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A Train Ride Away: Long-Distance Parenting in China

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Asia Life

A Train Ride Away: Long-Distance Parenting in China

The forces that drive parents to separate from their children, even temporarily.

A Train Ride Away: Long-Distance Parenting in China

Students at the Tongxin Experimental Primary School assemble in the morning on the outskirts of Beijing, China (June 7, 2013).

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Hearing the front door creak open, my 2-year-old daughter peeked out of the bedroom door. Her eyes lit up as she skipped over to greet me and my husband for the first time in months.

“It’s not the mommy in the iPad, it’s the real mommy!”

I embraced my daughter in the entryway of my in-laws’ home. She raised her arm to softly brush my cheek with her hand; a level of intimacy that our digital chats could not replicate. But the joy at our reunion was tinged with the knowledge that it would only last for a week. When the Chinese New Year holiday drew to an end, my husband and I would head back to Beijing to resume our office jobs, while our daughter continued life here, a five-hour train ride away.

Just months earlier, I had been a full-time mom in the American Midwest, harboring dreams of living and working in China. But realizing this dream came at a cost. After our international move, my husband and I found ourselves among the many couples in China who work in the big city while their child stays with grandparents in one of their hometowns.

Before our move, I could barely imagine parents giving up their status as children’s primary caregivers. My youthful stays with my own grandparents had been short, pleasant visits. Conversely, many Chinese people expect that grandparents will take primary responsibility for childrearing, while young parents focus on navigating China’s demanding professional sphere. This ideally means that grandparents and parents reside together, or in close proximity — but when that is not feasible, it is common for parents to live separately from their children, often hours apart.

According to the China Statistical Yearbook, more than 20 million “left behind children” were enrolled in the country’s primary and junior secondary schools in 2015. Most are rural children left with extended family or in boarding schools. Some see their parents just once a year, during the week of Chinese New Year. Concern for these children is prevalent, with the government and many social organizations working to improve educational equity and serve migrant worker populations. However, structural problems render the situation difficult to resolve.

As the Chinese economy booms, a dearth of opportunities in rural areas spurs most young adults to look for work in large cities. The countryside is spoken of as primarily home to the elderly, disabled, and children. However, as migrant workers pour into cities, China’s Household Registration System (the hukou system) often prevents them from accessing benefits like health care and public education for their children. Regardless of how long they reside in the city, their official residence status remains in their hometowns. The government has made initial attempts toward reforms in the past two decades, but these have had little impact on those most marginalized, according to Cara Willis of the China Policy Institute. Thus, many parents feel they have no choice but to leave their children back home.

The separation of parents and children is not restricted to migrant workers. Since the late 1990s, a falling population of rural school-aged children has led to the centralization of schools at all levels. Concentrating resources in mega-schools located in county seats was intended to provide students with better material conditions and educational opportunities. However, added distance from home to school left many families with little choice except to enroll their children as boarding students, even for kindergarten and primary school. These students usually live at school Monday through Friday, returning home only for weekends.

Lv Limin, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Education, spent one year as temporary sub-prefect for a county in southern China. A “left behind child” herself, she marveled at the contrast between her own childhood experience and those of the boarding students she met. She had grown up with loving grandparents in a town where social life centered around the village school; the students she encountered spent every day in an institutionalized setting, often with resources insufficient to meet their emotional and material needs. In “Hidden Pain and Breakthroughs: Where Should Rural Boarding Schools Go From Here?” Lv notes the difficulties elementary students face managing daily life without family support, and the significant challenge schools and teachers face in serving this population.

Awareness of the importance of parent-child interactions is growing in China. Organizations like the Rural Small School Alliance lobby for changes that will allow students to receive as strong an education without leaving their families. At the same time, more urban parents are choosing day schools over boarding programs. Both my husband and his father attended boarding preschools as children; parents hoped that such programs would give their children a boost academically while promoting independence that would help them flourish in China’s competitive society. While some parents maintain this mindset, in major cities the number of boarding programs for young children has dropped dramatically.

The challenge of moving to a new city and jobs halfway across the world led my husband and me to entrust our daughter to my in-laws for almost a year. We were reluctant to leave her, but confident she would benefit from spending time with her grandparents. Unlike typical “left behind children,” our daughter was in a developed city with good material conditions. I had no doubt that she was in good hands, yet the separation was unbearable. Every day, I brainstormed ways to bring her to Beijing. I visited six different preschools, inquiring about programs, fees, hours, and whether they accepted foreign children (often, the answer was no). Then I scoured the surrounding areas for an apartment within walking distance. Beijing’s traffic and crowded subways make living in close proximity to childcare not a luxury, but a necessity. Peering at the exhausted faces around me on late night subway rides home, I was sure I was not the only parent longing for time with my child. I was thankful that for me the situation was temporary.

After months of separation, my husband and I were finally able to bring our daughter to live with us. We located a preschool that met all of our criteria, and housing nearby. This year, when we travel to my in-laws’ home for the Chinese New Year, we will all be taking the train back to Beijing together. As China’s development and policy reforms continue, we hope that more families are able to reunite, not for one week, but for good.

Miranda Zuo is Head of Admissions for the Yenching Academy of Peking University, an international master’s program within China’s top university.