The sign that hangs above the doorway of Guo Guifen’s hewn-stone house reads, in ornate Chinese characters, “Perfect Harmony Family.” It signifies an award given to her household by the people of Xinnong, her village in southwestern China’s Guizhou Province, for being the most respected family of the year — the family that has meant the most to the village’s survival and well-being.
Guo, 42, is noticeably proud of the distinction. It means a sense of belonging and respect in this traditional place, situated among terraced rice paddies, wheat fields and oblong hills. Belonging anywhere is a relatively new thing for her: for the last several years, Guo and her family wandered from place to place throughout this region, settling where they could find enough work to make ends meet. They were caught up in the cycle of movement and hardscrabble short-term employment that defines China’s migrant labor workforce, 150 million strong and growing.
But today, with some help from Mercy Corps and its local partner China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), she’s finally found a place to call her own — and brought her family back together in one place for the first time in more than a decade.
Guo’s family — which includes her husband, a daughter and a son — have spent most of the last fourteen years away from this place, her husband’s ancestral village. Much of the time was spent earning money in the provincial capital, Guiyang, several hours from here over mountainous terrain and winding roads. In Guiyang, all four family members had separate jobs to contribute to the family income: Guo’s husband worked as a welder in various automotive shops, while the others found small piecemeal work wherever and whenever they could.
During the most uncertain times, they rarely saw each other and sometimes even lived in separate places. The children only occasionally attended school.
A couple of times each year — usually for planting and harvest seasons — at least part of Guo’s family would return to Xinnong to work the fields. This farming temporarily returned them to their roots, but never paid enough to allow them to stay here for the long term. Eventually, they always had to return to Guiyang or somewhere similar.
Then, four years ago, Guo had an idea that she thought might just allow them to stay in their village for good.
“I noticed that people had to travel to surrounding villages to buy wheat noodles. There weren’t any sold in the market here,” she explained. “And we were already growing a lot of wheat around here, so why not make our own noodles?” After discussing it with her family, Guo decided that a flourmill would be a great investment; it would be the only one in the immediate area, and surely the start of a good business. They pooled their meager savings together, but it wasn’t quite enough to buy the necessary equipment.
However — call it destiny or luck — around the same time, a loan officer from CFPA happened to come to Xinnong for a visit. He talked to local families on market day, telling them about the possibility of taking out low-rate loans to start small businesses. The loan officer then made appointments to visit the houses of those who expressed interest — including Guo.
Within weeks, she took out enough money to purchase a heavy-duty grain mill and, soon after that, began milling wheat and making noodles in her home.
Today, Guo offers her homemade dry noodles once a week in the local market — usually selling at least 500 pounds of stock each market day, which nets her about 800 RMB (US $115) of profit per month. That makes it easy for her to make her monthly CFPA loan repayment of 200 RMB (US $28).
Since her business is so successful she’s been able to buy more wheat from village farmers as well, helping their fortunes and maybe even keeping a few from becoming migrants themselves.
Guo always has her eyes on other ways to secure her family’s livelihood: she’s used her profits and two additional loans to buy livestock for their farm. She currently has 60 chickens and six pigs.
But her most important priority right now is putting her son through school. Now 17, he’s finishing up ninth grade — significantly behind in his studies, but determined to finish.
“After ninth grade, education isn’t free,” Guo said. “I want my son to be able to continue.”
Now that they’re settled back into her husband’s ancestral home — to stay — it is much easier to make those kind of permanent plans and dare to consider long-term dreams. As she makes another batch of noodles for this week’s market you know that, in the back of her mind, Guo Guifen is dreaming of being the Perfect Harmony family again next year.