There are millions of young rural-to-urban migrant women in China, mostly imagined as exploited cheap labourers who suffer from long work hours, dreadful working conditions and possible sexual exploitation. Yet, migration also provides women with economic independence, broadened horizons, and the freedom to escape from “parental, spousal and other forms of authority.” For one research project, I interviewed 18 young migrant women in depth and asked their lived experiences in cities. I explored how they applied life skills to deal with constraints and problems, and whether there was empowering properties of life skills application. The concept of ‘life skills’ was brought up by World Health Organization (WHO) during 1990s and has been widely adopted by other international agencies such as UNICEF, Room to Read, and FHI. I focused on three key types of life skills raised by WHO: decision making and problem solving skills, communication and interpersonal skills, emotional and stress coping skills.
The participants I interviewed were 18 to 28-year-old migrant women from Shaanxi and Hubei province. Some of them had migrated to coastal cities before, but all of them had migrated to big cities within their provinces at the time I spoke with them. Thirteen migrants from Shaanxi province were Catholic while another five from Hubei province had no religious belief. Their jobs varied from factory work to employment in the service sectors such as waitresses, sales, cashiers, and cosmetician assistants. Their voice revealed that they confronted a variety of challenges in cities, such as obtaining a satisfactory occupation, advancing communication and interpersonal skills in order to socialize with a large and diverse urban population, and coping with negative emotions and stress in the urban work and life. Yet, driven by the aspirations of staying in the city for a longer time, young migrant women had learned and applied key life skills to some extent in order to deal with the challenges, and live self-valued lives.
Instead of floating blindly, the migrant women gave thoughtful deliberation of migration destinations and preferred to migrate to cities where they had social network. “Though I would like to go to other provinces and challenge myself, I dare not go just by myself because I am not sure whether I can survive there.” This was a common concern. They relied heavily on their rural social network to guide them into specific cities, occupations or work places. The social network consists of family members and relatives, fellows from the same village, old classmates and colleagues. The majority within their social network were also migrants. “When I want to switch to another garment factory, I ask my friends and previous colleagues for suggestions because it saves time.” In addition to utilizing their networks, an increasing number of them use different ways of job hunting such as applying for jobs online.
It was very hard for most of my participants to find satisfactory jobs because they had only middle school education. Those who worked in service sectors were confined to low-skill, low-pay jobs and were not satisfied with the pay. “I have been a waitress for five years and my salary has hardly changed these years,” said by Pang Shishi. Those who worked in garment factories earned twice as much as those in service sectors. Yet, their high salary was due to extremely long work hours, typically 90 hours a week. Though satisfied with the pay, the garment factory workers were tortured by work intensity. Most of them switched jobs every six months or every year, hopping from waitress positions to sales positions, or from one restaurant or factory to another, in order to seek for better paid jobs and nicer work environment. The new job was rarely better.
Stuck in low-skill, low-pay jobs, some of my participants aspired to learn some occupational skills. Pang Ranran said, “I want to get a tourist guide certificate and be a tourist guide… My friend said a tourist guide got good pay.” Her dream of being a tourist guide had not been fulfilled, largely because of the prohibitive cost of training. But some young women did obtain cosmetic skill training, which was the most popular occupational training known by them.
Some aspired to start small business. Li Qianqian said, “I want to do some small business such as selling food or clothes because these businesses can earn big money.” Taking capital and resources into account, two participants started small food-stand business and online retail business respectively. They assessed different options, considered their aspiration and cost, and made practical decisions about their lives.
Most of the young migrant women were able to and did make independent decisions, sometimes after consulting friends and families and weighing different suggestions. Migration and long distance from families pushed them to make independent decisions at a young age and developed their decision-making skills.
Most of my participants mentioned having no problem adapting to urban life. Their voice reflected that their understanding of adaptation was at the survival level such as finding accomodation and jobs and being able to survive in the city. Urban life adaptation at a deeper level, such as adopting urban life styles and networking with local urbanites were not mentioned by them. In fact, they are confined to the migrant social circle and hardly established any non-kin relationship with local urbanites. Zhu reported that there were three levels of adaptation: economic, social and psychological, and Chinese internal migrants typically only adapted at the economic level, which supported my interpretation.
Migrating from a closed small rural community to dynamic large cities with diverse population, my participants realized there were barriers to communication and the negative influence it might have on their interpersonal relationships. Luo Mengmeng said, “I do not know how to talk to my colleagues. Sometimes if I say something wrong, they may get pissed... I am very blunt, so I may hurt people unintentionally.” They aspired to, and some even made an effort to improve their communication skills by reading books or learning in work. The younger migrant women, especially those who had been in the city less than two years, still struggled with communication skills and lacked confidence.
Most of my participants also learned to cope with emotions and stress in the urban context. The major sources that produced negative emotions and stress for them were extremely long work hours, financial pressure, family separation, and discipline or unfair treatment in work. My participants mainly coped with negative emotions and stress by sharing with friends and family, trying different kinds of relaxing activities, and in some cases relying on their religious beliefs. When the negative emotions and stress related to work was unbearable, they tended to quit the jobs and looked for new ones. Two of my participants suffered from relationship conflict with father and husband respectively. They chose to get out of the relationship temporarily by migrating to other places. Migration provided them with the freedom to escape from the unsolved problems and live their lives according to their own terms and values.
In sum, this study found that the migrant women developed key life skills to cope with problems and constraints in cities. Moreover, they obtained empowerment by gaining and applying their life skills. Empowerment is viewed as an expansion of capabilities and freedoms through Amartya Sen's capability approach. Empowering properties are revealed in the “beings and doings” that people want to and actually get engaged in. In this research, the migrant women obtained the capability of making strategic decisions regarding their life and career, utilizing migrant social network to survive in the city, and coping with emotions and stress. They fulfilled their aspirations of living in the city, albeit as migrant workers. A few who suffered from patriarchal control were able to gain more freedom through migration. Yet, there were some structural constraints that confined migrant women to achieve greater freedoms, such as a lack of affordable occupational training opportunities, missing learning resources for communication skills, and more importantly, the disconnect and class stratification between migrants and urban residents.
Shujuan Luo received her Ph.D from Cultural Foundations Program at Kent State University. She and her former advisor Dr. Seeberg co-authored "Migrating to the City in North West China: Young Rural Women’s Empowerment" (Seeberg & Luo, 2018), and several other journal articles on Chinese migrant women. Email: 402172117[at]qq.com