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December 25, 2009

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The ants go marching one by one

GONG Fangping sits on a messy bed, wrapped in a smelly quilt, watching the movie "2012" on his laptop. His cramped 10-man dorm is littered with socks, magazines, instant noodle packages, notices about job fairs and marked-up newspaper employment pages.

Gong, his nine dorm mates and hundreds of thousands of young men and women like him are "ants" (mayi), the new buzzword to describe low-income university grads who flood into Shanghai and other big cities to find work and chase their dreams.

Gong, 23, arrived in Shanghai in October after graduating from an insignificant normal university in his hometown in Jiangxi Province. Gong, who majored in human resources, comes from a village and says he would be scorned if he returned jobless.

For the past two months he has sent out 200 resumes but only got 10 job interviews and no job offers. He hangs his new "job interview suit" on a hanger in the dirty window.

"I'll keep trying. I'm not going back home this Spring Festival," he says. "All I want is to stay in the big city."

It's very tough to be tiny ants in the big city, which is already crowded with local unemployed grads in the economic downturn. Like ants, these young people are serious and industrious but weak; they live in groups in confined spaces. Ants range in age from around 22 to 29. Most are poor graduates.

The buzzword mayi or "ant" originated in a thesis, "Ants - their situation and living conditions," by Peking University postdoctorate Lian Si. It was published in September and the term caught on.

Most are competing in big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou in Guangdong Province and Wuhan in Hubei Province.

They do odd jobs and temp in a variety of fields, such as insurance, marketing, electronic equipment sales and catering. Some do cleaning work or manual labor to make ends meet while they search.

Average monthly income of "ants" is less than 2,000 yuan (US$294); they have no contracts or benefits.

They live in cramped, narrow, dorm-like hostels where rent is 15-25 yuan a day. It's cold in winter. They live near universities, railway stations and in urban-rural fringe areas.

"Big cities always offer more opportunities, but the problem is whether you have the ability to seize them," says Gong.

Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing were once the main centers that absorbed university graduates. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security reports that in 2005 Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen "digested" almost 11 percent of graduates from 15 provinces. There could well be more.

But in 2007 there were 4.95 million university graduates and big cities could not absorb them all. It has been a traditional social responsibility of cities to provide employment, but there are just not enough jobs. Many observers say colleges and universities these days are churning out too many people who are not well-qualified but who have unrealistically high expectations.

This year the number of university graduates soared to 6.11 million, representing a mission impossible for big urban centers. The economic downturn has worsened the situation.

"I don't want to go back to my small hometown. Once out, never back. If I go back home, I would be a laughing stock, considered a total loser by my fellow villagers," Gong says bitterly.

He pauses the movie, does some stretching exercises at the window where thin winter sunlight filters into the dim room. It smells of unwashed clothes and young men who need a bath.

His dorm costs 22 yuan a day. It's no more than 30 square meters, unfurnished except for 10 simple cots. Each room has a TV and water dispenser. The bathroom has a simple toilet, basin and water heater. There's only hot water from 6am-10am and from 5pm to midnight.

The hostel is minutes' walk from the Shanghai South Railway Station, Shanghai Normal University, East China University of Science and Technology and two large venues for job fairs - Shanghai Stadium and Shanghai Everbright Convention and Exhibition Center.

Shen Meihua, another frustrated "ant," came to Shanghai a year ago. The 24-year-old from Anhui Province was caught up in the excitement, struck by the skyscrapers and fashionable crowds.

But the e-commerce major hasn't found a job though she rushes to job fairs and sends out resumes. She says her university "isn't so good" but adds, "the problem is that there are just too many grads."

Shen feels like an outsider, always left behind and elbowed out of the promising urban picture.

She lives in a women's dorm in the same hostel as Gong and others. It's not as messy, but it's still cramped and cold.

"Yes, we're living like ants, we're weak," she says, lighting a cigarette and inhaling deeply. Smoking was the first thing she learned in the city, it helps her relax after an exhausting day.

"I want to stay," she says with determination. Her goal is a job, any job, that pays 3,000 yuan a month.

On weekends she goes to job fairs, on weekdays she surfs the Internet and sends out resumes. She hasn't yet gotten a response.

"I can't remember the number. It's just too many," Shen says.

Five months after arriving in May, Shen had spent almost all of her savings and didn't want to tell her parents. She had to find a cleaning job in a fast-food restaurant.

"The cleaners there are middle-aged women and they were always grumbling that a university graduate grabbed a job for laid-off workers," Shen says.

A month ago she got a job selling electronic equipment paying 800 yuan a month with a sales commission. "I didn't sell anything and just got 800 yuan," she says. She quit, saying the job wasn't suitable.

Du Yu from Shandong Province has been a luckier "ant" than Gong and Shen. He's in the same dorm with less successful Gong. After two years he still lives in the 10-bed, 22-yuan-a-night dorm but he has started a small advertising company.

"It's beginning to show a profit," says the 26-year-old music major. "I was born in a small town and I want to live in a big city."

After graduation, Du packed his bags and landed in Shanghai to chase his metropolitan dream and see where life takes him.

Over two years he has been a pub singer, a public relations assistant and a script clerk for a movie crew. He even did a little business selling toys in City God's Temple in the downtown.

He hasn't moved from his dingy dorm.

"It's cheap and my roomies are all fresh university graduates, who are very simple and easy-going," he says. "I love living in groups." Company helps him fight the loneliness.

At the back of the dorm door, Du posts many delivery menus from nearby restaurants selling wonton, noodles and vegetable rice, priced from 4 yuan to 8 yuan.

Occasionally, they indulge themselves in a Korean barbecue, usually when a roommate gets a job offer.

"The city is beautiful, though still strange to me," says Du. "I still feel like an alien, but it's getting better and everything is on the right track now."


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