To practice my Chinese, I make an effort to strike up conversations with strangers in Beijing. One thing I’ve discovered is that almost none of the people I meet are from here.
They come to the Chinese capital from all over the country to study or work, and make up a significant portion of the city’s 20 million residents. Nearly one in three people in Beijing are migrant workers, according to China Daily.
This becomes most apparent during Chinese New Year, when everyone who isn’t a native Beijinger returns home to celebrate the holiday with their families. Bustling neighborhoods slow to a crawl. Beijing’s notoriously bad traffic becomes manageable. I can even usually find a seat on the subway, which feels like a luxury because it’s so overcrowded most of the time.
The 40-day travel rush around the Spring Festival period is called chunyun. According to Xinhua News Agency, Chinese passengers will make an estimated 3.62 billion trips during this year’s chunyun, which is commonly referred to as the world’s largest annual human migration.
The holiday travel puts a huge strain on China’s rail and air transportation networks. A friend of mine who runs a restaurant in Beijing said last week that his waitresses have had trouble getting train tickets home. One lined up outside a ticket office before dawn several days in a row, but came up empty-handed, he said.
I’ll be traveling during chunyun, but not to visit family. I’m flying to Yangshuo in southern China, a small city known for its karst peaks, which inspired the artwork on the back of the 20 yuan bill.
I should have plenty of opportunities to practice speaking Chinese while wandering through the countryside. And, with it being Spring Festival, I might even meet a few “real” locals.