Photos: China’s college grads in ‘ant tribes’ pursue dreams

Photos: China’s college grads in ‘ant tribes’ pursue

You can always meet such people: they came to an alien land all by
themselves, sleep on cheap bunks, send bunches of application letters and try
out new jobs, call their families and whine over the phone, and then assure
them, “I can get it done.” In that case, they are very likely to belong to an

“Ant tribe” was coined several years ago to describe the millions of Chinese
college grads who, unable to afford high rents, crowd together in slums in major
cities and scrape by on meager salaries. They have stepped off campus. Their
careers are not yet onto the right track. Their future seems so uncertain and

Most “ant nests” are very ill-equipped, providing simply bunk beds and a
water sink. It would be a “high-end” ant nest if it has internet access and a
shower. Most apartments have four to six rooms, each packed with several bunk
beds. As a result, the rent is very cheap, ranging from 100 to 300 yuan (US$15
to 46) per month in the city of Shenyang in China’s northeast. Low rent is the
biggest enticement to ‘ant tribes.’ However, their biggest concern is if people
in the same room are on the same page and can get along. After all, an ant tribe
is unlike a college; you need much longer time to get to know one another. On
the other hand, ants seem to be kindred spirits. They are in similar
circumstances and strive for the same ideal – being able to move out of the ant
nests one day.

Leaf is now an intern at an real estate selling
company in Shenyang. She waits to be offered a full-time position after
graduation. Every day, she is the first in her ant nest to rise and leave. Her
job is to promote the sales of real estate to customers of all kinds. After she
returns to her nest, she has to go through her thesis and prepare for the
defense next month.

Moon is Leaf’s classmate. She is right now a trainee at a cosmetics company. She
is required to memorize things printed on a thick stack of documents within days
of training, and will be relocated to a remote and unfamiliar city for a month
the first week after her official entry.

Huan Huan majors in animation. She is crazy about photography, and works
as an assistant in a photo studio specializing in children’s portraits. She has
been shooting photos on her own ever since half a month after her internship
started. She works extensively with kids and has a lot of anecdotes and fun
facts to tell at night in the ‘ant nest.’

Little Huan is Huan Huan’s friend. They two happen to share in their names
the same Chinese character for “joy.” Little Huan is a shop assistant at a
department store. She is always the last one to return. After she gets home, she
goes to bed soon after washing and seldom engages herself into conversation with
girls in the room.


Due to different work hours, while some are soundly asleep, others have got
ready to go.


With a busy life, snoozing for a little longer would be an extravagant


Leaf is the earliest bird. Her hairdryer is also admittedly an alarm clock
for everyone else.


Ready to go.


Huan Huan and Moon get up subsequently to embrace their new day.


When everyone else is still busy around, Leaf is leaving. “Today I gotta sell
an apartment out” is her goal.


The amenities in the room, if any, are very simple. The bed and the walls are
covered with adhesive hooks. Hangers also line the bedstead.


Socks that girls air to dry.


Hot water that girls use is supplied by an immersion heater that Leaf has


A homemade hanger.


Moon has just been enrolled in training classes offered by her new employer.
She has to remember the reference materials by heart, so she reviews those
materials every day after work.


Huan Huan gets home from work quite early. She sometimes makes do with
instant noodles for dinner in the room.


Leaf devotes most of her spare time to her thesis as the date for defense
draws near.


Moon reviews her materials.


Huan Huan gets home when it is quite late. Girls are going to bed soon.


In the spare time, girls gather together. It must be when the American TV
shows they’ve been following closely are updated online.



Everyone talking at night about what they have seen and heard during the day
is the jolliest moment of the entire day. The glow emitted by Huan Huan’s lamp
makes the little room cozy.


Huan Huan applies moisturizer to her face before going to sleep.


Leaf is about to wave goodbye to this day.


One day has passed, and another day is coming.


Huan Huan works at a children’s photography studio and meets many adorable
children. She has the best to offer as bedtime stories.


Leaf works at a real estate company. She sold two units in less than a


Little Huan works at a department store. She is the last one to get home.


Moon is a trainee at a cosmetics company. She makes the most money among the
four girls.

No one knows how much longer such life would last, and everyone is thinking
about escape, about when their jobs are safe within their grasps, when they can
afford to move into an apartment and share it with no one else, and when they no
longer have to be on the go like this…

Best wishes to those young people who are still endeavoring.



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