Escape from Beijing: Did they find the life they dreamed of?

As many recent graduates in China can’t wait to rush into large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai to work, some young working migrants are looking to get back home due to the high working pressures and long hours, how did their life changed, and have they found an easier life they craving for?

After going back home, jing jing doesn’t feel like tumbled in a small town. Credit: JingJing Sun.

Certainly to work in international cities after graduation seems to be the best option for recent graduates in China, giving reassuring benefits, but factors like loneliness, long working hours are deterring people away, Jingjing Sun is an example who have experienced a lot since she works in Beijing, but recently, she decided to turn her back on the prosperous by going back and work in her hometown and live a slower life.

In an early morning in May 2020, JingJing Sun, a girl at 27 years of age, stepped on a train in Beijing Railway station, with several of her luggage, she has finally decided to move back to her hometown, a tier 5 far-fetched city, Pingliang, located in Gansu province, China, after working in Beijing for 5 years, saying goodbye to the days when she has to arrive the company at 7:30 AM and leave around 9:00 PM.

As a girl who wasn’t born in one of the super large cities of China, Jingjing was quite lucky, being one of a handful of the kids from her hometown who get to have a chance to go to a university in a second-tier city, her horizon has been broadened since then. So, after she graduated from university, she decided to have a go and work in Beijing, as well as in a wish to live a better life, take the credit for the offspring, bathing in the good policy from the administration, and to have a share of the ample educational resources where you can only find from a city like that, just like the rest of eight million people.

Why do people want to escape from large cities in China? Credit: Arthur Yan. Source from:

The sociological phenomenon, to escape from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, came from an initiative via social media, comparing to the number of migrant workers who choose to go to these first-tier cities in China, that city represents the highest standard of China’s development, the center of the service, education, medical care, politics, economy, and culture, this small group of young people who refuse to accept the fast-changing pace of the economy, eventually, choose to go back to their hometown to live an easier life. But comparing to the recent graduates who just started their journey of this trip, to find opportunity in those cities, those who choose to leave are the minority.

Where did they escape to from large cities? 2nd and 3rd tier cities are the first choice. Credit: Arthur yan.

‘Overall, I think there are two reasons for me to make this decision (going back to my hometown), first of all, is that time in such a large city, I’d feel lonely all the time, even if there are usually acquaintances that I can hang out with, this feeling of no attachment with the city haunts me all the time, living a wandering life, being 1,000 KM away from home, and the overtime work also living expenses I could not afford.’ Said Jingjing.

In recent decades, China has done a great job in reviving its economy, but what’s behind, is a generation of young people struggling badly to find a better way of living, especially when they eventually realize that their big-city dream isn’t aligning with the reality, plus the truth of being exploited by working long hours.

Entering a state-owned facility has become one reason they found for themselves to have a life back home, yet this safer way doesn’t come cheap, often means they are ready to face the psychological discrepancy in salary, level of consumption, and lifestyle.

Report of recent graduates, a deduction in taking up an occupation can be seen, but still prioritized by recent graduates in China, light blue:2020, dark blue:2021. Source from: Credit: Arthur Yan

‘Also, being a female, I have the feeling all the time that I have no reliance in this city, whenever I realize I don’t actually have many friends, relatives, and most importantly, social relations, this is really vital and makes me anxious, from what I see, sapiens is a social animal, the need of communicating was truly strong, in the meantime, to have cared, vice versa, but I didn’t have, instead, it’s always been just myself stuck in an empty room, I didn’t want to go out either. I have a memory that trying hard to resist this emotion and reality makes me tired all the time.’

‘The relationship between people in a city with its long-term residents at 20 million is simply a world difference comparing to the small town I’m from. For example, you can be colleagues at work, but besides that, you can be a complete stranger from them, not to say with the extensively long hours of working, it almost left you no time to socialize, but also, people would always seem to be nice, but still felt so far away from each other. I used to see my doctor once a week to deal with my stress and anxiety for a year, also I really hate to see the whole ‘Rat Race’ going on at work, everyone wants to show the boss their best performances and work abilities, by stepping on one another, it’s not healthy.’

‘From my hometown, there is nearly no secret, although I also see this as a backlash, but at least our neighbor would sometimes invite people to their house and have meals together, seeing a dog comfortably bathing the sunlight after work, helping mother with the chores, all these slices of happiness give me the tranquil, it’s pure and simple.’

She also explained another reason why she finally made this decision, being in a middle-higher level position in the company, with a relatively medium leveled salary, she used to be really concerned about her future. She emphasized again, the gender gap she sees across workplaces in Beijing.

‘‘Although this could be the trigger of me choose to leave, but this doesn’t relate to any aspects of my position in particular, but a bigger picture in general. I realized I have no clear visions of how my life would go, I am not ambitious enough after getting myself promoted to a department manager, but as a female, at a certain age, I will have to consider getting married, to have a child, from what I could see, it’s going to be rather a problem than a benefit to me. I have seen one of my colleagues being isolated by everyone from the company after her maternity leave. She is also from another city who works in Beijing, and even she is there with her whole family, have bought a house there, changed her registered residency, inevitably due to the company’s decision, her duty been slowly taken away by the new employees, and she’s not even the only example I’ve seen who have been treated like that. I realized it’s truly horrifying, to think about someone’s promising career could end that way.’’

‘Being overwhelmed at work frequently used to be my life, and a conclusion of the time being there, saying I turned anti-capitalism is not exaggerating. My health condition wasn’t so good for the time being, I wake up with tiredness each morning, go on an overcrowded subway, because it’s too expensive to afford there, also because of the traffic. So, because from my previous job in Beijing, my team was running shorthanded for nearly 2 years, and my boss wouldn’t hire new people because of the cost, that’s basically the reason.’

Because of this stressful condition, and the concern about her health and future, also have seen many examples from reports revealing sudden death of workers, she finally made a decision to go through a series of examinations before she leaves in order to get into a public primary school as a teacher.

‘This job that I am doing now, offers me the sense of belongings, and sense of security, because like I said, I have never been diligence enough, but only feel that no matter my life or job in Beijing, it pushes me forward, and it’s really stressful. But now I think I have the life I wanted, there is absolutely no reason to stay a minute longer than work hours, I can go to the market and help my mother with shopping and cooking, spend more time with family members, and have summer and winter holidays, most importantly, this was the simpler life I wished for when I was in Beijing, so I would say maybe before I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but the experience there was still precious to me because it made me clear about my future for sure.’

‘Although there is a big difference with my salary, and the welfare is nowhere near compared to big companies since this is an entry-level position, but being a civil servant, you can truly see your job bringing tangible benefits to people, seeing little kids smiling on the playground, get off on time, so I can see this fit me well. It’s really valuable to have support from my family as well, my family doesn’t curb on this, so they would agree with me of doing anything I want, living any kind of life I want, there is no stress from them, as long as they see me living in a better, comfortable life.’

‘But at the same time, this also means to sacrifice my freedom, as a young people, I would wish to have my time and space, but living with them means I have to give it up. Even for me, almost 30 years old, I still have to worry about things like if I went out with friends and came home late, my parents would monitor me somehow, it’s not necessarily curfew, but indeed makes me uncomfortable.’

‘The complaint about overtime working between employees usually only making things worse, the company would even take someone who worked for the longest hours as an example, this only makes more people slack off during the day, and many are forced to leave work after 9 PM.’

Shiya Zhao, a recent graduate from Guangzhou University, is planning to move to the satellite town of Guangzhou, her hometown is in Guizhou province, which is usually being considered a less developed area located in the southwest of China.

‘I have tried several jobs in this city, but now I planned to move to a less stressful place, although this means I will earn 3,000-4,000RMB (334£-446£) less for my monthly salary there, I agree that being young doesn’t mean there is no other way to find a better balance between work and life, many of my classmates have moved there and they said the life there is pretty good, I am also planning to afford a house there in the near future. I particularly don’t like the fast-paced life in bigger cities. So, I don’t really think I am trying to escape from anything.’ Said Shiya.

‘It’s really easy to understand, for people who were born in the 1960s’, they take the highland and point their fingers down to us for our tiny rebellions, but I think there is a big difference between our generation, is that their success is strongly combined with the era, they stood a higher chance in climbing up social stratum, now they don’t like us to say this word. Also, the poverty gap is growing wider, so when there is no room to resist, we’d just lay down, no more unrealistic dreams, so from how I perceive, lying flat is merely a self-mockery.’

According to the life she spent in Beijing, Jingjing is still grateful about that experience, she thinks from work, it’s valuable that she has learned how to nail down small things from work easily and logically, even when they are repetitive sometimes, to be patient, and realize that she is just an ordinary people like many others, although she has been offered a way much lower welfare, she still thinks it’s worth it because being a civil servant in hometown means there will be no more visible and invisible rivalry between colleagues.

‘In recent years, this topic has been broadly talked about via the internet, but I don’t think me going back home is being affected by this, instead, because of the high price for real estate, there is no reason for me to stay, if my annual salary couldn’t afford 1 square meter in this city. But if I just wanted a better-balanced life, without having to work for so many hours, I can easily achieve that goal from my hometown, then what’s the point of staying? Work without socializing, spend 3-4 hours a day in the commune, gives me great pressure, there used to be no future for me, I think, I see my career development is going to be limited at a certain age, so I’m happy to say that I’ve made this decision. Some think escaping from those large cities is cowardice, but I believe sometimes having the courage to let go is better than making oneself suffer.’

Professor Xuefeng is a professional in postgraduate entrance examination who use to work in Beijing for 14 years. In March 2021, he decided to leave Beijing and to develop his career in the southern part of China, which has caused attention from the media.

He suggests that for youngsters in China, also commented the situation that many young people choose to work in large cities in China, they are faced with many options, temptations, and challenges, it’s difficult to define who is being more successful, it cannot only be defined by how many salaries they earn but more varied angles, such as being able to keep their family accompanies when needed, to live an easier life while having a correct balance.

‘I used to have this classmate from primary school, who have always been living in a small city, no stress from work, always have his family around, going on a road trip during weekend, BBQ, etc., several years ago, he doesn’t think I am living a happier life than him, but shortly after that, his father got really sick, so he asked help from me because his salary wasn’t enough to support the necessary medical expense, I believe this is why young people are being so anxious.’