BEIJING (Reuters) – In the past decade, Wang Yunxia, 30, spent her adult life largely on a factory floor in southern Guangdong, far away from her daughter in central China, and even farther away from her husband in Beijing, where he was also a migrant worker.
The family would gather once a year to celebrate Lunar New Year, whether at their village in the province of Hubei, or elsewhere.
“It doesn’t matter where,” Wang said quietly. “When we’re together, we’re family, we’re home.”
This year, for the first time, Wang is spending the Spring Festival away from her daughter as the couple heed China’s call to its migrant workers, numbering a few hundred million, to stay put after a spate of coronavirus infections over the winter.
“Ever since the birth of our daughter, at least one parent had to be around with her on New Year’s Eve,” she said.
“That’s usually me.”
(Click https://reut.rs/3rI6jcT to view a photo package on Beijing’s migrant workers far from their families)
Wang had already missed out on an annual pilgrimage to pay her respects at her grandparents’ graves, usually just before the Lunar New Year, which began on Friday.
“I’d told my mother to burn more joss paper for them, on my behalf,” she said, when Reuters visited her home in the capital, Beijing.
Ordinarily, Wang and her husband would be among the tide of migrant workers braving packed trains to return home.
But the government, worried about the spread of infections during the annual rush, has urged people not to travel this year, appealing to their sense of civic duty.
At the same time, railway schedules have been slashed and village authorities ordered to monitor the health of those returning home, with at least one virus test after arrival. Some villages have even gone into lockdown.
Wang Haiyang, 58, a construction worker who chose to stay in Beijing, was concerned about catching the virus on his way back to Liaoning province in the far northeast.
“There’s no virus in my hometown, so I’m afraid I might bring it back,” said Wang, who had a virtual reunion with his family through a video call instead.
Those determined to get home face costly train tickets amid reduced supply. Some will carpool. The desperate will resort to illegal buses.
TIES THAT BIND
For Wang, after the virus outbreak, family ties have become more important than ever.
In August, she left Guangdong to join her husband, Yang Nianlian, 33.
In the day, she worked odd jobs to try make ends meet, while he toiled 12-hour shifts as a security guard.
At the end of his shift, returning home, he would bathe his wife’s feet in a pink plastic basin, in an unbreakable ritual.
They would then take turns washing each other’s hair in the narrow courtyard of their brick compound shared with a few other families, enjoying their fleeting moments together, until the new year reunion with their daughter.
Struck by nostalgia this year, Wang had thought of steaming a pig’s head, a traditional dish in her village, on the eve of Lunar New Year.
But unable to find a vessel big enough, she fell back on hot pot – a spicy staple in Hubei cuisine – of salted chicken, pepper and some duck leg.
Yang recalled the questions his daughter would bombard him with: Was it tiring in Beijing? What did you do the whole year? What did you eat?
“Each time I’m back home, she’d run around, curious about every detail of my work in Beijing, and would tell me not to tire myself too much,” he said.
On Thursday, the couple made a WeChat video call home.
Their nine-year-old daughter, racing through her midday meal, raised a glass of water in a silent toast to her parents.
All too familiar with the pangs of absence, Yang was overcome with emotion.
His grandparents had cared for Yang in his youth when his parents worked away from home, just as his wife’s parents now look after his daughter.
“A dream of mine is to work hard in the city and earn as much money as I can, for my family, for my child,” a teary-eyed Yang said, his arm draped over his wife’s shoulder, as if searching for her support.
“But today I feel like I’ve let them down somehow.”
(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps)
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Tingshu Wang; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)