Sunday in India, 36 people were trampled to death boarding a train to the Kumbh Mela festival. The holiday, which occurs only once every dozen years, draws over 80 million pilgrims.

We typically think of holidays as times of celebration and relaxation. But when travels involve more than taking a packed red eye, the consequences and effects of these migrations become far-reaching and profound.

We have now entered the Year of the Snake. Lunar New Year celebrations are exploding (with firecrackers) around the globe. At the same time, this holiday marks the world’s largest annual human migration: it’s the only time of year migrant workers in China, numbering as many as 130 million, can return to their homes in the countryside.

In celebration of the Chinese New Year, we are featuring those migrant stories here. First, a tenderly-crafted blog post from ethnographer Tricia Wang, who poses as a migrant street seller in Beijing and inadvertently experiences classism on a subway train. Wang’s experience illuminates how humans classify others based on their dress, physical appearance, and technological accouterments—all of which contribute to a larger categorization of desires, including that for newer and more expensive technologies. Wang writes that a fellow subway passenger could not rectify her shabby-looking dress with her use of an iPhone, illustrating an implicit expectation that Chinese migrants have no right to use new/expensive technologies.

I tried to imagine how would I see the world if I experienced this every single time I got on the train. Would I become bitter, would I form over-arching categories about “city” people so that I could make sense of how I was treated, would I essentialize anyone who looked like they were well dressed or showered?

— Tricia Wang

Similarly, the “Long March Home” as profiled in this 2011 LA Times article, paints a stark comparison between urban and village life. In Liloucun village, “most of the money comes from migrant workers. About 40% of the villagers leave home to join China’s urban workforce.” But as the article attests, the price is paid in absence—for most of the year, the village’s most mobile workforce moves to cities in search of higher paid work. The village’s remaining inhabitants are primarily the oldest and youngest occupants—grandparents and grandchildren. As a result, these villages, as discussed in ‘Empty Villages’ in Poor Areas of China: A Case Study of Rural Migration in North Shaanxi?, suffer a “brain drain”: schools close as numbers of students dwindle. Moreover, agricultural work declines and poverty is not successfully alleviated.

The emotional toll on the youth left behind is hauntingly portrayed in the documentary film Last Train Home. While tracking the return migration of one couple to their hometown, the film exposes how the rural-urban divide fractures families across China.

Sadly, life for migrants is not much better in the cities: in this Pacific Standard article, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham discusses how these migrants must chiku, or ‘eat bitterness,’ constantly seeking out new modes of economic opportunities during incredible physical and emotional hardships.

In sum, while Chinese New Year is a cause for celebration, in many villages in China the return home merely reminds revelers the holiday only lasts two weeks.

Further Reading:

Image credit: China Daily