From assembly lines to massage parlors, four young people with university degrees recount the joy and pain from taking up low-skilled labor
Kong Yiji, the famous disillusioned scholar and laughingstock in Lu Xun’s novel, has recently been resurrected as one of the hottest trendy memes for Chinese netizens. With the slang “taking off Kong Yiji’s long gown (脱掉孔乙己的长衫, tuō diào Kǒng Yǐjǐ de chángshān),” young Chinese graduates have taken to venting online about their bleak prospects in China’s job market. Unable to find suitable jobs, they’re forced to swallow their pride and settle for blue-collar jobs that do not typically require higher education.
So, who are highly educated laborers, and how are they doing? Recently, plenty of our listeners answered Story FM’s call for stories of how they ended up in low-skilled jobs after getting advanced degrees. Eventually, we selected four narrators in different stages of life and different industries.
Lao Ding, 39, bachelor’s degree
My name’s Lao Ding. As a fresh university graduate, I worked in design and marketing. Later on, I drove for a ride-hailing platform, then as a delivery driver. For a short while afterward, I worked the assembly line in a pharmaceutical factory.
I was born to a working class family, so I’ve always been somewhat frugal and didn’t squander my money on fancy clothes. So, I often attracted some disdainful looks, particularly from my supervisors at work. One of them was especially mean-spirited, and commented that my unremarkable fashion choices were a sign of my failure to keep up with the times.
Back then, it seemed to me that my superior constantly tried to make things hard for me. His reviews on my performance only grew more and more strict with every passing day, and my performance scores lower and lower. I sensed he wanted to force me out. I was about to turn 35 and trapped at this ordeal.
I had grown to hate design as a job by then, while my boss also kept torturing me. I did want to resign, but I was all too aware that I couldn’t afford losing the source of income my family relied upon.
But it wasn’t just about the bullying. My eyes were taking the toll from all those revisions that inevitably came with every single project, and I certainly wasn’t resting enough, either. Eventually, I took a day off to go see a doctor. On the same day, my superior chose to treat the whole department to dinner. The cynical remarks that later filled the office chat group had no names attached, but it’s not like I couldn’t figure out they were scorning me.
It all made me feel really ill at ease and I eventually saw no point in staying. So, I threw the towel and resigned.
Story FM: Afterward, Lao Ding wound up in sales, only to be laid off as a result of the pandemic. Motivated by the need to support his family, Lao Ding considered entrepreneurship, but he wasn’t quite cut out for the risk-taking. He craved stability. He had previously worked part-time as a driver for ride-hailing platform, so he decided to jump back behind the steering wheel, full-time.
Actually, when I first started, I felt I was above the job. I had a university degree, but now I was practically a taxi driver. It’s a job that anyone can do, and doesn’t come with much of a social status. My family disapproved, and deep down I shared their dislike, but I had to survive.
I customized my own private vehicle so that I could hit the roads as a driver for hire, but for the most part my passengers didn’t give a crap about the car they hopped on, and made a mess. It pained me to see that. Once I nearly got in a proper quarrel with one passenger who chewed betel nuts and spat the dregs all around. I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Sir, this is a public space and you’re not my only passenger. Kindly keep the car clean.”
He wasn’t apologetic. His cursing was the last straw for me, so I pulled over to reason with him, except I had to compromise and pick my battles. The guy was threatening to file a complaint on the platform about my attitude, and I couldn’t afford that, not when the system was likely to penalize me. This, in turn, would affect my acceptance rate for future rides, or even result in a fine.
The platform’s judgment is not always fair. It’s difficult to collect evidence, and the platform often rules in the passenger’s favor.
One day, I picked up a passenger close to noon for a ride to a high-speed railway station. The weather was relatively hot, which compounded my exhaustion after hours behind the wheel. It took every ounce of willpower in me not to close my eyelids. Only once I dropped the passenger at his destination I parked on the side of the road to doze off for a while.
Driving is a physically taxing job. Not good for your lower back. Now, if I as much sit for an hour or two, I would feel discomfort.
Story FM: Eventually, after eight years on the road, Lao Ding’s car was no longer suitable for business. He had to look for a new job, and this time he scoured ads in WeChat groups until a recruiting agency landed him a job on the assembly line at a pharmaceutical factory.
On my very first day, I took a safety training in the morning. In the afternoon, a supervisor took me to the workshop to get me acquainted to the process. My team was tasked with processing harvested medicinal herbs that a machine had crushed into rough lumps. We had to pick out the impurities before further crushing up the medicine to a finer medley of herbs. Mind you, we did this all by hand, so we had to wear rubber gloves at all times. Sometimes, after a long day of work, my hands were so sore that I couldn’t even hold a pair of chopsticks.
I donned a full set of protective clothing, down to a mask and even earplugs —all meant to shield me from the harmful particles released into the air during the production. The constant rumble of the machinery drilled my ears for seven or eight hours a day.
No, I never did adapt, even to the last day before I quit. My hands stayed sore—That’s a pain we all shared, even very experienced workers.
Story FM: Lao Ding had really intended to stay strong at his new job despite everything. He had never stopped feeling obligated to endure it all for the sake of the income his family needed. However, only three or four months after Lao Ding joined the ranks of the factory, management got into arrears with the workers’ wages. He couldn’t put up with it anymore
I worked here for the money, so I just wanted to get paid. But up until the day I left, I hadn’t seen a penny of my pay. Even reasoning with the bosses didn’t work. I had to threaten to file for labor arbitration for them to finally cough up the wages for my first month.
Story FM: As the pharmaceutic factory cut down production, Lao Ding’s shifts was reduced too. his meant a salary cut. The pressure was too overwhelming; he took to the road again. This time, he drove a second-hand electric bike as a part-time delivery driver—a job he holds to this day.
Many of my former acquaintances from my days as a driver ended up doing deliveries, too. It’s not that bad of a job, anyway. If I have to sweat it to bring the bacon home anyway, I might as well try it. That’s how I justified it when I first started.
We don’t make a lot of money, but the job has widened my horizons. Sometimes, when I deliver food to office buildings, I get to see what other people are doing for a living. Some open mahjong parlors; some run small takeaway joints at incredible efficiency. Some doctors place their medicine orders online rather than with their own hospitals.
Yeah, I’m still a little tired, but it’s a simpler life, compared to my former occupations in design and marketing. My mind’s less overwhelmed with stuff. Sometimes, when the day’s over, I ride back home at my leisure, listening to music on my phone.
Story FM: Lao Ding’s former colleague gave him a lead to his current, full-time position at a HR service company. Wages and benefits are mediocre, but it gives some leeway for professional growth in his city. He plans to keep going at it, while doing deliveries part-time during the weekends and holidays.
Lulu, 34, bachelor’s degree
After finishing my degree in foreign trade, I worked as an office clerk and in customer service for five or six years. I was never all that crazy about it, especially since my customers were often full of negative vibes.
Customers often gave you hell for the most negligible things. They want money, they want the goods, and they don’t hold back from using nasty words or slamming you with a negative review. This didn’t sit well at all with my no-nonsense nature and my own personal sense of justice.
I wasn’t a fan of spending more than 10 hours a day glued to my computer’s screen, either. I’d look up and my eyes would meet the ceiling. I’d look to the side, and it was invariably the same drawn curtains. Pulling my gaze to the ground granted me the same few pots of fake flowers. Man! I really missed out on everything about the world outside—the temperature, how the wind feels on the skin, street cats meowing, the fragrance of flowers...I felt no joy, so I called it quits.
I just felt this overwhelming relief. I’d no longer need to wear glasses! Gone were the days slamming down the keyboard and mouse in anger! Farewell to my hoards of customers!
Story FM: After quitting her job in 2018, Lulu spent the next two years taking a break at home, while keeping an eye out for any suitable openings online. However, she knew she stood no chance against younger people and their lower salary expectations. So, she began to look for jobs that actually interested her.
Growing up, my dad always asked me to give his tired muscles a good rub after a long day, and maybe that’s why I grew up to love giving massages. Shortly before graduating, I went to this massage parlor with some schoolmates. It was a really nice experience, so I asked the therapist, “Do you offer training?“
“Yeah, you can come learn here!“
But that was surely impossible for someone like me. Or at least that’s what I’d told myself. Also, I had to think of my family’s reaction: After all the schooling, how embarrassing would it be for me to become a masseuse? Well, fast forward seven years of detours, and here I am, a professional massage therapist.
I specialize in Thai massage, which goes better with the younger crowds and is considered higher-end. But when I started out, I spent a month at those kinds of massage parlors. Yeah, the ones you won’t find listed online, and that mostly attract men.
I was quite lost after quitting my job. I didn’t know what my future career could look like. I thought those parlors were not bad place to start, since the bar wasn’t high. It was just a way for me to see whether I was fit for this work.
The legit techniques I learned in those dubious places did help me gain a little confidence, and I sought employment at a better massage locations where I learned Thai massage.
My interviewer was a well-spoken young woman, beautiful and stylish, who didn’t get too specific with her questions. “How old are you? Have you ever been married? Got any previous experience?“ I didn’t, not for Thai massage, so she led me to a booth where she tested my strength. She seemed satisfied enough, saying I’d be fine after a week of training and then some practice.
My first day on the job, I attracted some complaints from my first customer. The pressure was too strong for her, and I was yet to learn how to scale back properly, or how to find the proper rhythm for the massage session. I could tell she was unhappy from her sour face. She reported me to my supervisor when I didn’t finish on time, and for that first week I was really discouraged by the never-ending problems here and there.
Still, I studied on my own every day after work, and I also relied on my coworkers for useful input. Gradually, things improved.
But, my family is still in the dark. Just imagine—all those books and that university diploma to end up working in a job that doesn’t even require a degree. They won’t take it well. They might even think I was engaging in sex work. I’d rather save myself the trouble.
Some clients are going to try and see whether they can have their way with you. They’ll go and ask you to name a price for “additional services”, or they’ll coyly ask whether we offer any prostate massage or groin detox treatment here. That’s not allowed in formal massage parlors; in fact, it is prohibited. On plenty of occasions, those creepers have waited for me stark naked in the booth on purpose.
On one slow day, half an hour past midnight, a last-minute customer show up, even though we were nearing closing time at 1 a.m. He was a middle-age, pervy-looking bald guy who requested an essential oil massage. For this kind of massage, you go to a private booth and you may strip down to your underwear.
I got in the booth and saw him already lying on the massage cot, covered with a towel. I needed him lying on his stomach, because we usually start from the back. So, I unfolded the tower and sure enough, he was wearing absolutely nothing.
I yelled at him, “What are you doing?!“ He said he was sorry, mumbling that he’d forgotten, put on his pants, and turned around to lie on his stomach. Now I was second-guessing myself. Perhaps he genuinely forgot. Alright, I told myself, let’s go on and see what happens.
The guy made all sorts of creepy comments that had me cringe, and he also kept touching my buttocks and legs—accidentally, he claimed. So, eventually I got angry. “Sir, I do not think you need a massage. We’re done here.”
I left the room before he could even reply. After a while, he got dressed and left without paying.
Story FM: This was not an isolated event for Lulu, though fortunately she’s never been harmed in traumatic ways. She’s chosen to hope that nobody will truly coerce her in this day and age.
That being said, the massage industry in China does lack sufficient standards. Massage therapists have preciously limited safety guarantees at best, or even none whatsoever.
Employer would only tell you that all irregular behaviors with customers were strictly prohibited, as were any “coquettish” techniques. Cross the line and you’ll be fired immediately. That was it. No protection, no words of support.
Story FM: For all the shortcomings of her current occupation, Lulu insists that she’s never come across truly dangerous situations, and she quite enjoys making double the salary that she used to make, as well as the feeling of accomplishment that fills her days.
I can earn above 10,000 yuan every month. Not bad. True, my shifts are up to 12 hours long, but management is relatively lax and nobody will boss you around. If you are busy with customers, then you might have a long, tiring day. Otherwise, you can even just scroll your day away on your phone while you sit in the lounge.
Because I truly love being a massage therapist, even when I’m physically exhausted my mind isn’t tired at all. Nowadays I’m pretty good at what I do, and my customers can tell. Their positive reviews really fill me with this sense of accomplishment. I was never this content at my previous job.
Amber, 31, master’s degree
My name is Amber. I currently live in Melbourne, where I work two part-time waitress jobs at a cafe and a Malaysian restaurant.
I went to school in Hong Kong before working my way up in the finance world for seven years. By the time I decided to quit, I was already a deputy manager. But, the longer I persevered, the more everything bored me. Where was the point of it all? At the end of the day, I was just helping the rich and their companies become richer.
I was just as tired of Hong Kong. I’d just turned 30, and I started reading some books and thinking for myself. Ultimately, I decided that I cared the most about experiencing life. This became my main reason to leave everything behind.
Story FM: Through chatting with a friend, Amber found out about the Australian working holiday visa, which grants young people below the age of 31 the chance to live and work in the country while experiencing local life and culture.
All of a sudden my path was clear. I had no hesitations, but this I knew for sure: Once I moved to Australia, I wouldn’t know a soul. With this in mind, I spent a year working like a zombie, saving money for my goal. I arrived in Melbourne on March 11 of this year, at 6:30 a.m. local time.
Story FM: Amber spent her first few days in town at a cheap hostels, and wandered around looking for a place to rent. That’s how she stumbled upon her two current part-time gigs.
My job at the cafe is not just waiting tables. It’s every bit like Rachel’s waitress gig in Friends.
There’s a lot of minor tasks involved in running a cafe that I didn’t know about. I’m in charge of some food prep work. I need to take out the trash, keep track of the inventory, and refill whatever’s needed, and of course close up shop. Once we’re closed for the day, I still have to pile up the chairs, push the tables back in place and lock everything up.
As for the restaurant, plenty of Malaysians staff speak Cantonese, so that’s my working language there about 95 percent of the time. Most customers speak Cantonese, too. In fact, Malaysian food is really similar to Cantonese cuisine. What’s more, two of my coworkers are from Hong Kong themselves. You best believe I was a little puzzled at the beginning. I often asked myself, “Where the hell am I?“ The food, the music at the restaurant—It all felt so much like Hong Kong.
The cafe is just your regular local Australian venue, so that’s an interesting contrast at play between my two workplaces. I feel like a traveler in this parallel realm of time and space.
Story FM: The daily grind of the F&B industry is tedious and tiring. Amber says that she’s still learning the ropes—memorizing the various items on the menu, trying not to knock items over.
However, she finds this physical exhaustion restful. After experiencing such intense mental fatigue in Hong Kong, she has a chance to ground herself in the present.
I thought I would get an office job here. But I dropped it as soon as I realized that I wasn’t willing to go down that route again.
At my previous job, I would exhaust my brains all day long before hitting the gym. My membership set me back 1,200 Hong Kong dollars a month, which amounted to 14,400 dollars a year. Nowadays, though, I get my workouts at work. I don’t get to sit once. Now that’s some hard-earned money!
And yet, it feels like resting. All the things that kept me busy, all the pondering about purpose in life and whatnot. Now, though? It’s all so quiet. All of my vital energy is focused on the present moment as I complete these simple, down-to-earth tasks. For once, both my body and spirit are aligned and rested.
I particularly enjoy two types of moments. One is taking out the trash at the cafe, because I can usually afford to slack a little and have a smoke. It’s an empty lot with dumpsters full of trash, but it doesn’t stink at all. So I stand there, among all the trash, leisurely enjoying my cigarette. I even have a little song that plays in my head at these times, “Rubbish bin, where I belong! Rubbish bin, you are my hometown!“
The other is whenever I manage to sneak off on a break at the Malaysian restaurant, and get a real kick out of watching the chef work. It’s fascinating. Shrouded in the steam and smoke, the chef gradually conjures a whole meal out of a series of gradual motions that add flavor and complexity until a ready-to-serve dish comes out of the kitchen.
I’m like a traveler in a parallel universe, watching things unfold. When I looked at the future in my previous life in Hong Kong, I would never have thought I would be heating up croissants in a Melbourne cafe.
I pulled myself away from everything I knew, to experience a different life. And I realized I am capable of doing everything quite well—I figured out housing, found a job, and then maybe I’ll be able to afford tuition for going back to school to study public health. I can do them all, and there’s so much for me to accomplish in the future!
Xiao Yuanzi, 32, bachelor’s degree
My name’s Xiao Yuanzi. I come from Nanjing in Jiangsu province, and I’m currently on the dole.
I used to have a job writing advertising copy, but I was laid off on January 1 this year, after our company failed to secure financing for 2023.
Everyone’s been making fun of us young graduates, “Just look at you putting on those airs. You’re only good for cushy white-collar jobs where you can sip on coffee all day, huh? Quit whining and go wash dishes, clean houses, be a security guard. You’ll never find yourself out of work.”
I did look for jobs like these. I like coffee, and I know my way around a semi-automatic coffee machine, so I applied to become a barista, thinking I’d learn the ropes in a day or two. However, whether it’s big chains or little cafes, none of them had any use for my undergraduate education in food science. A high-school degree is all you needed.
I was willing to give up my scholarly robe and all of that noise, but that didn’t buy me the opportunities.
Next came my attempt to apply to whatever flower shop I could find in need of an assistant. No salary requirements. I’m still waiting to hear back from them.
I’ve been wondering whether we’re all constrained by fixed social roles welded from the series of labels around us. You think you can get rid of all these labels, but the truth is that you’re branded like cattle.
So much for all the online talk of taking off the “scholarly gown.” I once posted, “I stripped myself beyond my damn knickers, and I’m still unemployed.”
Story FM: Xiao Yuanzi started racking social media for job openings as the Lunar New Year holidays loomed close, and ended up joining the ranks of KFC, which was hiring for their winter campaign at the time.
“I’d rather end up in the clink than keep working at KFC.” That’s what I told my folks and all my friends back then.
The minute you walk into a KFC as an employee, you’re a spinning top, forever on the go without a spare second to drink some water or go to the restroom. Nonstop, always on your feet.
Everyone looks forward to KFC’s Crazy Thursdays, but they’re hell for the employees.
I remember one of these special promo days featured crispy salted chicken, because I spent the whole day packing them for customers. We filled each small cardboard box with seven or eight pieces before folding and placing them on a heating rack to keep them warm.
It’s fine, I’d tell myself for the first half hour of my shift. I’d grab chicken pieces with my right hand, place them in the box in my left hand, and then wrap it all up. Done, except people kept rushing you to pack faster. “Hurry up!“—I was already at my maximum speed, but someone will always thinks you’re not fast enough.
Soon enough, you’ll hear that constant voice in your head, “What are you supposed to be doing now?“ I spent my day packing crispy chicken until my shift was over and I could see myself covered head-to-toe in oily stains. I realized physical labor exhausts both the body the mind. No matter how mentally depleted you are, sometimes your brain just won’t turn off.
Story FM: In contrasts to those highly educated laborers who feel that physical labor brought them relief from their mental anguish, Xiao Yuanzi attributes her physical and mental burnout to a lack of self-affirmation or a sense of value. Overall, she found plenty of evidence against the consensus that manual labor “can help you have a good night of sleep and wake up feeling refreshed”.
In my experience, sleep will recharge my batteries to only about 80 percent. If I start at full battery on Day 1, then on Day 2 I’d start at 80 percent, but already on Day 3 I’d be down to about 64 percent only.
Manual labor is nowhere near as simple as people make it up to be. And, it’s going to be particularly taxing for those of us who’ve made the switch from office work and have no experience with blue-collar work.
Story FM: Today, Xiao Yuanzi is still looking for new job opportunities. After her brief part-time winter stint at KFC, she didn’t hesitate for a minute to quit. She now feels more confused than ever about her future. She feels that she can only conform to her social and professional labels, and is looking to get back into writing copy for advertising.
Xiao Yuanzi took off her scholarly gown, but she had no option but to try to put it on again.
I have always wanted to switch careers, but the other professions did not offer me a way in. I’m pretty lost right now.
I’m going to keep up the hustle until I turn 35, in just three years. If things don’t go as expected, I have this running joke with my friends that I’ll just use my academic degree in food science to set up a breakfast stall. I’ll sell jianbing.