‘Dog Days and Salted Fish: Malaise of Indolence among Young Migrant Café Workers in Shanghai’

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Rural-to-urban migrants have largely been portrayed as future-oriented, striving subjects, living ‘in suspension’ and enduring precarious conditions for the sake of desired futures. This talk works from the premise that such depictions tend to naturalize purposefulness as a constant mode of being requiring no efforts to be sustained against other temporal and affective (dis)orientations. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in 2017–2018, the talk zeroes in on the lives of young migrant café workers in Shanghai who turned to the cosmopolitan service sector in pursuit of self-development and entrepreneurial futures. If aspirations configure self-narratives and trajectories, close-up observation reveals more ambivalent modes of subjectivity, oscillating between affective engagements with the future and expressions of indolence. At a time when discourses of the ‘Chinese dream’ coexist with vernacular celebrations of inactivity, what happens when young migrants encounter themselves as no longer inclined toward remaining aspiring, purposive, striving, if only temporarily? While the recent emergence of catchwords such as xianyu (‘salted fish’) or tangping (‘lying flat’) have been interpreted as signs of disenchantment and passive revolt, the talk suggests that appropriations of such repertoires do not necessarily mean embracing disengagement as a norm. It may instead nurture a sense of ethical discomfort and self-responsibility.