Xue Meng’s parents are not coming home for Chinese New Year this time. The last time she saw them was a year ago, when they came home to spent the New Year with her. I was there. I remember we were having lunch when Xue Meng came jumping in our courtyard screaming “爸妈回来啦 回来啦!” (“Mom and dad are back home!”). She was so happy and excited; I actually just got the “Mom” and “Dad” part in-between all the screaming and giggling.
Today Jin told me her parents won’t be able to come back this year. They work in a factory somewhere near Shenzhen. I don’t know the reason why they won’t be able to go home this year, but I know for sure that Xue Meng is devastated. The only time she sees her parents is during New Year. In Jin’s village, just in our street, I know three families personally who have left their children behind and went to bigger cities to find work and earn a living. It is heart-breaking…
It seems, that is the dark side of China’s economic boom. Over the years a huge number of low-skill jobs have been created in coastal provinces, attracting hundreds of millions of laborers to move to the big cities.
According to a report by the All-China Women’s Federation there are 61 million children living in rural China without their parents. For me this number is shocking. Most of these children see their parents once a year (some lucky ones maybe twice a year).
But why? What parent can leave their own children behind?
It is a tough decision, and I imagine every single mother and father feels heartbroken to leave their baby behind. Most of the children usually stay with their paternal grandparents, in many cases only months after they were born.
The choice is mostly forced on the young parents. With the low salaries they get as farmers many have no other way but migrate into one of the booming Chinese cities. Usually living costs in big cities are so high that bringing their children with them could prove disastrous given the parents low salary.
Jin also told me that there are more obstacles for migrant workers and their children in urban areas: For example China’s hukou, or household registration, system. It is linked to every person’s hometown, which means social benefits such as health care and free education are just available where they were born. If they decide to take their children to the city and enroll them in one of the urban schools they have to pay extremely high tuition. Jin told me that some public schools in urban cities simply refuse to take migrant children.
Plus many city people look down on migrant workers and their children, often regarding them as uneducated.
Faced with all these difficulties, what choice do they have left? Relocating with their children is an unrealistic option. So many parents chose to leave their children with their grandparents.
I know for a fact that most of these grandparents take loving care of their grandchildren. They love them more than anything. But mostly the grandparents are also farmers, and have to do heavy farm work every day from morning till evening. I know that Xue Meng’s grandmother works on the field every day. She has one field assigned next to Jin’s parents, so sometimes before lunch time we would drive up there to get her. When Xue Meng comes from school at 12, her grandmother prepares lunch for her. After everyone ate, her grandmother and my parents-in-law would go back to the fields. Xue Meng has no one to help her with her homework. Even if her grandmother would want to help her, she couldn’t. She never learned how to write and just speaks a dialect. Xue Meng loves to learn new things. I taught her a lot of English words.
It is very sad to know that Xue Meng is not the only child growing up with parents being far away. No matter how much her Grandmother loves her, sometimes it is just very hard on her. I also realised that many grandparents usually just take care of the physical health of their grandchildren, making sure they have enough to eat and wear, and less to their character and morality. Xue Meng is still young, just seven, but I know two boys in the neighborhood who also grew up mostly taking care of themselves with parents working in Shanghai. They are right in their puberty and having lost all respect for people around them. This rebellious phase might be coincidence and might have nothing to do with the fact that they grew up without parents, but I got to think… if you never have a strong guidance in form of your mother or your father, the psychological effects can be very bad.
Imagine out of five children in rural China, one grows up without parents. Some of them don’t recognize their own mother or father when they come home once a year for Chinese New Year.
I found this video about “China’s Left Behind Children”. It did make me cry… really touching and sad reality.
I just cannot dare to imagine how hard it must be to bear those years of painful separation.
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