Written by Mingchao Zhou.

Established in the 1950s, the hukou system still controls and regulates the settlement of rural migrants in cities. Children of people who have migrated to cities are targeted by specific school policies and subject to categorization and segregation in specific schools. In order to understand how this school segregation is implemented at the local level, between 2010 and 2012 I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in an urban primary school that specialized in receiving rural-to-urban migrant children in Hangzhou. With my official status of trainee teacher at school, I had the opportunity to conduct home visits and observe housing conditions; indeed most of my interviews with the students’ parents were conducted in their homes. Among the fifty-two students between 11 and 13 years’ old who I studied, thirty-five lived in “villages within the city” (chengzhongcun) and seventeen lived in flats or in storage rooms (chaipeng jian) in urban residential areas (xiaoqu). When students would take me to their homes I used the time together to try to understand how they perceived their places of residence.

Based on these informal discussions I found six “identity strategies” used by migrant children deaing with the image of their place of city residence. by distinguishing those who live in “chengzhongcun”, subject to spatial stigma due to their neighbourhood bad image (which is also due to the social representation of migrant workers, main inhabitants of this type of neighbourhood), and those who live in “xiaoqu” and are surrounded by city dwellers in the neighbourhood.

For students who lived in “chengzhongcun” (“bad” areas with a social stigma attached to them, including by some of the people who live there), some got defensive and rebuilt a world by using their imagination resources. They admitted some of the house’s inconveniences but reinterpreted them as advantages. The fact that the house was located far from the city centre was presented as a voluntary choice that yielded precious quietness and privileged access to nature, and particularly compared to the benefits of the their home towns. For example, one of my students lived in a village that had to be demolished soon. The majority of residents had moved, leaving the houses abandoned. Despite the transformation of this environment into a slum, the student depicted her house as “a princess hut in the forest”. The state of abandonment of the village was sublimated through the emphasis of an almost rural environment, extremely rare in the city, and the invasion by weeds was presented in terms of access to nature. Confronted with a residential context that crystallizes their marginality, these children mobilize their creative resources to re-imagine a tolerable image of their homes for themselves.

Stigma can also be neutralized through humour, irony or detachment. Some children voluntarily described the darkest aspects of their village and they have their own stigmatizing expressions to designate these places. Referring to the dirtiness and vulgarity of his neighbourhood, one student enjoyed laughing at the name hehuayuan, which literally means “the lotus yard”. He said: “This name is really misleading. I don’t see any lotus but I do see garbage cans, plenty of them. It isn’t ‘the lotus yard’, but rather ‘the ringworm flowers yard’”. The dialect expression “ringworm flowers” (lalihua) refers to the infectious skin disease.

In a third case, stigma can be diverted to ‘the closest Other’. When children felt exposed to spatial stigma, they often indicated some of their classmates as a substitute. Some children described their peers’ housing conditions as inferior to their own. When I commented on the long distance between a student’s house and their school, there were always some students who were reported to live even further away. When students admitted the filth and disorder spread around their own village, there was often a “but” leading to the denouncement of a classmate’s situation. Through this type of speech, we can notice both the proximity and emotional distance between the migrants’ children: proximity, because it is a question of relatively deep knowledge of one another, of a “us” which relies on comparable living conditions; distance, because the stigmatization itself pushes them to detach from this “us”.

As for rural-to-urban migrant children who lived in “xiaoqu”, some of them seemed to have established good relationships with their neighbours. One student admired his neighbourhood and described it in terms of discovery: the underground parking, the garbage receptacles, the concierge service where cars were controlled and checked on their way in. He got on well with urban children. He willingly welcomed me to his home and was proud to show me his house. In his opinion, his neighbourhood was presentable compared to his classmates’. He was aware and proud of it and he maintained a kind of superiority over them. On the other hand, he had a tendency to present himself as an outstanding child of “people coming from outside” (waidi laide ren): he indicated which bus to take to go to a specific place in order to show me that he “knew the city well like locals”. He told me he hung out with urban children and played games with them “unlike his classmates”, and he wanted to learn the Hangzhou dialect with his local friends. In front of me, he controlled the impression he produced, in order to show me the image of someone well integrated into the city.

Some children were engaged in confrontational situations with urban inhabitants and protected themselves even more aggressively. On our way to one student’s home, he was quiet and barely responsive to my attempts at conversation, but suddenly became malicious as soon as we entered the neighbourhood. He did not hesitate to walk on the grass where the sign indicated “do not walk on the grass”; he stopped in front of public sports facilities and used them in a violent and destructive way, while yelling and laughing out loud, until I asked him to stop. He seemed rather happy to see me angry. It was after the interview with his parents and deepening contacts with him that I managed to interpret these behaviours. In fact, Hu’s family was in conflict with their neighbours, especially with the next-door neighbours, because of noise problems. As a carpenter, Hu’s father and his colleagues transformed the apartment living room into a workshop and the noise they made caused problems with the neighbours. The next-door neighbour came to remind them of the rules of civility in urban neighbourhoods, which made Hu’s father and his colleagues very angry. Later during my fieldwork, Hu confided to me that, after this incident, he would sometimes voluntarily make “uncivil” gestures as a way to “vent his resentment toward the people in the neighbourhood”.

Other children tended to lay low as a way of protecting themselves. A student living in an urbanites’ neighbourhood where her parents own a grocery responded to my attempts at conversation with monosyllables and head bent down. According to her father, they chose to live in a neighbourhood to run the grocery store and to provide a healthier environment for their children. According to her father, as the daughter of the grocery store boss, she is well known in the neighbourhood. Almost every inhabitant recognizes her face, not to mention the neighbourhood kids who come to buy snacks after school. When the neighbourhood children started calling her, the “grocery store lady” (xiaomaipu daxiaojie) she started to keep a low profile so as not to attract the urbanites’ attention.

Mingchao Zhou is a PhD Fellow in Political Science at the Aix-Marseille University. Image Credit: CC by Micah Sittig/Flickr.