Shanghai, September 2015. Mrs Liang had just moved from the village into her new urban dwelling and was experiencing one of the most challenging moments in her life.
Certainly, finding herself in a new environment that smelled like fresh paint and cardboard boxes did not help. She looked around, disoriented, struggling to find her own place in the city and not knowing where to start.
Like many others in her situation, she found herself with one foot in each of two houses: sometimes, objects or even family members are divided between two or more places.
Gaining a sense of home is a process that every individual experiences at some point during their lifetime. In the contemporary era, people often experience several changes in home as their life takes them along different paths and to different places. Mrs Liang observed:
Migration is an accepted path nowadays. After all, this generation of ours is always on the move and perhaps we don’t need to follow our parents’ example: living a whole life in one place and having the same job for a lifetime.
Her life aspirations as well as changes in home were far from exceptional. In today’s China, there are nearly 285 million rural-to-urban migrant workers, and migration is becoming an ever more accepted path of life.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the meaning of home as a subject for empirical investigation and theoretical exploration. However, there are multiple views as to how “home” is to be defined and analyzed: home is arguably a definable and analyzable “socio-spatial system,” it is not merely a question of feelings, but rather an intellectual construction that can be affected by numerous factors that derive from life experiences.
Home is an especially interesting concept when applied to migration, a phenomenon which implies a separation from one’s original home in order to create a new home in a different place. Separation produces the need for adaptation to new contexts and patterns, but most of all, separation produces change. For middle-class individuals who move from the village to the city to secure job opportunities, the most important change occurs in terms of social status and class belonging: rural migrants, in fact, tend to acquire new skills, experiences, perspectives, as well as new identities in the city that reflect the new urban environment and lifestyle.
This article suggests a new pattern for the analysis of the concept of home from the perspective of migration, connecting home-shifting mechanisms to dynamics of upward mobility and social advancement. The analysis hereby presented focuses on the social group of middle-class migrants with rural origins: for this group in particular, a separation from the rural home has meant social mobility and an increase in status, as well as a chance to secure urban middle-class membership.