Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 18 June 2011 12:00 UK

My country cousin struggling in Shanghai

Shen Jun and Sao Sao
Juliana Liu's cousin Shen Jun and his wife Sao Sao

By Juliana Liu
BBC News, China

There are few opportunities for China's hundreds of millions of rural migrants who move to its fast-developing cities for a better life.

I see him, on the corner of Shanxi Road, near Shanghai's main domestic airport.

It has been more than 20 years, but I recognise my cousin Shen Jun instantly. The same floppy hair. The same eyes that narrow into happy slivers.

Migrant family in a tent
Some migrant families cannot afford housing in China's cities

And most importantly, the same voice in a familiar Hunan accent calling out, Xiao Mao - Little Hairy Head, the nickname of my childhood.

We Chinese rarely hug, at least not each other, so Shen Jun and I clasp hands in greeting.

Then he introduces a woman standing nearby wearing a fashionable black Adidas track suit. "This is Sao Sao, your sister-in-law," he says.

Hellos exchanged, Shen Jun and Sao Sao take me to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is China's favourite fast-food chain. It arrived on the mainland in 1987, the same year I left.

Since then, it has become an aspirational middle-class hangout, a popular place for first dates and, for me now, family reunions.

My cousin is barely scraping by in a city that places migrant workers at the bottom of its social ladder

Shen Jun and Sao Sao tell me they have lived in Shanghai on and off for years, working as migrant labourers.

He is a security guard at a posh residential compound. She works at a supermarket. They each make less than 2,093 yuan a month (£200; $323).

It is an absolute fortune in the countryside, where they come from, but here in Shanghai, China's most fashionable and Westernised city, it does not go very far.

Growing apart

This explains why we are meeting at KFC instead of at their home, a tiny space of just a few square metres with no air conditioning or heating.

KFC, China
Fast-food chain KFC chain has become an aspirational middle-class hangout

The Chinese value face more than anything, even money. My seeing their modest dwelling would mean a loss of face.

After ordering, we exchange family gossip. One of our cousins seems to be doing well as a salesman. Another is looking for a job.

The conversation is awkward. Even though I still speak the dialect of rural Hunan where Shen Jun was born and raised, and where I spent part of my childhood, it is difficult to bridge the enormous gap that exists between us.

My cousin is barely scraping by in a city that places migrant workers at the bottom of its social ladder, while I am living a life of international opportunity that few Chinese would have been able to fathom just two decades ago.

This is because in the 1980s my father seized the window of opportunity provided by China's reform to learn English and to emigrate.

They are considered rural residents under China's archaic household registration system - this bars them from social services in Shanghai

Shen Jun's father, my uncle, stayed on at the family farm, planting rice as our ancestors had for generations.

My cousin was not educated beyond his early teenage years. In today's China, a lack of education and connections means a life of hard labour, either in subsistence farming or as hired muscle.

And the more we talk, the more I see that many things about my cousin are no longer the same.

The carefree prankster who terrorised my toddler years has become a world-weary man juggling life as a migrant worker and absentee father.

He married young to a local girl. They had a son.

Then, as waves of ambitious people have done before him, Shen Jun left for booming Guangdong province, near Hong Kong, to try his luck as a factory worker.

The distance contributed to his divorce.

Far-off son

Shen Jun met his current wife, who is from a different part of China, whilst working. It is a modern migrant marriage, and they seem happy with each other.

Sao Sao jokes that Shen Jun is not clever or lucky enough to get rich. He smiles in response, saying one's life is determined by heaven, that it is pre-written and impossible to change.

Shanghai skyline
Many migrants have to leave children in the country while they work in cities

But for all his fatalism, Shen Jun is determined to ensure that his son, Wen Long, does not follow in his footsteps.

Sounding very much like a guilt-ridden working mother, my cousin says it is impossible to make a living in the city, as well as take care of matters at home a day's journey away.

This is because even though Shen Jun and Sao Sao work in Shanghai, they are considered rural residents under China's archaic household registration system. It bars them from social services, including healthcare and education, in Shanghai.

So, like almost all the children of migrant workers, Wen Long is being raised in the countryside by his grandparents, who are too old and too soft for discipline. He gets poor grades in school, and seems destined for a life of manual labour.

So I suggest Wen Long should consider training to become a hairstylist, a mechanic or, perhaps, a train driver.

"Train driver," my cousin says, mulling it over. "Maybe that's a good idea."

All too soon, it gets late, and Shen Jun must start another night shift guarding the homes of rich locals and foreigners.

I insist on giving them a ride by cab. But, proud as they are, Shen Jun and Sao Sao insist on going back by bicycle, the way they came.

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