On the move...

Joining the International Migrant Workers

It’s a crazy world, where we seek the best decisions, but complexity makes it unlikely we will find anything but bad ones. And also good ones, for as long as we make decisions, we will get new experiences and we will tend to interpret them in a good-enough light.

Shortly after finishing a dual Ph.D., I found myself in quite a need of gainful employment. The situation, however, was not unlike that of Michael J. Fox’s character in “The Secret of My Success”…

For academia, I was not experienced and specialized in just the right way and “obviously” looking for work that had more practical relevance than academic concern; for business, I was too inexperienced and “obviously” looking for an academic position. So, I took the one job I could find, as a security guard.

Even unarmed, more of a babysitter of inanimate objects and an agent of nothing but customer service, it gave rent-a-cop jokes and movie tropes a whole new layer of meaning… or annoyance. And it was an interesting insight into how the ordinary Joe worked and an experience to learn from.

On the move...Now, I find myself on the move to China. Again. I am interrupting my studies to become a teacher (which did not lead to work right now, yet) for a semester and instead join those (international) migrant workers who leave their home and hearth for the prospect of an income.

As the security guard job led to a different understanding of the not-exactly-well-qualified labor market and practice, so this has got me to thinking about the different levels of contemporary migration.

Just looking at China, it’s funny.

You hear about China and work, internally, you hear about poor migrant workers who move from their home towns and families to more-developed cities, live badly, but at least make money. (In fact, laborers with enough specialized experience apparently earn higher wages than do freshly-minted college graduates.)

You hear about China and work, internationally, you hear about expats with or without “the expat package” (and recently, the return of the ‘hardship post’ compensation).

What you don’t hear about so much, except maybe to make fun of them when they are naïve, are those “international migrant workers” (as Isolda Morillo labeled herself in a recent Sinica podcast) who come to China to work at comparatively low pay, maybe gain some valuable experience, maybe just have some sort of adventure.

That, even though many of the journalists in China may well not be the highest-compensated foreign workers there themselves, and even as (or perhaps, because) such international work migration of the relatively poor has become a major element of the international stream of people.

Today, there are an estimated 232 million migrant workers around the world. ILO

Especially when it comes to people who’d describe their experiences online, it seems – ordinary as doing so has become – we somehow tend to assume that those are not the poorest (which, of course, they wouldn’t be), but misunderstand them as at least middle-class.

A “work online, reside where the living is cheap” kind of four-hour-workweeker may be a new phenomenon and typically, at least in the image that comes to mind, a care-free privileged white American male, but they are not that different from poorer and underprivileged migrant workers.

That is, even in all the privilege they do have, they are still, essentially, just hustling to get by, and trying to do so in ways that they at least feel they are in control of.

It certainly is a whole different ballgame to create your own online niche while you travel South America or Asia as a white dude, for example. It is far different from the situation of a poor Mexican who pays a ‘coyote’ to get him (let alone, her) across the US border, let alone of a Syrian refugee or Central African with a dream of Europe who entrusts his life to a human trafficker who asks a tremendous amount of money only to put him/her on the next overfilled boat and send them on their very not merry way across the Mediterranean.

Migration, if more or less forced and more or less about economic reasons, it all is, though.

Most people still just find jobs, fall into a career path, and manage to go on that way. The harder this becomes, the more we seem to wish for the ‘normality’ of ordinary jobs and ordinary career paths, though.

It doesn’t only speak to globalization and power relations that the move in the original Karate Kid movie was just across the country, whereas the remake featured a job-related move from the USA to China…

We will all, increasingly, need to learn to handle situations which tempt or force us to look far and wide – and hopefully, also realize that we can’t just look to other places (given what economic situations worldwide look like), we will also need to shape other ways of living, be they more nomadic and ‘self-rooted’ or more intensely rooted in a place, utilizing and creating more opportunities for making a living and living better.

Probably, dealing with the reality of life at home in this world, messy as it is, will increasingly require it all.