Northern Girls: Life Goes On

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With a hurried glance at Xiaohong, the officer turned and walked crisply towards the shed.

What is going on? She waited so long she thought there might be a change of season coming, but still there was no sign of Bud and Sijiang. It grew dark and rain began to fall like bombs from an enemy plane. Caught unawares by the sudden downpour, only a small portion of the crowd managed to stay dry, huddling together for shelter like a coop full of chickens.

Just then, she saw the officer who had ordered her to squat sitting on some steps. It looked like he was recording something in a report. After hesitating for a long time, she finally went over and stood in front of him.

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He was very young, with an air of boyish shyness still about him. Xiaohong told him her whole story from beginning to end. He nodded, his pen scratching the page as he took some notes. Xiaohong received it with both hands, fiercely nodded her thanks, then went out of the iron gates and into the gathering dusk. The night was brightly lit by street lights and the glare of neon.

Xiaohong stood on the road and suddenly felt lost in these unfamiliar surroundings. Despite her absolute exhaustion, she forced her resisting legs into action. Asking passersby for directions, she walked all the way back to the salon, thinking over everything that had happened.

How could they just pick me up without even questioning me? Questions buzzed through her head as she dragged herself along, fighting off the gnawing uncertainties, asking for directions every now and then. About two hours later, she found herself back at The Salon, where she gorged herself on food. Even the boiled chicken, its joints still a little bloody, hit the spot, though usually the mere sight of it was enough to turn her stomach.

Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi

Had she spent much longer in that courtyard, even a meal of human flesh served up on a platter would have suited her just fine. Nervously, Sijiang watched her eat. I was going to come and get you then. Chang in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. Sheng herself was a migrant laborer in the s , before she turned to a writing career in and Northern Girls draws on her observations of life in the south for its material.

Caught in bed with her brother-in-law, Xiaohong flees the village, first for work in a nearby town, then for the opportunities offered by the southern city of Shenzhen. She works in a hair salon, a toy factory, a hotel, and a hospital, each move vaulting her another rung up the ladder, as Xiaohong exaggerates her skills and reinvents herself bit by bit.

When confronted with her inability to speak an unfamiliar dialect, Xiaohong articulates what turns out to be her guiding principle: Will I make loads of money? Plenty of obstacles stand in the way of Xiaohong and Sijiang achieving their goals.

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The men of Northern Girls are almost entirely unredeemed: None are a good catch, and all of the Northern Girls seem better off on their own. But when Xiaohong is present, there are always men, mesmerized by her breasts before them.

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Though Xiaohong professes an interest in having a boyfriend, she never pursues a lasting relationship, instead treating sexual desire as an itch to be scratched with any man available. Sheng seems uncertain about the message she wants to convey regarding sex and gender dynamics in the migrant communities of Shenzhen.

Or, at the end of the day, do conservative traditional gender norms still prevail? At times, Xiaohong is assertive and confident, sure that she can manipulate any man in her path even the policemen, whose authority instills fear in other migrant workers , and she appears indifferent to gossip about her exploits.

Northern Girls: Life Goes On: China Library

Xiaohong can be a frustrating protagonist — what does she really want out of life? A little uncertainty is understandable, given how frequently she hops jobs and even industries. When nothing is fixed from one week to the next, imagining two or three years into the future must seem impossible.