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Life, Slavery and the Pursuit of Happiness


She is a very gentle alarm clock. At eight every morning, I wake to the sound of a soft cloth on glass. Sometimes I keep the curtains drawn. More often, I open them to Meili’s smile, her cheeks bunched up like the purple pompoms on an ageing aunt’s slippers. A brown tidemark runs across her teeth. She has a pimple on her chin and a stub of a neck, and her name means ‘beautiful.’

Her job is to keep our courtyard clean, and that means cleaning it even when it is clean from the day before. It means slowly and surely rubbing, polishing and sweeping it away. Meili is from a family of farmers in Hunan province, and is glad at nineteen, to be away from the fields, with all that history planted in them. Now she’s making a modern living as a cleaner in a university in Beijing. ‘Wo hen kaixin,’ she says. I am happy.

The bright TV images of sanitised urban modernity cast shadows in every house in every village across China. Meili is one of three million migrants in this vast city. Ninety percent of the workers in Beijing’s service industry are what are called ‘outsiders.’ They come with a rural household registration, a document that says they are from the countryside, and which in this geographical apartheid, disqualifies them from many things including health insurance, pensions and respect. But Meili is lucky. Many young women end up as bar hostesses, as masseuses, or in hairdressing, all legal fronts for the physical servicing of wealthy urban men. Meili is safe from that. ‘Wo hen kaixin,’ she says.

She comes into my room and strokes the furniture with a cloth, as if reassuring a child. She tells me what she saw on television the night before, and what unkindnesses Mrs Liu, her boss, has meted out. She asks me if I like her hair. She has cut it in the mirror, where all the laws of distance are suspended, and her fringe queries its way across her forehead. She tells me what she has to do that day, which is the same as every day, and which I know by heart. Her Mickey Mouse alarm clock gets her up at six every morning. She washes in the shower block, and in the winter her hair freezes solid on the walk back. Mrs Liu wants to hear the soft scrape of industry by seven, or there are warnings about the countryside being full of girls like her looking for a job in Beijing. Meili sweeps up whatever has arrived in the courtyard overnight – litter from the third ring road, dust from the building sites, sand from the Gobi desert, snow from the sky. She likes sweeping all that unwantedness into a heap. ‘Wo hen kaixin,’ she says.

Meili has the smallest, coldest room in the courtyard, and she shares it with Xiao Ran. Xiao Ran does the other half of the cleaning, but with less conviction. Beside her bed, Meili has a poster of fair-haired, blue-eyed babies sitting in rows of flowerpots, like a greenhouse of Bill and Bens. Getting married and having a child are next after this cleaning job, and coming to the city means more choice about whom she marries. Or it would, if she were allowed out. Mrs Liu sees herself in loco parentis, and she has banned her charges from leaving the university campus. Xiao Ran has pinned the lunar calendar above her bed. It’s unmarked except for a few days in February, which are underlined in thick red pen. That’s going home time, when millions of migrant workers return to their villages for the Spring Festival. It’s as if China’s countryside is in permanent injury from poverty and high taxes, and the blood has gathered in the safety of the urban organs. But at the Spring Festival, the body relaxes, and the blood disperses back into the veins, and takes life home.

Mrs Liu has told her girls not to talk to the foreigners, but she’s away for the weekend so it’s safe if I call round. I sit on the edge of Meili’s bed. She’s knitting herself a pink jumper, and she lilts her way through more stories of the everyday, while an old television murmurs in the background.  She and Xiao Ran are on duty seven days a week, for which they are paid 100Y (12 US$). It’s the going rate, and enough pocket money for the teenage girls who are held in limbo. They are neither children nor adults, and they have left the village, but are outsiders in the city. ‘Mei banfa’ Meili says, with a light shrug. There’s nothing you can do about it. Xiao Ran looks at the floor and says nothing. ‘Mei banfa!’ Meili says to her with a smile. She turns to me. ‘Mei banfa!’ she says. Then she looks at the knitting in her lap. ‘Mei banfa,’ she says to it quietly, and adds, with what might be sadness, ‘Wo hen kaixin.’

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