At 8:20 am on Tuesday, June 24th, a train pulled out of Penn Station in New York heading north at 35 mph on an eleven hour journey through cornfields, cows and rainbows to Montreal.  On this train, my sister, 14 bags of her stuff, and me, completed the next stage in a story of immigration that, as family lore would have it, includes Genghis Khan, a potato famine in Ireland, fleeing from Odessa to Athens with only a baby carriage after overhearing some revolutionary sailors in a park, friendly USSR-Cuba relations, a cheap-season trip to Club Med and a fateful sunburn, and British poetry.  But this newest leg in the story of how my sister ended up migrating to francophone Canada was driven by a much better reason than some of the wars and famines that have moved the Aabs and Hawrylkos in the past:  some Canadian guy named Marc, who, after June 28th, I have been happy to call my brother-in-law, and whom my sister is happy to call her Happily Ever After.
But even with rainbows and misty gondola rides through mountains glimmering with fireflies and the Power of Love (yes, my sister’s wedding was indeed amazing), migrating ain’t easy.  It’s not easy for those who go, schlepping their strange accents and rice bags of shoes to countries that count kilometers instead of miles.  It’s not easy for those they leave behind, who wonder how long they have to store their high school textbooks.  And it’s not easy for those who were already there, who somehow have to make room in their closets and cities and subways for these strange new newcomers.
Because it isn’t easy, there has to be something really darn good about the place people migrate to, in order to make it worth all that disruption.  (And not every place is lucky enough to have a Marc.)  So come be awed with me for a moment at the march of the humans, more powerful and romantic than Morgan Freeman’s penguins ever could be.  Be awed with me at the ability and willingness of a population to get up and leave home to pursue a better life — a hallmark of significant societies throughout history. And the places these people go:  they have become the greatest civilizations of our time.  If you want to understand where the world is going next, look where its people are going.
Back now in China (as all Aabservations eventually migrate…), if I could point to the single most important thing that is happening here, it would be domestic migration.   Chinese people, pursuing dreams or fleeing dire straights, are leaving their families to go to far-away universities, to far-away jobs, to far-away cities.  To get a sense of just how many people have migrated, hang around during Chinese New Year (“Spring Festival”) when train stations flood with people going home (or trying to).  If people weren’t willing — or able — to move, then China simply could not be growing the way it is now.   If anyone wants to do some economics research for me, here’s a metric I’d like to know:  a country’s temperature, the average kinetic energy of its population, similar to how physical temperature measures how much the atoms are moving around.  I bet China is piping hot.*
Of course, all this red hot migration boils up a host of ethical, social, economic and, yes, political questions that China (and other countries of course) are still very much working out:  the role of remittances in rural development, gender disparities in migrant populations, national transportation for a population on the go, urban infrastructure for swelling cities, dilution of regional languages and traditions… and even more fundamental questions, like who will teach all this young people how much salt to sprinkle on Kunpao chicken when they are no longer living near mom and dad?
This has happened all before, of course.  Watch New York bloom in the mid 1800s, flooded by the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, whom the Statue of Liberty greeted with a unpromising stern face over the New York harbor.  Watch one million rural Irish immigrants being tempest-tossed into a city of barely a million itself;  imagine the movie reels spooling out these immigrants’ struggle for low paying factory jobs, the challenges of cultural integration, the clashes of religious integration, training rural folks to be street smart.  And yet, somehow they got through.  They built parks and roads and labor laws, and poof, a civilization was born, crying and in tears, but which one day would become a land that sends shivers down my spine every time I look out the windows of Air China flight 932 back into JFK.
Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns argues that the invention of the steel cable, which helped made the Brooklyn Bridge so innovative, enabled New York City to grow up, instead of growing out.  In New York and the cities that followed it, populations could get dense, comfortably.  Steel cables enabled elevators which enabled tall buildings:  bigger boxes in which to put these dreamers, and all their dreams.
Flash forward 125 years from the fireworks of the Brooklyn Bridge’s opening, and I would argue that the fiber optic cable has had a similar impact on this epoch of modern migration.  With our (beloved!) internet, not only is it easier to find out about places before you go, but it makes it so much easier to be away from home.  Come be in awe with me again at the internet’s power to keep communities together, even those that quite literally share no common ground — like ye recipients of this very Aabservation.  If migratory temperatures are rising, thank the internet for helping we migrants and those we left behind bear the heat.  It’s a fundamentally different conversation now with my family back in New York at an insignificant 2 cents a minute on Skype or Mobivox, than it was to call them from Spain barely a decade ago for $2 a minute.  You know how good it feels to chat casually with those you love, without the pressure of making it worth the phone bill.  It’s these cheap conversations that truly are so valuable.  And for the last time this email, stand in awe with me at the fact that this note was sent and received, instantly and across the entire planet (it’s night here in Beijing), completely for free.
So with the long tether of fiber optic cables keeping us migrant masses close even as we are far apart, we humans graze through history like goats on a hillside, looking for and finding those greener pastures.  But maybe I am too easily awed by all this migration, and the forces and methods that drive it.  We just are doing what all animals (and Aabservations) eventually find themselves doing:  we explore, we digest, and then, we move on.
* I’m serious by the way in asking for someone to find this “temperature” metric. There’s got to be a quantitative measure of in-country migration (perhaps measuring the number of people, distance as % of country size, % of time spent away from place of birth/childhood/something, times expected to pack up and go during one’s life…), but I doubt migration-ologists call it “temperature.” Anyone want to dig up the term and the methodology, and let me know what it says about China?  What a cool (bad ump bump) comparative measure that would be.  I don’t even like quantitative comparative measures that much.

Leave a Reply