A Long Way from Home




MY mother always watched the weather forecast of four cities — Chengdu, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Urumqi, in which our family members lived respectively. Traditionally, we Chinese attach great importance to our hometown and are often reluctant to migrate to other places as we want to stay with our families. However, in present times, in particular after the reform and opening-up policy was introduced, more and more people have left their hometowns to study or work in more developed cities just as my family members did.


My parents were both born in Chengdu, the capital city of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. My father graduated from university in 1963, where he studied electronics, an emerging subject then. At that time, graduates were assigned jobs by the government. My father received a job at Beijing Electronics Factory, so he was the first to leave home. Many years later, as the Chinese government launched its state-owned enterprise reform, some of them closed down. The once thriving factories in Beijing suburbs were vacated and many vanguard artists started to work here, transforming the old factories into today’s 798 Art Zone.




A family photo taken at the gate of a park in south Urumqi. The author is on the far right.


I was born in 1969. My parents wanted to stay together, so my father was transferred to an electronics enterprise in Urumqi of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. My mother was also transferred there, where a very long and cold winter abides. The two southerners started to adapt to their lives in the north. My mother learned how to make cotton-padded clothes and pants, and knit sweaters. My father learned how to maintain a coal stove to keep us warm. There were many coal mines near Urumqi. My parents and their colleagues often shared the costs of buying and transporting a full truck of coal. After the implementation of reform and opening-up policy, the country’s economic development accelerated and new residential buildings were built. My family then moved into a new apartment in the early 1980s, where natural gas was available, which made life easier since we no longer needed to transport coal and maintain the coal stove.


Besides climate, my parents needed to adapt to local food. People from the south prefer rice, but the northerners like flour-made food. At that time, the government rationed food to each family. Each employee in Urumqi received only one kilogram of rice per month, which was more expensive compared with wheat flour and corn flour. My parents did everything they could to exchange the wheat flour for rice. They used two kilograms of corn flour or one kilogram of wheat flour for half a kilogram of rice. They brought rice from Sichuan whenever they went back to their hometown. I still remember in 1976, my elder sister carried a full schoolbag of rice when returning from Sichuan with my parents.


In 2005, the Chinese film Peacock was awarded the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is said the film evoked an echo in the people who were born in the 1970s as the scenes in the movie, such as making coal balls and pickles, vividly depicted the lives of ordinary Chinese families in the 1970s.




The family took a photo at a studio. It was popular to make the background look like a home. The author is in the back row on the far left.


In the 1980s, Chinese society was vibrant with hope, and people worked hard to pursue their dreams, as did my parents. The government established a vocational qualification system. My father had to take an English examination to become a senior engineer. He had never practiced English since graduating from university. To prepare for the exam, my father, in his 40s, studied hard every day. He took me and my sister who then studied in a middle school to a nearby park to read every morning. The three of us sat in three different areas, reading our different English textbooks.


In 1985, my sister passed the university entrance examination. At that time, very few people had the opportunity to go to university, considering the total enrollment that year was only 670,000. My sister was the first girl enrolled by a university among all the children of my parents’ colleagues. After graduation, she became a teacher at a vocational school in Urumqi, and has since settled down there.




The author’s mother, sister, and brother visited her (second right)in Beijing when she graduated from university.


In 1988, I passed the entrance examination to study in the Renmin University of China in Beijing. It took me 72 hours by train to travel from Urumqi to Beijing, with a distance of over 3,770 kilometers. My legs swelled after sitting for so long. However, I think my days in Beijing were the most rewarding. In university, I listened to various lectures and debates, experiencing the confrontation and clashes of various ideas and thoughts. During that period, a large number of foreign literature and philosophical works were translated and introduced to Chinese readers. I can still remember how my heart was touched when reading the One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez in the library during an afternoon of my sophomore year. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I continued my study in classical Chinese literature and received a postgraduate degree at Renmin University and a doctoral degree at Peking University. After graduation I became a teacher in Beijing. During my career, I also went to Belgium and Ireland to teach Chinese language for a few years.


My brother is three years younger than me. In 1990, he also passed the entrance examination and was enrolled in Xiamen University, where he majored in finance and accounting. That year I was a junior student, and my sister began to work. My mother was busy preparing the luggage for my brother. On her way to do some shopping, my mother’s colleagues asked in an admiring tone: “Is the youngest enrolled in university too?” My mother tried to downplay it, but was hard to hide her pride. “Yes, he is,” she replied. Very few people had the opportunity to go to university back then. According to statistics, around 1990, the gross college enrollment rate in China was only three to four percent. My siblings and I were lucky. The reform was furthered when my brother graduated from university. Cities in southern China saw rapid economic development and were full of opportunities. Therefore, my brother chose to land a job in Guangzhou. Today he is the director of the finance department of a big state-owned enterprise’s South China branch, and is also the father of lovely twin boys.




The family enjoyed a trip to Guangzhou in 2015. The author is on the far right.


Recalling the changes over the past four decades, I think improved transportation is very important to our family. When my parents worked in Urumqi, they could only return to their hometown in Sichuan every several years, as they had few holidays and limited income. It had been 10 years since my father left his hometown when he returned to visit my grandma for the first time. For me, the most difficult time was traveling by train. It took over 60 hours from Urumqi to Chengdu and the compartments were full of passengers, with many even packed along the corridors. At night, people who had seats slept while sitting up, and those who didn’t have seats had to sleep on the floor. People considered the space under the long chair the best spot, where they spread some newspapers or sheets so they could lie down.


My parents returned to their hometown in Chengdu after retirement in the mid-1990s. Chengdu features a pleasant climate, rich produce, and a slow pace of life, which is an ideal place for retirees. However, my family were still living in four different cities. The long distance and few holidays kept us apart from each other most of the time. The cost of transportation was still very high. When I graduated and began to work in 2003, a plane ticket from Beijing to Chengdu was almost two thirds of my monthly salary. The air ticket from Urumqi to Chengdu took up an even higher share of my sister’s monthly salary. It was difficult to buy a train ticket then due to limited supply, especially during the Spring Festival holidays, when most migrant students and workers around China return to their hometowns for a family reunion. My brother was busy with work, so he could only visit my parents during the Spring Festival holidays, but my sister often went home during the summer vacation when it was easier to buy a train ticket. Therefore, they didn’t meet each other for over a decade. Today, infrastructure facility has been improved substantially, and costs in transportation significantly reduced. We often meet with each other now. My parents are in their 80s, and are still healthy. We try to visit them as often as we can.



Great changes have taken place in Xinjiang since the 1980s.


My parents’ generation enjoyed allocated jobs and apartments from the government. They often did one job from graduation to retirement and were seldom worried about being fired or unqualified for the job. The pressure they were under was mainly about the scarcity of daily necessities, such as clothes and food, so they had to work hard to guarantee the subsistence of the family. In comparison, the younger generation today faces heavy pressure from work. When my sister graduated, it was still an era that college students were assigned jobs by the government. Since she was a registered resident in Xinjiang and also studied there, she had no choice but to receive an assigned job in a local school. When my brother and I graduated, we had wider choices. I studied literature, so I chose to stay in Beijing, the cultural center of the country. My brother studied finance and accounting, he chose to work in Guangzhou, which was economically developed. He changed his jobs several times, and has worked with state-owned enterprises, private enterprises, and Hong Kong-invested enterprises.


Compared with my parents, we enjoy much better living standards today. Four decades ago, there were few cars in the streets of Beijing, which was considered a luxury for high-ranking officials. Over two decades ago, there were only few private cars in China. People would never foresee that most people today would buy their own apartments and cars in 20 years. However, most people of the 1970s-generation have accumulated their fortune with the country’s economic development. When graduating in the 1990s, most of us lived in dormitories allocated by employers. Gradually, employers allocated small apartments to their employees. Around the year 2000, some people started to buy commercial apartments and private cars. Now many families have one to two apartments and one car. My brother has three apartments.


A line from a renowned Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Bai Juyi reads, “We look at the same bright moon, and shed tears as we are separated in five places and we all miss our home very much.” At that time Bai and his siblings and cousins were separated in five different places. It is quite common in Chinese poems to say that family members in different places are watching the same moon to express how much they miss each other. Every time I read those beautiful poems, I feel our lives have been transformed significantly and the old days are far behind us. Now many Chinese people leave their hometowns to study, work, and finally settle down in other cities. It is very common that a family is separated in different places, but convenient transportation bring us together easily. With just a few hours by plane or train, we can meet each other, so there is no need to watch the moon and shed tears. My sister’s daughter graduates from university this year, and is preparing to apply for postgraduate study. She plans to study overseas. I think the next generation will travel even further away from their homes.  


LU ZHU is a teacher at Beijing Jiaotong University.