“Xingfu”, Miahua replied. I didn’t understand. “Xingfu”, she replied again, surveying the painfully obvious confusion on my face and taking the time to emphasize the tones slowly the second time. My friend and translator, Ji Hye, was quick to jump in this time. “It means happiness,” she translated in Korean, “the kind you feel when you are wholly and completely and satisfied.”
Sitting in a Starbucks at the heart of downtown Seoul’s trendy MyungDong district, I stared across from the table trying to decipher what she had just said. Miahua Xiao was a neat, plainspoken woman in her mid twenties. She tied her hair back into a ponytail and carried a charming yet guarded demeanor. At just five-foot-three, she spoke with the assertiveness and determination that had propelled her to where she was today. Yet despite her clean appearance, she seemed out of place among the hoards of teenagers shuffling in and out of the café.
Her mother and father both worked in DongGuan, China, assembling dishwashers, toasters, and other kitchen appliances throughout the day. Here in the bustling city of 5.2 million fellow migrants, her parents had moved their family from the farmlands in the West and managed to secure a small apartment in the city with a small singular bedroom where they all slept together. She recalls being afraid for her parents during monsoon season, where her parents would brave the storm to attend to their work.
Everyday, she told me, she would drag the small foldable dining table they had into the bedroom so she could study in peace while her parents watched television after a long day’s work. Yet despite the odds, Miahua had managed to score at the top of her university entrance exams and graduated from her top choice university, a dream that would almost inevitably lead to success in any of China’s state owned enterprises or even the party itself.
“After graduation, I didn’t know where to go,” Miahua said in surprising moment of vulnerability. Graduating with a degree in economics, she had what many around the world dream of, a decent shot at employment. Indeed, China’s youth unemployment rate in 2012 was a mere 7.6% compared to the 17.6% of most other OECD countries. Yet instead of joining a large firm or government entity, a “surefire” way to fortune, she packed her bags and headed to South Korea, a haven for Asian technology startups with its regulations and strong communities, to join a mobile e-commerce startup.
“It’s too risky!” her father implored. “Don’t you want to have children?” her mother asked. Her parents pleaded with her to settle down and find a stable job. But as Miahua would later explain to me, she thought the endless boom-and-bust cycles of employment and the incessant rat race for fortune was a path that was relegated to an older generation. She had seen her parents unemployed for several months at a time as economic realities took its toll on the most vulnerable of populations and she had been witness to an effective, yet ultimately unresponsive government that she had no desire to join.
She wanted to be in control. She wanted what others around the globe long for, xingfu. Not just employment, not just fortune, but real, meaningful work that would allow her to live a comfortable life financially, socially, and all dictated on her own terms. Miahua’s story is not unique. It is a story that is being replicated around the world from the United States to Tanzania as young people grapple with crippling levels of unemployment.