Little Diandian (dian meaning ‘dot’ in Chinese) is a lively 4-year-old and obviously well-loved by his family. His world would have been perfect if only his mother lived with him.
As soon as I settled on the hard sofa in his grandparents’ courtyard house, the little boy pushed a photo album into my hands. “Look, look, my Mama!” He pulled out several photos of his mother, who is our former nanny Fan Ayi. I looked at them and laughed. There she was, in various poses, a teenager, in bright red lipsticks and some sporty wear, so young, innocent and care-free. The images are a far cry from the shy, plain-dressing and hard-working woman who constantly worries about money and her children.
Diandian laughed with me, happily munching on the French biscuits I had brought along. He has his mother’s sun-flower-seed-shaped face and her soft black eyes. He lives with his paternal grandparents and his severely disabled older brother (suffering from cerebral palsy paralysis, the 10-year-old sits in a wheelchair all day long.) in a village 3-hours car journey south of Handan, in Hebei province. Their red brick house is sparsely furnished with a kang (all farmers house in Northern China has such a hallow mud bed, heated in the harsh winter), a sofa, and a small table beneath a colourful picture of Chairman Mao. It’s very clean.
The mother had left six months after giving birth to Diandian and returned to Beijing to join her husband, who works for a real estate-agent there. It’s a very common arrangement among migrant families.
Ever since China’s reform and opening up, some 260 million people have migrated from villages to the cities in search for a better life. One of the greatest negative impacts of this ‘greatest migration in human history’, in my view, is the left-children phenomenon. There are at least 61 million of them, being looked after by their grandparents or distant relatives. Sometimes, the children have to fend for themselves. The left-behind children bear the blunt emotional cost of China’s migration.
In Fan Ayi’s case, she had little option but leaving Diandian behind, painful as it must be. Both her husband and herself, working as a cook and a maid, need to generate income. Even their combined salary wasn’t big enough to hire a nanny to look after Diandian in Beijing. And the couple couldn’t bring the two children as well as the grandparents over where they rent a tiny room in the outskirts.
Fan doesn’t really want to stay behind in the village. No money here. And the grandparents, in their late 50s, can manage tilling their 10 mu (1 mu equals 0.0667 hectares) contracted land where they grow peanuts and wheat. The majority of the young people in the village go out to the city to work as migrants.
Due to the constraint of money and time off work, Diandian’s parents can only afford to return to home once a year during the Spring Festival, the most important festival in China. Otherwise, they keep in touch by telephone.
I asked the little boy if he misses his mother, he nodded continually, like a hungry hen pecking on grain. “What do you do when you miss her?” I said. He showed me a telephone in a shape of a watch. “Telephoning,” came the reply. Fan calls him at least once a week.
Diandian is a well-trained boy. His grandma questioned the boy: “What does Mama do in Beijing?”He immediately shouted: “To make money.”
“To make money for whom?”
“For me. For Diandian.’
Migrants use more or less the same rational when they decide to leave their children behind: they need to go to the city to earn money in order to provide their children with a better education and a better future.
“This separation is obviously hard for everyone one,” I continued. “Is it the hardest on his mother, or his father, or Diandian?”
The grandpa, who has been listening politely, said firmly: “It is the hardest on us who have to look after the land as well as the children. And one of them needs a lot of care.”
“Will Diandian go to Beijing to be with his parents when he starts school?” I filed another question. “No,” the grandma shook her head, with her her usual polite smile. “It’s too difficult for a migrant kid to go to a local school in Beijing.”
For the moment at least, that’s the case. China’s “Hukou” – family registry system, introduced by Chairman Mao back in 1950s as a way to control the follow of population, divides the Chinese into rural and urban population, with the latter enjoying much better access to education, healthcare and other social services. At first, the migrant children were not even allowed to enter the local schools. Slowly the restrictions relaxed but many obstacles remain. There are also migrant schools, run by migrants for their children. Such establishments exist precariously in a grey area and the education quality is often substandard.
In his book Concerns for the Left-behind Children, which I read recently, author Ye Jingzhong discussed many negative effects: such children don’t always get proper care, guidance or help from their guardians, usually the poorly educated grandparents; they often feel lonely and more likely suffer from mental illness compared to those living with their parents; and they are extremely vulnerable to crimes, especially sexual assaults. Some desperate situations even led to suicide. Last June, four left-behind children siblings, all under 14, from a poor village in Guizhou, took their own lives.
By comparison, little Diandian doesn’t fare too badly, I told myself. I rose to say goodbye. I shook hand with the boy. “See you in Beijing?”
“In the summer,” said the grandma. “I plan to take him up to Beijing to see his parents. His kindergarten will be closed for the summer holiday then.”
“Grandma, how many more months before July?” the boy asked, yanking the woman’s arm.
“Only two months. I’ve told you many times already.”
I got on the grandpa’s motored tricycle, which would take me through the muddy paths in the village to the waiting taxi on the side of the main road. I turned around and waved at the grandma and Diandian, standing in front of the iron gate of their yard, hand-in-hand. I watched until the boy became just a dot.