetables for lunch. Xiang left home at 17 and spent three years in Guangdong factories. The life there was too rough for him; he was in a garment factory that withheld pay and had a curfew. So he came north. He, too, is going home for spring festival. But he has not saved, and will only bring back two pairs of tennis shoes - not an impressive bounty.
Xiang is caught between two worlds. He can read and write, and follows the news and watches movies and TV as much as possible. He doesn't want a farm life, but finds the assembly line life equally hard. He spends all his extra time at the computer parlors in town, where for 50 cents an hour he can log on or play video games. (Even at midday the parlors are full, with many migrants slumped over, asleep, in carrels.) The family expects Xiang to help, but in Yang Dai, he always goes out with his friends. "I'm no good. I can't save," he says with sadness.
After four years as a migrant, Xiang is always tired. He often dreams of studying in a college, something he admits is "not realistic," as he puts it. "I don't know if I can live this life anymore," he says. "I don't know what to do."
Migrants are called dagongcai, slang for peasants in the city. Most of them have arrived here with the laoshang, or groups of workers recruited from the same village. In Yang Dai, eight to 12 of them live in tiny rooms with beds stacked four high to the ceiling on two sides of the room. No one wears their uniforms outside the factory; it is a point of pride to wear coats, slacks, and leather shoes on the street.