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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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June 23, 2008 3:47 AM

Hometown dreamin'

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Beijing's migrant workers rely on few constants. Their jobs are typically short-term. Their friends - here today, gone tomorrow. Their savings - easily spent. Their quarters - often temporary.

It's a blessing and a curse, Beijing's dynamism. Unregistered workers dream of returning home - pockets bulging yuan of course. No more smog. No more crowds. No more condescending city slickers. And yet, back home is precisely where most migrants would rather not be. It's tough in the country.

If there's one thing Beijing's dagong ('hired hands') can count on, it's this: hometowns are for dreaming about and cities for living in.

"I came to Beijing because my parents came," a gregarious 16-year old from Anhui province explained, grabbing hold of his friend's shoulders for a rough embrace. "My parents came to work, to earn money."

June is a stressful month for eight graders at the capital's privately run migrant schools . Most of them will head home for high school, leaving parents, teachers and pals in Beijing.

"My students were so quiet last week," said Meg Cassedy-Blum, a volunteer English teacher from Maryland. "I'm not sure they want to leave middle school."

According to students at a K-8 migrant school, fewer than ten of 40-plus eighth-graders will test into Beijing public high schools this year.

"Our (middle) school is okay," a 14-year old seventh-grader said. "It's in bad condition, but we like our teachers. Actually, back home the schools are better."

"If you'd stayed in Sichuan with your grandma you wouldn't be in school," a tiny, 13-year old boy interrupted, referring to that province's devastating May 12 earthquake.

Years ago, children without Beijing residence permits were categorically excluded from public schools. Now migrant quotas and high entrance fees hold enrollment down.

The Chinese government has poured money into rural education - projected US$35.9 billion between 2006 and 2010. In March 2007, Premier Wen Jiaobao promised to eliminate tuition costs in the countryside.

"School is free in my hometown," a 15-year old from Jiangxi province remarked. "And the schools are way nicer. When we left I told my mom - we shouldn't go to Beijing."

The city grows on you, though. Many un-registered children move to Beijing young. China's harsh, sweaty capital is what they know.

"When I grow up, I'll live in Beijing," said the burly 16-year old. "My hometown is old. Beijing is new."

"I'll probably head home for high school - I'm still not sure. I want to stay in the city. There are more opportunities. Beijing is better."

A classmate disagreed.

"There are big differences between my hometown and Beijing," she said. "It's easier to buy things here. The food is good, but the traffic is bad. I'd rather live in the country, where friendships last and the air is clear."

Meanwhile, summer has arrived - school is almost over. Will the city's migrant kids return home or stay in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics? In 2006, Chinese officials announced, then retracted plans to 'repatriate' unregistered workers during the Games.

"We really love the Olympics, because our families will earn money and because the Games are China's pride," a 15-year old girl answered. "Go Olympics!"

"Go home? Why would we go home? The Games are happening here!" her friend chimed in." Anyway, if you go home before the Olympics, the government won't let you back into Beijing. I don't know why."


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