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Lack of school support for China’s migrant children a crying shame

Lijia Zhang says the social and emotional costs of keeping families separated are too high to bear

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 September, 2014, 3:17pm

UPDATED : Monday, 15 September, 2014, 11:38pm

Lijia Zhang

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Students pose for a photo at a primary school for migrant children in Hefei, Anhui. Photo: Reuters

The start of a new school year should be a joyful time. Instead, in Beijing, it has heralded tears and painful family separations: the children of migrant workers who failed to secure a place at a local school have been forced to leave.

The family of my neighbour, Mr Ma, a self-employed electrician, is among those affected. His wife has just taken their seven-year-old daughter, Qiuyu, and her visiting brother, Xiaobao, back to their home village outside Datong , in central Shanxi province.

Qiuyu had been at home for nine months, after her private unlicensed kindergarten run by a fellow migrant was shut down by the authorities who said it lacked safety measures.

My neighbourhood in Jiuxianqiao village is populated by migrant workers. In recent months, the Mas visited dozens of primary schools in the area. All migrant schools seem to have closed and all state schools demanded five documents, including a temporary resident permit, rental contract and proof of employment. Mr Ma had none of them.

He said at least 10 families he knows have met the same fate. In fact, the rules surrounding schooling of migrant children have been tightened, according to a recent report in Wen Wei Po, which claimed that around 10,000 migrant children have been unable to attend state-run schools after failing to provide the required documents. A small percentage may fight on, forging documents, paying sponsorship where required, or even bribes. Most families, however, will have to say goodbye to their children as they return to their rural homes, usually to be taken care of by grandparents.

Ever since China’s reform and opening up, some 260 million people have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life. One of the biggest negative effects of the "greatest migration in human history" has been, in my view, the "left-behind children" phenomenon. There are estimated to be more than 60 million of them.

China’s hukou or family registry system, introduced by Mao Zedong in the 1950s as a way to control the flow of population, divides China into a rural and urban population, with the latter enjoying much better access to education, health care and other social services. At first, migrant children were not even allowed to enter local schools. Slowly, restrictions were relaxed, but many obstacles remain and migrant schools exist precariously in a grey area.

Mrs Ma’s decision to return home, leaving behind her husband in the capital, was made after many sleepless nights. Nine years ago, when the couple first ventured away from their rural home, they left their son, only six at the time, in the care of her parents.

Today, Mr Ma makes about 10,000 yuan (HK$12,600) a month fixing household electronic appliances, more than double his income as a village electrician.

But the Mas only see their son twice a year, once during the Lunar new year in their village and once in the summer when Xiaobao visits them for his vacation. I have noticed that he behaves like a guest in his parents’ little one-bedroom flat.

I sympathise greatly with the Mas. My own family was also a victim of thehukou system: my father worked in another city. Until his retirement, we rarely saw him.

In his book on left-behind children, author Ye Jingzhong discusses the many negative effects: these children don’t always get proper care, guidance or help from their guardians, who are usually their poorly educated grandparents; they often feel lonely and are more likely to suffer from mental illness, compared with those living with their parents; and they are extremely vulnerable to crime, especially sexual assault.

Aware of such perils, in 2010, Unicef started a pioneering child welfare model called the "barefoot social worker", inspired by Mao’s "barefoot doctor" – doctors with basic training who provided medical care to millions of farmers. In this modern version, someone in the community is given some basic training as a social worker to provide these needy children with help. The programme, in cooperation with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, has proved effective.

Yet, it’s clear that the government has not done nearly enough. Perhaps the authorities’ wish to maintain stability means they seek to prevent thousands of farmers rushing to the city. Perhaps our leaders do not fully realise the negative long-term effects on the left-behind children. If their problems persist into adulthood, how can we expect to build a "harmonious society"?

The government needs to take urgent action. It should offer financial incentives to local schools that take in migrant children or simply set quotas. Given that local schools cannot accommodate all the children, schools for children of migrant workers should be given legal status. Instead of simply shutting down substandard schools, authorities should offer support. And finally, the hukou system must be abolished.

Back in my neighbourhood, an air of sadness hangs over Mr Ma and his home; outside, where the family had spent many happy hours, little Qiuyu’s bike now stands forlornly.

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Lack of school support for China’s migrant children a crying shame

Last week, the author of best-selling River Town was in town to promote his new book "Strange Stones", which has just been published in Chinese. I had the pleasure of meeting him for a drink, amid his packed schedule of book talks and interviews. I’ve known Pete for years. I passed a column in HK Standard to him when he first came to Beijing, after his time in Fuling. It was him who encouraged me to write my memoir, for which I am always grateful. "Strang Stones" and his China triology have all made a splash in China among the educated young people. Few western writers achieved this level of success. I’ve been thinking what are the secrets of his success. First of all, he is a bloody good, extremely talented writer and sharp observer. Unlike some westerners who hold a colonial or superior attitude towards China, Pete treats Chinese people as equal. Despite the problems he describes, China comes out in good light. and I think he is such a nice person which shines through in his writing.

below is a piece about ‘Strange Stones’

China expert Peter Hessler goes to the ground in ‘Strange Stones’

Peter Hessler offers a ground-level view of the last 15 years in China and its rapid changes. He also throws in a few U.S.-based stories.

May 31, 2013|By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

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  • A Chinese man carries a fish he caught below the spillway of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, near Yichang, in central China's Hubei province on June 13, 2003.

A Chinese man carries a fish he caught below the spillway of the Three Gorges… (Greg Baker / Associated…)

Between 2001 and 2010, Peace Corps volunteer-turned-New Yorker writer Peter Hessler delivered three entertaining, richly detailed books on China told through his interactions with everyday people. Hessler left China several years ago, moved to Colorado and now lives in Cairo, but his new book, "Strange Stones: Dispatches From East and West," is a compilation of ground-level short stories mostly about the Middle Kingdom. Fans of his New Yorker work will find most of these dispatches familiar, though quite a few are a delight to reread.

Some, like the opening piece on the rivalry among two restaurants in the town of Luogang specializing in rat — Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant and New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City — have a timeless quality, with Hessler deftly capturing in detail the quirky (and not infrequently disturbing) aspects of eating and doing business in China.

Other tales, such as one related to youngsters migrating to work in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen in the late 1990s, or another on the nation’s preparations for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, or a third on Yao Ming’s 2002 foray into the NBA and its ramifications in China, cannot help but feel dated.

But somehow, reading them with a few years of distance almost heightens our appreciation for just how much China, and its laobaixing, or ordinary men and women, have witnessed, built and endured over the last decade and a half. The economic boom has brought unprecedented prosperity — new roads, new public toilets, Olympic gold medals — and problems.

Hessler chose not to arrange his anecdotes chronologically, which may have robbed the compilation of a bit of its power to serve as a time-lapse documentary of China’s transformation over the last 15 years. But that is a minor quibble. More puzzling is Hessler’s decision to include five (of 18) chapters set totally outside of China. The result can be more jarring than enlightening, like a greatest hits album interspersed with obscure B-sides thrown in on a whim.

A chapter on an American, David Spindler, researching the Great Wall through painstaking hikes is followed by a 25-page piece on a Long Islander of Nepalese descent, Rajeev Goyal, who lobbies Congress to boost Peace Corps funding. Twenty-two pages on uranium mining in the town of Paradox, Colo. (its health effects and battles over a new mine), come immediately after a chapter on the Chinese city of Wushan, which is being submerged thanks to the Three Gorges Dam.

Hessler contends he chose to intersperse these stories "because I like the idea of David Spindler standing next to Rajeev Goyal, and I think the people of Wushan might have something to say to the people of Paradox." Maybe, but some readers will find the choice dislocating, or undisciplined — one wonders whether Hessler simply wanted a vanity book of his favorite pieces over the last dozen years, even if some have only the most tenuous connection to the others.

One U.S.-set piece that does nicely complement the rest of the work is the penultimate chapter, "Go West." This sees Hessler moving to a remote corner of Colorado, engaging with the locals and reflecting upon the differences between Chinese and Americans — and where he fits in between the cultures after so much time abroad.

Americans, he rediscovered, were more solitary yet more accomplished raconteurs, eager to share personal topics. Compared to rural Chinese, who would pepper him with queries about the United States and the West, Americans were frequently more parochial, he found to his dismay.

"At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me," he says. "I remembered all those questions in China, where even uneducated people wanted to hear something about the outside world, and I wondered why Americans weren’t the same."

But, he added, "it was also true that many Chinese had impressed me as virtually uninterested in themselves and their communities. They weren’t reflective — they preferred not to think hard about their own lives. That was one of the main contrasts with Americans, who constantly created stories about themselves and the places where they lived."

Fortunately for his readers, Hessler has both a Chinese inquisitiveness and an American aptitude for storytelling. This makes "Strange Stones" a lively and worthwhile — if somewhat oddly curated — look back at China’s last 15 years.

The Uses of Culture

Posted: September 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Yesterday, I had the honour to introduce the keynote speaker Professor Julianne Schultz, a famous Australian academic, author and public intellectual, at the annual conference organized by the Foundation for Australian Studies in China.

As usual, I added personal touch by mentioning that I had actually had the pleasure of meeting her a few years back when I went to Australia for my book tour. This is another use of culture – it connects people across borders of time, society or language.

Since we were to talk about culture, I did a bit research and learnt that the concept first emerged in roman classical antiquity, meaning the cultivation of soul. It re-emerged in modern Europe in the 17th century, referring to the betterment or refinement of individuals. Later it came more frequently to refer to the common aspirations or ideas of whole peoples. After Julianne’s talk, I have a new understanding about the concept of culture.

Below is her presentation.

The uses of culture

Julianne Schultz

There are four pillars that are essential to any successful nation. One is the land and its associated attributes and resources, the second is the people who make up the society, the third is its institutions, laws and regulations, and the fourth is the defining culture and values.

Culture is the most slippery of these pillars, and the one that receives the least attention. But it is just as important as the other pillars, arguably the glue that ensures the other pillars are robust and resilient.

Governments are more comfortable regulating land, population and institutions than they are when it comes to dealing with culture. Culture is not a creation of government. Yet the right of citizens to participate in the creation and enjoyment of culture isembodied in international agreements.

Culture can be used and it can be abused. It maybe that the potential and history of abuse in the name of culture acts to limit its expansive use. Culture can be a narrow straightjacket demanding conformity.

But it can also be a force for good, for enabling the achievement of the greatest human potential. It is culture that binds and embodies the society, it is culture that stretches and enriches, that draws on tradition and welcomes innovation.

Culture is always a work in progress, changing and evolving of itself and in response to the changes that happen elsewhere. If the land is affected by drought or fire, the local culture will draw on its embedded resources, but adjust in response; if the mix of peoples there change, the culture will also adapt to accommodate this; laws and regulations can strengthen this resilience or undermine it.

These principles hold everywhere, but are different in an open settler society than they will be in a more rigid, traditional society where the weight of history hangs more heavily. In a traditional, essentially mono cultural society history is likely to be more settled and firmly held than in a society in which the layers are newer and still accreting. In both there is a need to interrogate the past and incorporate the new, but the starting point is different, as are the obstacles that can get in the way of such an activity.

It is important to tease this out, because even in a global world, people come from somewhere, and that somewhere shapes how they see the world, their opportunities, their ease at home and abroad, the traditions that shape their expression and aspirations., the way they relate to others and the value they place on history and belonging.

There are more than a million Australians living abroad, and even as their accents soften and they adopt the mores of those around them there is something distinctive and recognizable about them. The Australian expat of the twenty-first century is very different to the expat of another age who was often recoiling from home. Now they move with ease in the world, coming and going, orbiting and settling.

This begs the question of what makes Australia and Australians unique and how might this be strengthened.

I would argue that there are four things that make Australia unique– the first is its Indigenous history, as home to the longest continuous living civilization. There is almost no other country that can trace such a lineage.

The second is that it is one of the most successful continuous representative democracies. This has underpinned Australia’s openness and its resilience. As a result successfully accommodating peoples from nearly 200 other countries and helping to make it the thirteenth richest country in the world.

The third is that, with the exception of devastating local battles, which accompanied European settlement, there has never been a full -scale war fought in Australia. Compared to the blood shed in almost every other country, this is remarkable and has a legacy, which we rarely acknowledge, but one which underpins Australian pragmatism and the sense that things can be sorted out.

The fourth is the accident of geography that places Australia in the Asian hemisphere. This provides both opportunities and has presented challenges. Yet we know that the Indigenous people had a long history of regional interchange, we know that Matthew Flinders after circumnavigating Australia recommended that Darwin be the capital so the colony could engage better with the trade with the region, we know that the Australasian movement of the nineteenth century envisaged a regional future, we know that Chinese settlers came south with the same ease that Irish settlers crossed the Atlantic to America, and we know that for much of the twentieth century Australia pulled up the drawbridge with shocking consequences.

As with all the characteristics there are layers, some we would now consider good, some we would consider bad – but there are layers, which are especially important, but easily overlooked especially in a pragmatic country not given to introspection pr hyperbole.

The culture of Australia grows out of these attributes. Culture is expressed in many ways, through education and language, through science and sports, through community activities and heritage, in all its many layered complexity.

The arts are particularly important in this, effectively the research lab of culture – pushing, expressing, developing, communicating – through visual art, music, dance, performance, design, writing and screen.

Culture has many uses in this context. There is the intrinsic value of creating works of skill and beauty that speak to the soul, a unique combination of creativity, discipline and talent.

Then there is the institutional value of culture, the way these works and others represent and help define a people and place. This maybe captured in the great buildings, in the heritage, in the great performing companies or more prosaically in tourism campaigns. But the institutional and nationally defining value of culture cannot be wished away even in a global world.

The third use of culture is instrumental – to ensure the greatest human potential can be realized. This ranges from participation in creative and community activities to education – but deliberately uses cultural tools to expand this capacity, rather than just the tools of economics or regulation.

The fourth use is commercial – the importance of the cultural industries can no longer be ignored. Even at a time when the business models of some of the traditional cultural industries are being challenged by digital technology, culture is an important part of the economy, generating in Australia more of the GDP than many other industries – up to ten percent by some calculations – employing hundreds of thousands of people in interesting and rewarding jobs. As this commerce is conducted globally, also sending a message to the world about Australia. In a tangible sense an export with more power that ships full of minerals.

There is a challenge in a settler society to unpick the recent history, as well as the ancient past and synthesise it and communicate this at home and abroad, to continue listening and thinking, to realise that this is a work in progress not something that stopped a hundred or fifty or ten years ago.

What we are now beginning to see in Australia is the outcome of this process. So some of the most remarkable and exciting art being produced draws on both the Indigenous and settler traditions. Two examples: Danie Mellor and Michael Cook who synthesise this in original ways. It is also happening in dance and music – Bangarra’s recent show tells such a story, Paul Stanhope’s oratorio does the same and it is present in literature, design and on screens and stage.

What these works point to, is the long history of settlement in Australia, and the interaction with the region that precedes European settlement is something that makes Australian culture truly unique – so there is a basis for a different and richer engagement with the countries of this region than maybe we once all realised.

The old clichés drawn from nineteenth and twentieth century are no long sufficient to capture this, so there is a need for an expansive approach, one that unpicks the layers of Australian history and identity, engages its peoples, and communicates with the world in a quietly self confident, unapologetic manner.

This is useful in many ways, for individuals, for the society, and maybe even for the world as an example of what is possible.

Chinese culture fails to make the grade for today’s mixed-race children

Lijia Zhang recounts her struggle to instil pride and love of all things Chinese in her daughters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2014, 3:46am

UPDATED : Monday, 08 September, 2014, 10:34am

Lijia Zhang

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A mechanical horse-dragon made for a French show to be presented in Beijing this year. China may be the second-largest economy in the world but it lags behind the West in may aspects, pop culture for one. Photo: AFP

May, my 17-year-old elder daughter, told me the results of her school exams by phone. When there was a pause, she asked: "Are you disappointed?" I shouldn’t have been. Three As and a B were good results.

But the problem was that she got the B in Chinese. And she is half Chinese.

I see it partly as my fault in failing to speak Chinese consistently at home, at least for the time May and her younger sister, Kirsty, spend at my house. The truth is that she’s really interested in the language and, indeed, the Chinese part of her cultural heritage.

A few years back, I took the girls to Bangladesh for a holiday. As soon as we were out of my friend’s guarded complex, we were surrounded by curious locals.

"Where are you from?" they asked the girls. May, the spokeswoman of the two, replied without hesitation: "We are from England."

After we had settled down in a rickshaw, I said to May: "You were born in Beijing. Save for four years in London, you grew up in China. How does it qualify you as ‘English’?" May blinked her big round eyes. "Well, if I tell people I am Chinese, they wouldn’t believe me."

True, May doesn’t look very Chinese, with her fair skin and brown hair, especially the way she carries herself. Kirsty, who has a darker complexion and more delicate facial features, looks a little more oriental.

Yet they both fundamentally identify themselves as British, even though they do sometimes describe themselves as "half Chinese and half British".

They go to the British School in Beijing, they spend half their time with their British father, and all their friends are English-speaking international kids.

It’s been an uphill battle to inject the Chinese part of the culture into them. They like Chinese food but much prefer Western food. I speak Chinese to them and they often reply in English. I used to ask them to write a few characters every day or read them a story in Chinese. They saw this as a task, a burden and a bargaining tool to get their pocket money, instead of an amazing opportunity that will open doors for them in the future.

As we grew busier and their interest remained low, we gave up this drill. There’s little wonder that May obtained "only" a B.

She actually speaks Chinese fluently (her sister less so), but to master the characters demands a lot of time and effort.

Eurasian children fare differently in their Chinese exams, likely better than average; the top students usually have a tiger mother at home, enforcing extra Chinese lessons.

I don’t really worry about my children’s identity.

Research contradicts the earlier belief that mixed-race children were likely to have cultural identity problems.

In her 1987 book, Mixed Race Children: A Study of Identity, British sociologist Anne Wilson documented many children of black and white parents and discovered most of them to be well-grounded in their identity. Since Wilson’s findings, the multiracial population is more visible as they have become one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the US, and other parts of the world. The sheer number of them also makes it less of a problem; they simply have a more fluid sense of identity than the conventional definition.

What concerns me is the fact that my girls seem to think that Western culture is superior – though they may not say as much. If they describe something, for example, someone’s outfit, hairstyle or manner, as "very Chinese", it usually contains negative connotations.

Their attitude is common among children of Western-Chinese families. I know one half-Australian, half-Chinese girl who speaks Chinese fluently after attending a local school. After moving to an international school in Beijing, during her first school trip, she pretended not to know any Chinese and asked a classmate with poorer Chinese to interpret for her.

There are no doubt many reasons why these mixed blood children more readily identify themselves with Western culture. China may be the second-largest economy in the world but it still lags behind the West in many aspects, and the government may not be the most popular in the world. Western pop culture, for one thing, is extremely influential among the youngsters.

Will China’s fast-growing economy and rising position in the world change the equation? It may take a long time. These children may change their views as they grow older.

For now, how can we entice them to embrace Chinese culture, to see speaking Chinese as cool and take some pride in being half Chinese?

I’d be the first to admit that I’ve not tried hard enough and that I’ve failed rather miserably. But I wonder just how it’s possible to succeed, other than by transforming myself into a tiger mother.

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator

Doubters Question China’s Corruption Push


By Russell Leigh Moses

China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Reuters

The recent study examining the lives and labors of Communist party cadres in Shandong province is noteworthy not only because it shows that many Chinese officials have a tough time staying clean.

It’s also a telling example of the tension within China’s political circles about the best way to wage war against corruption.

The Xi leadership’s preferred approach thus far has followed two complementary tracks.

The first track has featured well-publicized takedowns of “tigers”–high-ranking party officials and even military commanders who have felt the wrath of the anticorruption crusade and will likely face trial. Making examples out of once-powerful figures like former security czar Zhou Yongkang shows both the public and party ranks that Beijing is dead serious about stopping graft.

The second part of Xi’s strategy is shaking up the way party cadres work. By pushing officials to focus on making policies that actually matter to people, Xi is also striving to “make cadres more honest and pragmatic simply by carrying out activities that will reflect better on them.” Those who don’t change their work style are subject to rectification campaigns and risk becoming political road kill.

That’s hardline stuff. It shows officials who behave badly that they can’t hide or run away.

But there are others who aren’t so sure that the current emphasis on cracking down by punishing officials will bring good results. Those skeptics say that there may be more effective ways of fighting graft in the system. One way is to look more critically at some of the ways China’s political system operates.

That’s a major reason why the Shandong study was so prominently featured across state media in the past few days. It supports a more complex view of China’s corruption problem. Specifically, it suggests that cadres might not immediately begin behaving badly. Instead, they become susceptible to a political system built more for self-promotion than sound policy-making.

According to the Shandong findings, the way forward isn’t so much reconnecting cadres to citizens. Rather, it suggests that officials should be able to rejoin their families and build a better social life. The “new normal” that Xi and his allies like to refer to isn’t normal at all, the study suggests. In fact, it’s putting pressure on officials to work even harder—leaving the root causes of corruption in the system long after the current crusade has expired.

Others voices in China are calling for different approaches.

One group favors a simple zero-tolerance policy where gifts of any sort are concerned, blaming officials for simply not being moral enough to resist enticement.

Some others want the party to stop being so concerned about what cadres do in the darkness and to start looking at what government isn’t doing well in the daytime.

For example, as one essay has it, Beijing should worry less about monitoring public opinion for dissent and focus more on acting on the reasons for discontent. Expressions of disgust from netizens aren’t signs of instability, this argument goes, but echoes of important work left undone. Castigating cadres for being corrupt has merit, this argument goes, but what’s really ailing the Chinese body politic isn’t graft but bad governance. Slapping down cadres and citizens might solve one challenge, but it leaves other social problems to smolder.

Another alternative approach calls for the party to move away from relying on abrupt inspections designed to catch cadres committing crimes. Instead it appeals for building better institutions and procedures, such as more regular audits and oversight. Combating corruption is fine, this argument goes, but clean government should be aiming to create better governance, not just cowed cadres.

After all, Beijing has historically been woefully reactive when it comes to enforcing its authority, believing that punishment after the fact solves problems. According to this point of view, fear is the best force for forward progress in the long run.

These dissents from the party line aren’t dangerous departures, but part of a larger debate about reforms in China. That’s the good news, because Xi’s leadership represents a general recognition in the Communist party that China needs new thinking to face new challenges.

The bad news is that the debate still has sharp boundaries, at least where activists are concerned. Restricting public input of any sort hampers Beijing’s ability to brainstorm other ways of tackling China’s corruption problem.

That even semi-official alternative analyses such as the Shandong study are appearing at all in the state media is a further sign that Xi’s rule isn’t dictatorial.

But it’s also a caution. It suggests that there are some who still believe Xi’s anticorruption crusade won’t ultimately do enough to stamp out the problem, and who want other options for political change placed on the table for discussion. That’s a debate that Xi surely doesn’t want.

Russell Leigh Moses is the Dean of Academics and Faculty at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system.

Talking to my family

Foreign correspondents, give to know the country they cover, but they are nothing to do with it, very different for those who are from the patch they cover…. Journalists at the BBC world service facing lots of dilemmas. Today we hear from Diloram Ibrahimova who has been working for the BBC Uzbek service for the last eight years.

I left my country a decade ago, after being granted a fellowship to Oxford University to study Muslim minorities in the USSR, but by the time I arrived at Oxford, the USSR no longer existed – my country was now Uzbekistan. The BBC heard about me, when they were in the midst of setting up new service for Uzbekistan in the Uzbek language – I was first person they contacted, and one of the first people they hired.

Unlike British correspondents who broadcast about far-flung parts of the world they have no connection with, the stories we report on are often about people and events close to home, close to our families and our lives. About a year ago I arrived at work and logged onto the computer, scanning the news agencies for stories for that day’s programme. I saw the headline ‘FBI discovered human trafficking network” “the arrest of a couple from Russia”. Great story for our audience – there are so many women from my part of the world who get caught up in prostitution and trafficking. But as I scrolled down the computer screen the names of the ‘Russians’ looked familiar – very familiar. Sardar and Nadira –arrested for illegally bringing women to America as lap dancers. But… Sardar was doing cancer research at Texas University. I felt shocked, desperately embarrassed and ashamed – Sardar was married to my sister who died ten years ago. Now he and his new wife – arrested for human trafficking? I thought about how the story would sound to our listeners in our capital Tashkent, where half of them know either my family, or Sardar’s family. Then, I stopped thinking of myself and my thoughts turned to my nephew, my sister’s only son –Timur. Where did he fit into all this – where was he, in custody with his parents? In an American jail? He was fourteen and had only joined his father a few months ago to play his part in the American dream.

This story was no longer a news item; it had turned deeply personal. I had to act, to find where my nephew was. He needed me. I remember feeling uneasy when I first discussed my predicament with my colleagues. But when I told them the whole story, they gave me their total support. After a few phone calls I established that Timur was in Texan child protection agency care awaiting a court case in El Paso, Texas in a week’s time which would establish his fate. I’d never been to America before, but I knew I had to be at that court case, and evolve a strategy to help him. I decided to adopt Timur. The only way to guarantee he would remain within our family – for the sake of my dead sister and for the sake of my nephew. Time was against me as over twenty documents needed faxing, translating, endorsing. I got my US visa, two hours before the flight, which arrived in El Paso at midnight, on the eve of the morning court hearing. There were five lawyers sitting there in the courtroom facing me, I was representing myself. At that point I was acting only as a caring relative not as a journalist. But my profession helped me to establish the true facts; there was no network and no human trafficking or "modern form of slavery" as the prosecutor put it. All my ex-relative did was to invite three women from Uzbekistan on false pretences – claiming they had jobs at Texas University when in fact they went on to work in a night club.

The hardest thing for me to do in the courtroom was to establish where my family comes from – and this was important as I was negotiating with the lawyers on where the child would go. It took me an hour to explain that the child came not from Russia but from Uzbekistan, and if they wanted to send him back, he would return not to Moscow but to our capital, Tashkent. I was lucky – there was a globe in the courtroom, which I spun round to show them. With an Uzbek name and an Uzbek passport I felt the name of the BBC helped a lot – at least they had heard of that. The court agreed; and with the reluctant backing of the boy’s father, I was allowed to adopt him.

But I couldn’t relax yet – I only had a week to get Timur’s new travel documents, so he could enter Britain. I had to report to work back in London the following Monday morning. I felt a sense of extreme urgency that week as I negotiated with British and American and Uzbek officials. I have to credit the BBC for teaching me to work to a deadline. I was able to take my American Airlines scheduled flight and arrived in London with my new son. The following day, as the tragic events of September 11th unfolded, I realised how lucky I was to have left on time.

I was relieved to arrive back in Britain; it feels safe, secure and a good place to bring up my two boys. But If I think that I will spend the rest of my life in England it makes me feel uneasy. I came to this country as a person with my world outlook already formed, not as a child, and I had already passed many major life events– childhood, getting an education, falling in love, getting married, having my first child, and witnessing death, burying both my husband and my sister. If you want to replant a mature tree, sometimes you are not sure if it will adjust itself to the soil, but a young tree is easier to transplant – The realities here are just so very different to those I have grown up with.

When I first started working at the BBC Uzbek service eight years ago, one of the hardest things was finding a school I was happy with for my son Akbar then aged seven. And as a single parent, it was a search I had to do alone. That’s when I realised that I lacked a well-established circle of friends to guide me. Back home in Uzbekistan, my family are from the intelligentsia; I might have lacked summer holidays at the seaside, or an automatic washing machine. Yet our parents sent us to best schools in Tashkent. But arriving as a newcomer to London, I found myself lost, uncertain, on the same boat as poor Kurdish asylum seekers. And I didn’t just want any English education for my son, but the very best. The only school I was able to get into was many miles from our house, built in a Soviet style concrete block with thirty six children from different ethnic backgrounds in the class. Yet inside, the education was anything but Soviet. For a whole year Akbar seemed to do only singing and dancing. Where was the learning I was lucky enough to benefit from at that age – brought up in an old Soviet school – with grammar rules, memorising long poems and reciting my multiplication tables every morning?

It was at that time that my work became more demanding. I started doing nightshifts. A succession of childminders wondered in and out my home, they came from all over the world, from Turkey, Poland, Russians who tried to convert my son to Christianity in my absence. I realised I was losing him. What was the purpose of furthering my career if I was losing my son in the care of strangers? I had to act; yet I was very reluctant to threaten my new BBC job. In the end I found a weekly boarding school, it was private education, and my family helped. I felt it was somehow shocking that I had to pay for a decent education, and even today I feel a little embarrassed as deep in my heart I am a socialist.

As an academic in Uzbekistan, my father has been listening to the BBC for over 30 years – during the Soviet times he listened secretly under his pillow. Because our service is relatively new – we are not perfect. When I talk to my father over the phone, and there is a pause in the conversation, he says: ‘do you want to hear what I thought about today’s broadcast’ – ‘no’ I scream inside, I want to speak to you because I want to share things– like how my garden pond is flourishing, and I’ve managed to keep the fish alive, – on his last trip to UK he said “please I beg you don’t forget to feed them” – but all my father wants to talk about is the story on the Russian economy ‘It wasn’t balanced, one of your producers expressed his own opinion and he shouldn’t – we are clever enough to make our own judgment. Don’t treat us like primitive listeners, when you broadcast about Russia you give us background kalinka music –don’t put this clichéd music in the background to introduce us to a Russian story’. I often agree with my parents, they make good points – and I listen carefully. But when I speak to them over the phone what I really want is to be praised wholeheartedly without a grain of criticism. I’m still your child, I need to be loved just for me not praised or criticised as a representative of the BBC.

And yet my parents are also great sources of news and programme ideas. I sometimes feel awkward mentioning my parents as a source of information during our editorial meetings and discussions- but also I know they speak their mind, when a lot of other Uzbeks are silent and prefer not to discuss what’s really important with their children. I think their open-mindedness in a culture of reticence is an inheritance – My maternal grandfather was an Afghan trader who was arrested for being a foreigner and accused of spying. My father’s father spoke out during Stalin’s purges. In 1937 my grandfather was exiled to the Far East where he was shot – we still don’t know where he is buried. After that my father’s whole family was branded an enemy of the people.

There are days in our calendar, when our broadcasts highlight my own stake in the stories which I present to our listeners. Every year on the 9th of May, Russia celebrates Victory Day, victory over the German army in the Second World War. Uzbekistan recently decided to change its commemoration to ‘Remembrance day’ a different tone reflecting official reluctance to mark what many see as a victory by Russia, the imperialistic power. But my family always saw things differently. Three of my uncles were veterans – fighting in Berlin, in Budapest, and the Baltics – and their struggles and adventures during the war were something we digested with our mother’s milk – carrying wounded soldiers under German air attacks, blinded after surviving a tank explosion, and the part they played as liberators of Europe from Nazi Germany. I know their stories so well it’s as if I had lived their lives myself.

I am aware that my mother always listens carefully to the BBC on that day, with the memories of her three veteran brothers at the front of her mind. The way we present the day – matters to her. I feel personally that I have to give my uncles recognition for their suffering, especially as the national mass media always chooses to downplay the veterans. In our meetings when we discuss how we are going to cover ‘Remembrance Day’, my colleagues want to give a different perspective, one where the soviet veterans are mocked because of the piles of medals weighing down their chests. Not that there are many veterans left. I feel the pressure of my emotions and of my family’s past, yet I am aware that I have to keep my emotions from overwhelming me – after all I am a professional.

Being at the BBC, I have learnt to appreciate the values which lie at the heart of our broadcasts – balance, impartiality, challenging those in authority. These are values which were alien to the Soviet media that surrounded me as I grew up. But I’ve also learnt that while it may be great radio to do a Jeremy Paxman, you have to be careful about protecting a vulnerable interviewee – especially if he happens to be your father.

Two years ago a strong earthquake hit Ismit in Turkey. And as usual, my colleagues hunted round for an Uzbek speaking expert to interview – as you can imagine they aren’t too many Uzbek experts who are willing to speak! I was out from the office traveling, and they tracked down my father who is a seismologist. During the interview he explained how plate tectonics work and he also mentioned that his team had prepared a map of possible hazardous earthquakes and included Ismit as a high risk area. My colleague pressed my father – ‘why wasn’t it published, why you kept it secret’, my father was forced to reveal that the Uzbek officials had stopped him releasing his findings – in order not to strain Uzbekistan’s relationship with Turkey.

After the interview was broadcast, my father was summoned to the office of the director of the institute of seismology. The director was furious, worried that what my father had said would harm Uzbekistan’s relationship with Turkey. My father was forced to resign. My mother was angry with my father too, for being so outspoken. There were many family rows and sleepless nights. When I found out I felt awful that my work had placed my father in the middle of a scandal, but also frustrated with the authorities – after all he hadn’t committed any crime – only asked to give his expertise –, which he always does willingly – he’s an earthquake pundit. Now I am very careful to protect my father and try and ensure that my colleagues don’t go anywhere near my father’s phone number.

I realise that I have had a more ‘eventful’ life than many of contemporaries – but I have learnt to accept my life as it is – I don’t need sympathy or pity from other people. My role as a translator and broadcaster of happenings in my home country has made me appreciate these stories through my perspective as an insider outsider. My personal story and the story of my country are intermingled, and I look with an openness and optimism to the future, telling my country stories about it.


Lifting the Soul, and the Spanish Economy, Too


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A Spanish Pilgrimage, From Medieval Rite to Tourist Attraction

A Spanish Pilgrimage, From Medieval Rite to Tourist Attraction

CreditPatricia de Melo Moreira for The New York Times

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SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — There are the pilgrims who hobble along with a staff, painstakingly making their way through a monthlong journey of contemplation. Then there are the others, looking all the fresher for walking a shorter route or paying a tour operator to carry their backpacks, and more likely to be clutching a cellphone or a guidebook.

All, however, must navigate the proliferating array of souvenir shops selling Jesus key rings and T-shirts and painted scallop shells: the symbol of the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James, which ends in this city in northwestern Galicia and has become known simply as the Camino, or the Way.

The surge in popularity of the pilgrimage, which dates from the ninth century, has turned what was a spiritual obstacle course in medieval times into a booming part of modern Spain’s tourism industry. At a time when other parts of the economy are still suffering, the pilgrimage has become big business here — so much so that it has invigorated not only local economies but also a debate over how to balance mass tourism and spiritual reflection.

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Site of the shrine of St. James



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“You suddenly find yourself, exhausted, walking alongside people who are in party mood, as if they were heading to an entertainment park,” said Marie Ange de Montesquieu, who works for a Christian radio station in Paris and was completing a 480-mile route that began on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Still, she was philosophical. “It’s like life itself,” she added, “a mix of pleasant and less pleasant experiences.”

Such challenges transcend Santiago. In southern Spain, the municipality of Aznalcázar announced earlier this year that it would impose an environmental fee on pilgrims going to worship the Virgin of El Rocío, to cover the cost of cleaning up the trash left in the wake of the springtime passage. The decision generated an outcry, forcing Aznalcázar to shelve the plan.

Near Santiago, dozens of private establishments have started to compete with the network of government-owned hostels, and some municipalities have been pushing to add more official routes to the Camino, hoping to benefit as well from this tourism bonanza.

Santiago was the final resting place of St. James, and the discovery of his remains created one of the main medieval pilgrimages. Its importance dwindled because of the rise of Protestantism and the effects of the plague and conflicts, which hindered European travel.

In 1984, just 423 pilgrims were certified as having completed the route here. This year, an estimated 240,000 pilgrims are expected to come, up from 215,880 last year. The most prominent recent visitors included Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who walked a short part of the route when they held a meeting on Aug. 24.

Ahead of Ms. Merkel’s visit, Santiago’s mayor, Agustín Hernández, criticized the lack of public money spent on upgrading the access ways to his city for pilgrims. In an editorial, El Correo Gallego, a regional newspaper, urged Ms. Merkel to pressure the Spanish government to invest more in the Camino.

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The reasons for the growing popularity of the pilgrimage are not altogether clear. The Roman Catholic Church has welcomed the swelling numbers as evidence of a religious pickup, perhaps coinciding with hard economic times. The number of people attending Mass in Spain rose 5.7 percent in July from a year earlier, according to a study by the Center for Sociological Research, a government institute.

But it has no doubt helped, too, that with joblessness at about 25 percent in Spain and also high in other parts of Europe, people have more time on their hands. Many have chosen to travel, helping to leave tourism one of the few unscathed parts of the Spanish economy. Last year, Spain welcomed a record 60.6 million visitors.


Pilgrims to the shrine of St. James huddled for a photograph at the Praza do Obradoiro, in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. CreditPatricia de Melo Moreira for The New York Times

The Camino has “given me confidence that I can overcome obstacles like not having work,” said Maria João Martins, who is from Portugal and lost her job as a supermarket cashier in 2011.

Much of the Camino’s recent growth has come from abroad. Lolita Forján, the owner of a grocery store in the village of Escravitude, was excited about having recently welcomed clients from Alaska and South Africa. “Who would have thought that a pilgrim would ever show me a bank note with Mandela’s face on it?” she said.

Ms. Merkel followed in the footsteps of Germans whose presence on the Camino almost tripled in a decade, reaching 16,203 pilgrims last year. German interest rose after Hape Kerkeling, a television presenter, published a 2006 diary of his pilgrimage that became a best-seller. “The Way,” a 2010 movie featuring Martin Sheen, helped broaden awareness among Americans.

Such is the popularity of the Camino today that many of the more devout pilgrims now travel off-season to avoid the summer rush, according to Maria Angeles Fernández, the president of the Spanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the Camino de Santiago.

In the village of Faramello, a new hostel with 40 beds opened in May. “This tourism has really become the main opportunity to find work around here,” said Concha, the receptionist, who would not give her full name. Before finding this job, she had been unemployed for five years, she said.

The Spanish authorities “must strike a balance between developing tourism and maintaining the tradition of the Camino,” warned Lijia Zhang, a Beijing-based writer, who spent two weeks walking in August. “Otherwise it will lose its soul, and therefore its appeal, before too long.”

Other pilgrims describe their experience as unforgettable, even if some seasoned visitors remember more fondly earlier and less commercial times.

For pilgrims, the final hurdle comes in Santiago itself, at the office where certificates are delivered to those who have walked at least the last 100 kilometers, or 62 miles.

There, the line in August can take as long as three hours, said Walt Scherer, an American volunteer. Mr. Scherer, a former mayor of Loomis, Calif., discovered the Camino after surviving colon cancer. As a young pilgrim complained to him about the line, Mr. Scherer replied, “The first thing you should learn on the Camino is patience.”

Virginia Gómez and César Martínez, an unemployed couple from Madrid, said they were delighted to have reached Santiago but disappointed by the costs of nearly everything along the way. Some establishments did not provide free toilet paper, they said.

“I didn’t think you needed to bring a full wallet to a pilgrimage,” Ms. Gómez said.