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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


Greg Girard/Contact Press Images for TIME.
Jin Dan gave up her simple existence for the bright lights and promise of Shenzhen

Moving Out, Moving Up
A country girl makes the lonely move to the big city in a quest to find her dreams
By WENDY KAN

As a girl growing up in rural Wenxiang county in Liaoning province, Jin Dan spent much of her spare time scrambling up tree-lined mountains or taking dips in the cool, clear river that flowed near her house. Sometimes she would bring along a bucket to fill with water to keep fish alive at home. Her designated chore in the family was to cook the day's rice. Says Jin: "Life was quite simple there and then."

A still youthful 20-year-old, Jin now feels that life has grown a bit complicated. Two years ago, she decided to fulfill her childhood dream of living in a bright, bustling Chinese city. Anshan, the steel town where her family had moved when she was 13, was not what she had in mind. "Anshan is all factories," she says. "The buildings are no more than five stories high." When Jin was ready to strike out, she headed for Shenzhen, the southern boomtown that boasts China's highest per capita income. The city held another appeal: Jin could stay with a cousin who lived there. "As a girl, it's not safe to go to a city without relatives," she says.

The pattern is typical among Chinese villagers: hook up with relatives who can look out for you. In the quest for well-paying jobs, young mainland migrants regularly travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, a choice often determined by where the closest major city is or where specific skills are in demand. Jin had her own set of considerations: she was a single young woman with limited computer skills and a wide network of relatives. Unlike many others who are trapped in China's vast hinterland, she could pursue her ambitions by moving from one city to another, in a kind of familial connect-the-dots. Usually, young migrants who follow in the steps of their urban-dwelling friends or relatives work, save money and eventually return home with their earnings to subsidize a more comfortable existence for themselves and their families. Some, of course, remain in their new environs, sending money back home while helping to build up their newly adopted cities. Shenzhen, for example, was once a fishing village of 20,000 people; today it's home to 4 million people.

On one level, Shenzhen was exactly what Jin had hoped for. "The first time I flew into Shenzhen at night, I was amazed by the buildings, the lights, the scenery," Jin says. But the adjustment didn't go smoothly. A Mandarin-speaker, she struggled to understand Cantonese and felt daunted by Shenzhen's relatively sophisticated and cosmopolitan citizens. With her high-school education, she found work as a typist in one of the thousands of foreign-owned factories that have set up in the city, but she quit a year later. "You couldn't learn anything working there," she says. "I felt like I was part of a machine." An employment agency soon helped her land a better job; she now works as a secretary in a law firm in one of the city's gleaming skyscrapers.

In many ways, Jin is still the same village girl. Her routine is simple: she goes to work, returns to her cousin's apartment, absorbs books on law and English and cooks herself dinner before going to bed. On weekends, she journeys two hours to visit her cousin, who is now married and living in a new apartment with her husband. Jin gets along well with her co-workers, but they don't socialize after hours.

In fact, Jin says she hasn't made many friends at all. She keeps in touch with high-school classmates from Anshan, writing letters, sending e-mails and calling from time to time. "I came by myself to Shenzhen," she explains. "You can't make friends here like you did in school." As a result, Jin doesn't take advantage of much of what the city has to offer, including its notorious nightlife. "The places for tourists are quite expensive," she says. "I just look in from the outside." But city-living still has its allure: "You can learn new things and develop yourself," says Jin. "And making money is much easier."

Jin plans to pursue another dream typical of young migrants from the countryside: to save up enough money to attend university. That should be doable. She still lives for free at her cousin's old apartment, and her parents don't need her to send money home. For the moment, in fact, they're sending funds to her. In a year or so, Jin plans to leave Shenzhen and move to the northern port city of Dalian, where she can live—naturally—with a relative, in this case a great-aunt.

The plan for Dalian: to attend a foreign-language institute where she can study English and business in order to become an interpreter in a foreign venture. After her studies, Jin figures she'll remain in Dalian to fulfill another wish: finding a husband. With a proper partner by her side, or so traditional thinking goes, Jin can then go wherever she pleases.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

government ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: GOVERNMENT
National Pride: Patriotism makes a comeback

Sport: The basketballer denied an outside shot

Invisible Fences: Authorities keep a rein on kids partly by not telling them what is and isn't allowed

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Home Sweet Home: Citizens now aspire to buy a flat

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Big Think: Intellectualism did not die with the 1980s

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