August 07th, 2012 | Shanghai Daily Hardships and girlfriend woes for Chinese workers abroad
AS Chinese companies expand overseas building everything from dams to telecommunications projects, more young people get opportunities to work abroad, bank their earnings or send remittances home, writes Song Xiaoli.
For ambitious and adventurous young people, working abroad in a developing country may initially sound exciting and the salary for professionals can be tempting.
But these are not glamorous jobs – they are largely “hardship” posts in lesser developed countries where there is profound culture shock and frequent problems of personal security for foreign workers.
Long-term postings (and most are long-term) create a lot of real-life issues, such as loneliness, managing daily life in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language, as well as problems in finding and keeping a girlfriend, long-distance marriage stress, family problems and many other issues.
Many of them are in the so-called “frontline” of Chinese workers employed by companies expanding overseas, searching for minerals needed for Chinese industry and building infrastructure of all kinds needed by the host countries.
Around 5.5 million Chinese workers, both professionals and laborers, are employed in around 116 countries and regions around the world, according to news reports. Some are sent by their companies, state-owned or private, or by employment agencies.
In the first six months of the year, 216,000 Chinese were sent to work abroad, up 2.4 percent from a year earlier. “The foreign exchange revenues brought in by sending workers abroad has surpassed US$4 billion each year and more than 4 million people’s livelihoods have been improved,” said Chinese Minister of Commerce Chen Deming this month.
China recently has issued regulations calling for greater protections of Chinese workers overseas.
For the past year, Li Yongfeng, a 28-year-old communications engineer, has been working in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for China Communications Service Co Ltd. He manages two fiber optics projects.
Li, who is a Shanghai native, previously worked on projects in Nigeria and Nepal and will probably work in developing countries for many more years, like another 300 overseas staff of the company.
Li works on a team with two other company professionals, trying to support and expand Chinese business overseas.
Last year, Li was praised and honored by his company for his outstanding work. “I feel very lucky to be encouraged by the company. There are so many things I have to contribute and improve in the days to come,” he says.
Hard work, long hours
Li works five days a week, nearly 10 hours a day, taking Friday and Saturday off. To save money, he and his colleagues seldom go out, talking with family member by phone or Internet, or surf the Internet.
“I’ve broken up with three girlfriends because of the long distance,” Li says. “Now my biggest aim is to dedicate myself to work.”
On a typical day, Li is busy at several places: The main construction site is an hour from Dhaka, the capital city of more than 16 million people. Sometimes he doesn’t return home until 3am.
Because of security issues, Li and his colleagues usually go out with one or two other colleagues, in case of sporadic incidents and emergencies.
“These years, many underdeveloped countries face upheavals or riots,” Li says. “It is true that I am in a funk about this unfamiliar country, and my parents always worry about me.”
In Bangladesh, Chinese are called “foreign people,” and they employ four local staff to assist the team. Usually one local must accompany a Chinese employee when he goes outside and needs a translator.
Meanwhile, 9,000 kilometers away, Yang Chang and two colleagues are enduring what they consider “very difficult” life in Luanda, capital city of Angola. They also work for China Communications Service Co Ltd.
Yang, a 26-year-old Shanghainese administrator, works on telecommunications projects there. He lives with two other Chinese workers in a Chinese neighborhood, home to around 300 employees of various Chinese companies.
Every day from 7:30am to 11:30pm, the project manager and Yang bustle between different sites, facing all kinds of inconvenience.
But there are more serious problems.
“The most dangerous experience I had was a robbery at next door. We turned off all the lights after hearing screams and six shots,” Yang says.
Every two days, Yang chats with his parents over the Internet.
Yang and his colleagues buy reasonably priced vegetables from a Chinese-owned farm – prices charged for Chinese are far higher outside in public markets. Spring onions may be more expensive than beef in a public market.
They seldom go out to eat, even at a buffet, since the cost per person starts at around US$20. “Cooking has become my only interest here,” Yang says.
The past year has been very difficult for Li and Yang. Apart from homesickness, they have no local relations or friends and often have to resolve problems that seem beyond their capacities. Sometimes they need to use their own funds for jobs, and get reimbursed later.
The stories of Li and Yang have been adapted into a four-act stage play by the company staff who performed it in March at the Shanghai Drama Arts Center. The play focused on problems in finding a girlfriend and settling down to start a family.
“This drama was created and performed by our staff as a tribute to overseas staff,” says Chen Zhijian, general manager of Shanghai Comservice.
For those Chinese working overseas in Nigeria, however, life isn’t as stressful as it is for Li and Yang.
Li Xiong, a construction worker, lives in the capital Abuja with around 1,000 other Chinese in a “small city” built by his company, China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. They live in a fully equipped residential area containing a healthcare center, swimming pool, dining hall, grocery, entertainment facilities and many other amenities.
“The place where we live is self-contained. It’s unnecessary to go elsewhere. We can buy daily necessities in our neighborhood,” Li says proudly.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has around 170 million people. The capital Abuja has around 2.5 million people in its urban area. The country is diverse, containing four major ethic groups and subgroups estimated to number as many as 40. Chinese works are exposed to enormous diversity.
“Although I am working overseas, I can still feel a sense of belonging. I am not alone here,” says Li Xiong, a Jiangsu Province native with wife and children back home.
More than 30 years ago, his company began to develop business in West Africa and now is a leader among Chinese construction companies putting up buildings, railways, light railways and other infrastructure.
“We heard of robberies and kidnappings in Nigeria, especially southern cities,” Li says.
He is currently on a three-week holiday in China. “I cherish holidays to spend time with my wife and parents.”
By Song Xiaoli