Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Left Behind

Yesterday the Social Work faculty of Chongqing Technology and Business University (CTBU) took Paula, Travis, Robin and me to visit two schools for migrant children. The schools are both in Jiangjing District (江净区) in the countryside, about an hour and a half from the Chongqing city center. When I heard that the schools were for “migrant children,” what I pictured was something similar to what I have heard exists in Beijing and other large cities in China: a place where rural children who have migrated to the city with their parents can get an education even though they do not have a Beijing household registration. What I imagined was that the children themselves were migrants. But I had the situation flipped on its head. The children at the “migrant schools” we saw yesterday are those whose parents have left the countryside to work in cities, leaving their children behind. The children generally live with grandparents or other relatives, who still work the agricultural fields, maintaining the family’s rights to cultivate that land. The Social Work faculty kept referring to these children in their limited English as “migrant children” or “stay-at-home” children, further confusing me as I tried to sort out just who this population of children is (are they home schooled?). In Chinese they are called “liúshǒu értóng” (留守儿童)—a particularly poignant phrase to the historically minded because liúshǒu conjures up the image of government loyalists remaining in place, holding down the empire in the case of an absent or fleeing emperor. The term literally means to stay behind and take care of things.

According to the All China Women’s Federation, there were 50 million liúshǒu children in China in 2010. In Chongqing, 36.9% of the total students enrolled in school are liúshǒu children. In Jiangjing District alone, these children number 40,000 (these stats come from Dean Li, the Dean of CTBU’s School of Social Work). This number, like many stats that attempt to track the sweeping social changes accompanying China’s rapid development and modernization, is staggering. There are 40,000 children in Jiangjing District who have been counted (because they happen to be in the school system) whose parents have sought a better life for their children by leaving behind their rural homes to earn wages in cities far from home: working in factories, busing tables in restaurants, driving trucks, sweeping floors, cleaning houses or hotels or the faces of other people’s children. If lucky, they see their children once a year for about two weeks for Chinese New Year. But according to the social workers I spoke with yesterday, many of these parents can’t even make it back once a year and have not seen their children for two years or longer.

CTBU Social Work faculty has developed a collaboration with the Jiangjing District government to provide support services for the children and their caregivers who have remained behind. The district government has a set of policies in place with three main objectives: to provide room and board at schools for liúshǒu children; to form “family units” at school to act as substitute parents; and to provide food and nutritional supplements to the children. But they have few resources, both in terms of money and trained personnel, to help them carry out these objectives.

China’s social welfare system is in a huge state of transition. The former systems of social support that had been formulated post-revolution are no longer in place and the sweeping social changes that have occurred since reform and opening have the potential to destabilize the current political structure. Many municipal and provincial governments are looking internationally for models to help address these concerns, and social work as practiced in America is being explored.

So the district government has reached out to China’s relatively new schools of social work for strategies and solutions. CTBU sends teams of social work students, supervised by faculty, to 5 schools in the district with high populations of liúshǒu children. The teams provide support services to help meet the cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral challenges of this particular population of children.

The first school we visited was the Zhiping Middle School (支坪中学) in the township of Zhiping. This is a huge school of close to 1,000 students and a staff of 80 teachers, and about 45% of the students are liúshǒu children who board at the school. CTBU’s support teams consist of 4 Social Work students who come to reside at the school for one month at a time. After one month’s time, a new support team rotates in so that there is some support team present for 5 consecutive months out of the school year. These young social workers in training do a tremendous amount of work. They operate as case managers for targeted children, they provide counseling, maintain case files, conduct home visits, supervise afternoon enrichment programs, and plan and conduct special classes.

The programs I saw at the school were impressive. Besides the expected work of data collection and case management, there was one chief intervention I could identify that seemed unique in the Chinese approach to providing social support for these children. My friend, Travis, summed it up aptly: “Their chief intervention is to build EQ (emotional intelligence).” When we asked the social work students what main concerns these children face they all mentioned that children were sad, bereaved, confused, and angry and this array of emotions impacts their cognitive and social development. The social work team values counseling where they place an emphasis on “sincere and intent listening.” They also have a number of activities in place to facilitate communication between the children and their teachers and the children and their parents. There is message board that begins with “I want you to know…” and these include such communications as “Teachers, I want you to know I often miss my parents,” and “Mom and Dad, I want you to know you shouldn’t be so strict with me because right now I am feeling depressed.”

The social workers stress writing down feelings and wishes as an important tool. There are boxes around the school where children may place their thoughts and feelings. There is also a “hope and feeling tree” where children may post their fears and wishes at the end of a counseling session. Some of the wishes read like notes to Santa Claus: “I wish I could have an English dictionary” or “I wish I could have a bicycle.” But there were others that caused me to turn away and blink my eyelids rapidly, something I do to ward off unexpected tears: “I hope everyone in my family is safe” and “I’m worried my father will never come home.”

The social work teams feel strongly that these kinds of interventions have produced results. They had examples of children who were withdrawn and wouldn’t talk to anyone who are now much more verbal and expressive. The have seen children whose grades have improved since counseling. The school headmaster also gave an example of a parent who called the school expressing profound appreciation, saying, “My child would never call me on the phone, he was so angry at me. But last week he called me and we spoke for 20 minutes.”

One thing that is striking to me in the Chinese approach to social support is the emphasis on creating family models in the absence of families. This is something I’ve observed in my own research on orphanages in war-torn China, but it is interesting to me that this model has persisted well beyond the war years, when so many children were orphaned and without families. Chinese social reformers in the 1930s and 1940s felt strongly that children without families were at great risk to society because they might not have the opportunity to experience close emotional bonds of love and loyalty. The solution to this was thought to be to replicate family ties within child welfare institutions: for teachers and child care workers to love children and to encourage the children to love them back in small family-like units. I’m amazed at the persistence of this model in present-day China. The children call the social work students “big sister” and “big brother.” The children are divided into small groups with a teacher as the head, and refer to this teacher as their àixīn māma 爱心妈妈 (compassionate mother). The staff talks a great deal about “loving the children,” “opening our hearts” to the children and about the children “opening their hearts” to others.

Love is not a dirty word in Chinese social work; in fact, it’s the very foundation of what the staff believes works best in their system. I saw a great deal of love around me at the two schools I visited yesterday. And I saw a great deal of poverty as well: children without shoes, poorly equipped classrooms, tattered clothing and basketball hoops without nets. I scratch my head, I hold my heart, pained by the gaps in the system. Poverty has not disappeared from rural China, but the parents have. Families are broken, in chase of a dream.

In our present day world, how often and in what myriad ways do parents depart in chase of a dream? Yesterday morning, before heading for the migrant schools, I Skyped my daughters, safe at Helen and Joel’s in their evening hours, winding down their day before dinner. ZZ was still in her clothes from ballet, and eager to show me a picture she had drawn. FF was working on her homework, less eager than her sister to engage me, reluctant to share anything she deemed trivial, wanting me only to help write her sentences for spelling. She didn't know the meaning of one of her spelling words: punishment. I smiled to myself at the discovery of this gap in her vocabulary, smugly considering this a triumph of my parenting: my children know discipline, but not punishment?

Yet, tonight, as I write this, I’m feeling less smug. For the last three Springs I’ve spent the month of May away, far from my girls and the end of their school years. There is always a tipping point in this separation, a little over a week before my return—that point I feel I’ve been gone too long and my heart goes racing home. How do these other parents bear it? What tricks must they play with their minds and their hearts to continue to stay away? How long is too long? Which causes the greater injury: the length of time families are apart or the closing of the heart against the pain of separation?

Tonight I am longing for my daughters. I know they are happy with our friends, I know they are safe, but I also know it hurts to be left behind. I’m thinking of the CTBU staff’s chief interventions—the attention paid to emotional intelligence—hoping that our attentiveness to this in our children will foster their open hearts despite any unintentional infliction of pain.


  1. As an aspiring Social Worker this really touched me... Thank you again for taking us along on your journey....
    Your Big Sis

  2. Wow, Plum. You've highlighted a giant social dilemma I never thought about. And I am struck as you are by the way the Chinese keep trying to recreate family bonds. It's easy to think of China government as a faceless bureaucracy--this is mythbusting stuff. I'm glad to hear that "Love is not a dirty word in Chinese social work." The Chinese seem to be ahead of most of the West in recognizing the power of social connections. One nice summary of the growing research along those lines is David Brook's recent column: Keep up the great dispatches! Ed