What’s it like battling poverty and being unable to retire as a migrant worker in China today?
You can call me Sister He. I’m from Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. I’m over the age of 60 and still working as a housekeeper.
Decades ago, when I was young, I saw my older relatives living in apartment buildings with cash to spare and no real cares. I thought I’d also have that kind of life when I got old.
Back then, I felt that even though I didn’t have much education, as long as I worked hard I wouldn’t do so badly for myself. But now I feel those dreams were only illusions.
With no pension, I can’t stop working
I started working around 1978, in Qingshan village in Chifeng. It was a very remote place. They were hiring laborers for a new factory and an orchard. I dug holes for fruit trees, dug irrigation ditches, spread fertilizer. It was exhausting.
How harsh were the conditions? That spring, I had to go without cooking oil for a whole month.
At the time I wished every day to get hired on as a regular worker. If they’d done that back then, I’d be getting a pension of around 3,000 RMB a month by now.
But after working there for about a year, they suddenly announced there was a limited quota for hiring full-time workers, so they were going to take on the children and dependents of the factory manager and party secretary first. The rest of us couldn’t get hired, and that was how they drove me away.
At the time I felt like a deflating ball with all the air going out of me—I had worked so hard, but there was nothing you could do.
They told me, you’re still young, if you don’t like it you can go home. It was easier to hoodwink people back then; there’s no way you could get away with something like this today.
That incident changed my whole life. From that moment on, I had to support myself. I have never stopped working, because there was no way I could ever stop.
Lots of people still work even though they’re collecting a pension, so they have 8,000 or 10,000 RMB left over each month. I can only save about 2,000 each month. I’ve gone to the social insurance office in my hometown many times due to my money issues. I said, is it possible to get a supplement to the money I’m making now? Could they give me just 1,200 to 1,500 RMB a month? Just so I don’t have to keep working to feed myself when I’m old.
The people at the social insurance office refused me three times. I asked them why other provinces allowed this, and they just said it wasn’t part of their policy. I regret that I didn’t record the conversation. All I could do was swallow my tears and go back to Beijing.
Why is it so hard for a woman to go out and work for herself?
Aside from not having a pension, my family is another reason I still have to work so hard.
My husband and I married in 1995. Around that time there was this trend of going south to start businesses. He insisted on striking out with the rest, and got himself deep in debt. I told him not to do it, but he wouldn’t listen. He boasted, “Just watch me, I’m gonna leave here today, and when I come back I’ll bring you 10,000 kuai!”
But when he returned, he came bearing IOUs to the tune of 20,000 RMB. When the debt collectors came knocking, he would shut himself inside and force me to answer the door. It felt like if it had been the Japanese devils who had come, he probably would have sent me out to greet their guns.
He wasn’t making much money, so I opened a barbershop near the vegetable market. It was just a mirror on the ground and a sign that said “Haircuts.” People back then didn’t have such high standards, so they generally liked how they looked after I was done cutting. More and more people started coming to get their hair cut. I made over 100 RMB in the first 20 days, and bought my husband a kilo of biscuits and a liter of rice wine.
When I got home I was feeling pretty happy, pretty confident. I thought he might treat me better after that. But we got into a fight as soon as I arrived. He took my clippers, which cost me 120 RMB and gave very smooth haircuts, and threw them over the wall. My father-in-law also said this kind of work was lowly and made them lose face.
There was nothing I could do. Later, I went back out to make steamed buns. I’d only put down a 50 RMB deposit and hadn’t officially started working yet, but my father-in-law would call me up to five times a day. Whenever I saw that it was him calling, my heart would skip a beat. He would say, how could a daughter-in-law be out of the house all day—don’t you know how to have a proper marriage?
My husband also told me, “If all you want to do is go out, you might as well be a man!” I could feel my tears welling up.
Why is it so hard for a woman to go out and work for herself?
Back then in Chifeng, you could buy a big 150-square-meter house for 65,000 to 70,000 RMB. If I had been able to go out and work, knowing how hardworking I am, I’d have several houses by now.
But they just wouldn’t let me work. I could only keep on swallowing that bitterness. I served my role as a housewife for a full ten years, caring for my father-in-law after his stroke, and for my daughter.
No place for a 30-something housewife to find work
After my father-in-law died, I discovered that the world of a decade on was completely changed, and the money-making opportunities from before were gone as well. Although I was only in my 30s at the time, I was already past the prime age for finding work. Add in the fact that I had kids, and there was truly nowhere for me to go. Factories and workshops all wanted younger girls.
Meanwhile, our family got deeper and deeper into debt. The debt collectors even came and threatened us: If we kept dodging payments they would burn our house down. So with great difficulty, I gathered up my courage and walked onto a construction site.
I told them that my family owed money; I would do any kind of work if I could make money.
Back then, so long as you had the strength, they had you hauling bricks, passing bricks, carrying cement—extremely tiring work.
Seeing that I had disappeared for several days and wouldn’t pick up the phone, my husband thought that I was about to divorce him. He figured that with all our debt, with his father gone and the kid grown, I would surely have flown the coop as well. But truth be told, it hadn’t even crossed my mind.
He went everywhere asking for my whereabouts. Finally, with some information from a convenience store owner, he found the construction site. As soon as he saw me he asked why I hadn’t picked up. I said, “What’s the use? As soon as I pick up the phone you’ll try to make me come home. All I want is to make some money and get those debt collectors off our backs.”
Then he pulled me down the street and had me look at the missing person posters on the telephone poles. Only then did I notice that all those flyers were for me. He had put them up days ago, but because the only thing on my mind was making money, I never even took a moment to lift my head and see them.
I slowly realized that if I wanted to make money, I needed to leave my hometown. So my husband and I moved together to Beijing. Since I had quite a bit of experience as a housewife, I entered the housekeeping business.
Becoming an old “Beijing drifter”
When I first arrived in Beijing, people wanted housekeepers to be under 35 years old, but I was already 47.
I always started with a trial period. If they were satisfied, then I’d start working on an hourly basis, and finally I would be retained as a live-in housekeeper. I got all my jobs this way. Although it wasn’t easy, I kept at it.
There was one house, where I went to wipe a door frame, and down came a big pile of cockroaches, both dead and alive. So I heated a ton of water and scalded the house inside and out. Because cockroaches carry germs, I threw out my whole outfit after I was finished. In the end everything was spick and span and I got 50 RMB. Anyway, I felt that as long as you paid me, I could do the work.
I had a really tough time working for one Korean family. They always said there was water on the ground, but actually, it was my tears.
Because the family required me to scrub the floors by hand—even if you took a mop and mopped the whole floor, and then scrubbed out the corners by hand, that wasn’t okay. You had to take a rag, fold it over twice, then squat down and scrub, and your posture had to be just right. Sometimes if I couldn’t squat anymore I would kneel on the ground, but their floors contained formaldehyde, so the housekeepers would end up with leg pain.
The house was very cold, and the family wouldn’t let me use warm water even for washing the vegetables, and wouldn’t let me wear gloves, so my hands were also in a lot of pain.
That family had a kid named Barbie, who would get pee all over the toilet. When they noticed they would say that I hadn’t wiped it down properly, and I didn’t dare protest, so I would go and wipe it down again. They only put a stop to it after the kid’s grandmother saw what was happening. She asked me why I hadn’t said anything, but I was afraid that if I did speak she would give me another tongue-lashing.
I earned my reputation through sweat and tears. Lots of employers would ask for me by name, and voluntarily raise my pay. After several years, the debt that had tormented us for over a decade was finally paid off. But then something else happened.
I finally set down my burden, and he leaves me
One day, I was riding my scooter down the street when a sedan came out of nowhere and hit me. I lost my ability to walk, and had to go on bed rest to recover. At the time, I was working for a pregnant woman who was close to her due date, so I had to find a substitute fast. I passed the job along to another housekeeper.
That was in 2014: I worked only three or four hours a day, with two breaks, and could make 2,600 a month. Back then, even a younger woman wouldn’t have been able to make that much. The substitute said, “Sister He, when somebody is good to me, I never forget it.”
But she broke her promise.
She went and worked for a bit over a month, then one day she took 100 RMB and came to our place to see me.
I even cooked for her in my own kitchen, stewing cowpeas from my hometown together with rice—a creamy, aromatic dish, very tasty. But while I was cooking, she and my husband added each other on WeChat, and from then on they started talking daily. It was like he had become a whole different person. We’d spent half our lives together, but I suddenly felt he was a stranger.
We used to charge our phones side by side, but from then on he wouldn't let me touch his phone anymore. Every night at 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m., the messages kept coming. One day I tried to grab his phone, but he wouldn't let me look. He finally smashed both our phones on the ground. We ended up breaking four phones total on account of all this. When he got done smashing he would curse me out, saying I’d been comfortable for too long.
I said, "Why do I feel you’ve got it all backwards? Since you and I have been together, we’ve never been comfortable. That 20,000 in debt, your father, the kid we couldn’t support.. all those years I told you I was too tired, this burden is too heavy, I want to set it down and rest for a bit. And you wouldn’t let me rest. Then when I finally set down that burden, you leave me.”
Back then we didn’t have enough even to live on, and I was paying his old-age insurance. But as soon as the insurance was paid, he found another woman to spend it on.
Later on I discovered that his transit pass, bank card, resident certificate, wallet—he had given it all to her. I could feel my heart shattering.
There are probably many women like me
Now I just want to save up some money. In the future, no matter how many times he comes looking for money, I won’t give it to him. Because I simply can’t give any more.
I was sarcastic and polite with him that night, in a way that I’d never been. I said: You demand a wife who is hard-working, good-looking, and kind-hearted, who waits on your dad, waits on your kids, and in the end you spend your money on someone else. Then you come asking me for money—brother, you really ask too much.
My whole life, I haven’t spent any of his money. All the money I’d made up until then had gone to him. I feel there are probably many more women like me.
In our society today, those who make a fortune end up running off to some other country, and those who make money at home run off with other folks.
Now I want to tell you young ones out there, when you get married, make sure you get control of the finances. These days, money is the only thing with real power.
In our money-hungry society, you can’t do without it. I’ve lived my life in poverty, where even relatives take advantage of you—it’s always been this way. I think I’m too strong-willed, or else I’d have killed myself long ago.
That woman wanted my husband to buy me a house in my hometown and send me home while the two of them stayed in Beijing.
I felt like I was becoming the family’s puppet. I made a trip back to my hometown—the same spinach that’s 2.50 kuai a bunch in Beijing is 3.50 at home. I thought, I make so little money back home; how am I supposed to survive like this?
So I insisted on coming back to Beijing, I need to be in Beijing. Even if I can’t keep working like this I still want to be in Beijing, I just have to be in Beijing.
Maybe I’m poor, maybe I’ve got nothing to my name, but what I do have is an unyielding spirit.
Being an old housekeeper
I’m over 60 now. Let’s say I go looking for a job, go to the housekeeping agency—not even to the client’s house—as soon as age comes up, it’s bye-bye for me.
I've always been hard-working. I get more done than others, but I make less; the food I make tastes better, but somehow it’s worth less.
The truth is, when I get off work I sometimes can’t stop thinking about these things. I don’t get a wink of sleep the whole night, and the next day I still have to go to work.
These days I’m not as willing to travel for work. A few days ago there was a postpartum meal prep gig—just two meals a day, and they’d give me 5,000 RMB—but it was too far. I said, no matter how much they pay me, I’m not commuting over that kind of distance anymore.
Because I’ve already been in an accident. Lots of people thought I’d never stand on my own again. Being able to take care of myself is already pretty good. I don’t want to get myself all smashed up again.
I quit a job just a few days ago. The family had me getting off work at 8 p.m., but they wouldn’t let me eat at their place after I made their dinner. It would be already 10 p.m. by the time I got home, and 11 once I’ve cooked—there’s no way I can take a job like that.
Nowadays, no one is at loss for food; even in trash cans there’s food. Even if I have to bring my own food, I still need to eat my fill. That’s the only way that I can do this kind of work. It’s okay if I can’t get any meat—I don’t particularly like meat. As long as I can fill my belly I’m alright.
This is the only way that I can work, that I can be of service in our society, and at the same time have something for myself.
To tell you the truth, my leg has been hurting all this time. When it gets to be too much I massage it; I pound it. Sometimes I take some medicine or stick on a plaster, and when it feels a bit better I keep right on working.
If I get a cold I take care of it myself too. I just take a pill and sleep with a shower cap on, and after a night’s sleep I’m more or less better. I do everything I can not to go to the hospital, because if I buy medicine there’s no way to get reimbursed by the state health insurance.
Only dread for the future
I think I’ll only stop when I’m incapable of working. I want to do something else, but there’s no one to support me.
I have a daughter, and even though she would never say she won’t take care of me, I know that I wasn’t able to send her to college. This has always made me feel like I've let her down, so I don’t count on her caring for me in my old age.
These days, only very talented students can earn high salaries, get themselves a nice apartment, and make a decent living. She makes so little, and has to spend it all just to bring up her own child. I won’t be putting any more pressure on her.
I’m also thinking about what I should do in the future. I really feel at a loss. If I was still with my husband, we wouldn’t get along, but now that we’ve separated I don’t have a pension. It’s also hard to get along without money, so I’d like to open up a soup shop or milk tea shop.
People said that for milk tea, you need at the very least 300,000 RMB to open up a shop. I’m just too afraid to take the risk. For someone like me, over 60 years old, it’s impossible to get a loan. I feel that even though I’ve done so much, I haven’t gotten anywhere.
I’m already old, and I’m not afraid of being made fun of anymore. Everyone calls migrant workers “Beijing drifters,” and now I really feel like I’m drifting. With no money in hand, I’m really like a floating husk—I’ve got nothing left.
I once heard someone say she was also over 60. She was drawing her pension, earning housekeeping wages, and on top of that had gotten Beijing’s social insurance, so it’s free for her to take the bus.
Then I thought, in this society the richer you are, the richer you get. I work so hard every day, but have never known that kind of money. All of a sudden my tears started coming down, so I turned away and ran out to cry. I waited until I cried all my tears out before heading back in to keep chatting.
These days a lot of people praise me, saying I’m so strong, still hustling so hard at this age.
I’m always working multiple jobs at the same time. Every day I just scrub, wash, scrub, bring other people’s kids to and from school—I never have leisure time of my own. I never get to relax, or go on a walk with someone. When I go to my jobs I always run, so running the whole way to work is the closest I get to a walk.
They always ask me, how long will I keep going? I don’t know either, there is no end.
And I don’t dare to think of the future. If you have me think 5, 10 years ahead...all I feel is dread.
I can only keep going like this, step by step. When I can no longer stand up, then it’s all over.
Translated by Nathaniel J. Gan