Mom and Dad don’t live here any­more

China’s tra­di­tion of tightknit fam­i­lies is un­rav­el­ing as par­ents go to cities in search of work, leav­ing their chil­dren be­hind.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Megan K. Stack re­port­ing from Lizhuang, China

This is a vil­lage of empty rooms, chil­dren left be­hind and frail grand­par­ents who strug­gle to hold it all to­gether. Most of the able-bod­ied adults have left the ham­let of rut­ted, muddy roads and drought-with­ered fields of corn.

House af­ter house, the same fam­ily tale is re­peated: The par­ents have mi­grated to the big cities for work; their young chil­dren stay with grand­par­ents, great­grand­par­ents or any other relatives who can shel­ter and feed them. At the age of 10 or so, when the young­sters are con­sid­ered old enough, many move into packed board­ing­houses at­tached to their pub­lic schools.

A gen­er­a­tion of left­be­hind chil­dren is grow­ing up in China. Re­searchers es­ti­mate that at least 58 mil­lion — nearly a quar­ter of the nation’s chil­dren and al­most a third of its ru­ral chil­dren — are grow­ing up with­out one or both of their par­ents, who have mi­grated in search of work. More than half of those were left by both par­ents.

The young­sters face psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional chal­lenges; many strug­gle to keep up with their lessons and end up aban­don­ing school in their teens to join their par­ents on the road, re­searchers say.

Mi­gra­tion rates ex­ploded over the last two decades as res­i­dents left their fad­ing vil­lages in droves to seek jobs in the cities. The left-be­hind chil­dren are the fall­out of a rapid dis­so­lu­tion of tra­di­tional Chi­nese val­ues in the rush for eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity and growth, and a vivid re­minder of how rou­tine mi­gra­tion has be­come in the coun­try’s life­style.

“Their ed­u­ca­tion is al­ways lag­ging be­hind,” said Nie Mao, author of “Hurt Vil­lage,” a book on the fate of the sep­a­rated chil­dren.

“Their safety is al­ways com­pro­mised be­cause they are far from their par­ents. Their fu­ture is not clear.

“This is a so­cial prob­lem in China and, as a so­ci­ety, we have to find a so­lu­tion,” Nie said.

At 77, Cai Zhongy­ing is the ma­tri­arch of a nearly empty homestead. From a mud road where scraggy dogs roam, the clus­ter of fam­ily homes looks al­most splen­did: a string of build­ings adorned with turquoise trim and stat­ues of birds perched on curled rooftops, still be­ing built piece by piece with wages from Cai’s far­away chil­dren.

In­side, the rooms are mostly bare. Her chil­dren and the grand­chil­dren who left have spent much of their money, scraped to­gether dur­ing shifts in far-flung ur­ban fac­to­ries, to build the rooms. The cash to fur­nish them will have to come later. They come home once a year, if they can earn the fare and get the time off.

It’s the job of Cai, along with her 78-year-old hus­band, to keep an eye on the houses and raise the younger chil­dren un­til they are old enough to work. The cou­ple had six chil­dren, with hopes of be­ing cared for in their old age. In­stead they are locked into per­pet­ual par­ent­hood, rais­ing waves of grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren.

These days, they are tend­ing to two young­sters, ages 4 and 6, plus fields of veg­eta­bles and a pome­gran­ate or­chard in the moun­tains.

“My hus­band just cries some­times be­cause the lit­tle boy is al­ways cling­ing to his neck and climb­ing all over him,” Cai said. “And my hus­band is ex­hausted.”

Still, it is an im­prove­ment from re­cent years, when the cou­ple had as many as six small chil­dren un­der their roof. Back then, they strug­gled to find enough food for ev­ery­one. Bit­ter ar­gu­ments would erupt at meal­times.

“The whole scene was a mess,” Cai said. “Some of them re­ally needed to be taken away to be with their par­ents. Think­ing about it now, I want to cry.”

Once home and in­spi­ra­tion to Pearl S. Buck, An­hui prov­ince is one of China’s poor­est re­gions. For years, peo­ple here tried to stay ahead of hunger as sub­sis­tence farm­ers. There is a coal mine nearby, but only a few vil­lagers have been lucky enough to land jobs there.

For the rest, there’s the road.

Vil­lagers go south and east, to the mas­sive coastal cities of sky­scrapers and sub­ur­ban fac­to­ries, or to big­ger coal mines in more pros­per­ous towns. To Shang­hai, Pinghu or Xuzhou.

Tak­ing their chil­dren along would mean pay­ing city school costs, pro­vid­ing shel­ter for them de­spite their own du­bi­ous liv­ing ar­range­ments and keep­ing them su­per­vised dur­ing long work shifts. Chi­nese chil­dren are en­ti­tled to nine years of free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion but must pay steep fines to en­roll in schools out­side the town or vil­lage where their res­i­dence is reg­is­tered.

“Peo­ple choose to be sep­a­rate from their chil­dren be­cause they don’t have any other choice,” said Shi Zhengxin, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the China So­cial As­sis­tance Foun­da­tion.

De­spite the hard­ships, Shi urges par­ents to try to keep their chil­dren with them. Most of them will even­tu­ally end up mi­grat­ing any­way, he says, so they might as well get used to ur­ban life.

“If they get left be­hind, they grow up into the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of mi­grant work­ers,” he said. “They’ll still have to come to the city to work, and it will take them much longer to ad­just and learn how to live here.”

There is gen­eral un­ease, among govern­ment of­fi­cials and the in­tel­li­gentsia, about the plight of the left-be­hind chil­dren and the fray­ing of the Chi­nese fam­ily, which tra­di­tion­ally prized to­geth­er­ness and in­ten­sive par­ent­ing.

The govern­ment has cre­ated mi­grant schools, and this year launched a pro­gram that gave chil­dren the chance to travel to the city to spend their sum­mer hol­i­days with their par­ents.

But the mi­grant schools are no­to­ri­ously in­fe­rior to the main­stream pub­lic schools, and so far just one train­load of chil­dren has gone to Bei­jing for a re­union with their par­ents.

As noon rolled around, Cai’s hus­band, Li Ji­achen, ar­ranged their 6-year-old great­grand­daugh­ter on the rear rack of his bi­cy­cle and ped­aled her home from school for a lunch break. Li’s is a farmer’s face, weath­ered with deep ruts; his pants were smeared with mud. He sat, lighted a cig­a­rette and be­gan to cry as he de­scribed the choices his fam­ily has faced.

“When I was rais­ing my grand­chil­dren, I could only pro­vide them with food, noth­ing more,” he said sor­row­fully. “And then when they were 15, they all left to go work.”

At other mo­ments, Li and Cai are more san­guine. The chil­dren have never known their par­ents well enough to miss them, they say, shrug­ging. And any­way, there is noth­ing un­usual in their cir­cum­stances. Most of their neigh­bors are also grand­par­ents rais­ing the younger gen­er­a­tion.

The fam­ily has faced worse. Years past, when the har­vest was par­tic­u­larly thin, Cai was re­duced to beg­ging in or­der to feed her chil­dren. That seems like a long time ago now.

And like the other vil­lagers, the fam­ily re­gards the en masse exit from the vil­lage as a dou­ble-edged sword. For all the emo­tional turmoil of shat­tered fam­i­lies, there is a new gleam of pros­per­ity on the land­scape.

The dirt roads are lit­tered with con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als: bricks, roof­ing tile and ce­ment. Old-style houses, built from rocks bound to­gether with a paste made from ashes, are re­garded as ev­i­dence that the house­hold’s mi­grants haven’t done their part.

In­side their home, Cai’s great-grand­daugh­ter hides from vis­i­tors in the dou­ble bed she shares with her great-grand­par­ents. There is an­other bed nearby, the mat­tress still sheathed in plas­tic from the fac­tory. On the la­bel, a Western-look­ing woman re­clines dream­ily un­der a non­sen­si­cal English slo­gan: “Salu­bri­ous end­less imag­i­na­tion you life.” No­body sleeps there. “It’s my son’s,” ex­plains Li. Then the fam­ily turns to ex­am­ine in si­lence the newly bought bed.

Tommy Yang

PER­PET­UAL PAR­ENT­HOOD: Li Ji­achen, left, and Cai Zhongy­ing with Li Xingyue, one of two great-grand­chil­dren they are tak­ing care of in Lizhuang. All of Li and Cai’s chil­dren and grand­chil­dren are away work­ing in cities.

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