Left-behind children are a well-known concept in China used to describe a special group of children who are left to stay in rural areas while their parents work as migrant workers in big cities, earning more money and fueling China’s economic boom. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, roughly 58 million children in China were left behind in rural areas by migrant-worker parents in 2010 nationwide. The absence of one, and sometimes both, parents leads to many problems such as child care, education, etc. Just this past November, 5 left-behind boys were found dead in a street-side dumpster in Guizhou after burning charcoal for warmth.
Among China’s vast troops of left-behind children, an even more special segment is left-behind foreign children. Their parents are oftentimes illegal immigrants to other countries (primarily the US) who work low-paid jobs on foreign lands. Below is a story done by Netease on the lives of about 10,000 such left-behind American children in Fuzhou, Fujian province, which is the home town of many early Chinese immigrants.
According to the Fuzhou Oversea Chinese Association, about 10,000 children with American citizenship are now “left behind” in Fuzhou. For example, at the Starfish kindergarten at Guantou, Liangjiang county, 80% of its students hold foreign citizenship. American citizenship accounts for the majority. Since 1980s, a large number of 20-something locals went to the US. Now that most of them have managed to make a stable living overseas, it’s peak time for them to get married and have children.
There is no Hukou in the US (Hukou is a registered residency system in China). These children were granted American citizenship when they were born on American lands. Many of the parents who are illegal immigrants are actually hoping to obtain citizenship through their children when they are 21 years old.
These children’s parents are mostly illegal immigrants. They need work extremely hard to pay back the middle men who sneaked them into the US. In early days, it only cost $15,000 to get one into the US, now it’s $85,000. If someone wants legal status to stay, that means another $10,000 for immigration lawyers. All expenses depend on salaries from restaurant or nail salon jobs.
Usually these parents cannot afford to raise their children in the US. Many choose to send their children back to China when they are only 3 to 5 months old. It’s very common to ask friends, relatives or special services to take their children back. They pay the ticket plus a $1000 “shipping” fee. The picture below is an ad on a building located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It reads “US-China, two-way express. Pick up from airports, packages, children.”
After these children are shipped back to China, it’s often their grandparents who are going to take care of them. They will be sent back to the US until they are 5. Until then, many knows nothing about their parents. These children grow up with baby formulas and toys shipped from the US.
One-year-old Deng Zhibin was held by his grandpa in the picture below. His grandma is preparing for dinner. They live in a 30-years-old house. All four sons of the old gentlemen are in the US. Every one of them, except his second son, sent their kids back home.
At the Starfish kindergarten, 80% of the kids are American citizens. They were sent back when they were about 3 months old and will be shipped back to the US when they grow to about 5. To many of them, parents only exist in their grandparents’ conversations and video chats.
In order for these children to better fit in a future life in the US, most of such kindergartens for left-behind foreign children teach in both Chinese and English. Given the absence of parents, special attention is also paid to the children’s psychological health.
The impact of growing up without parents is easy to notice. These children are very dependent on kindergarten teachers. Some even call their teachers mom. Toys shipped from the US are the only way for these children to feel the love of their parents.
Their parents’ biggest concern for these left-behind children is whether they can fit into an American life later on.
Most of the working force at Houyu village now live aboard. They send money back to build big houses and villas. But only the elderly and young kids are left in the village.
Immigration ads are everywhere in the village. Going out is a shared dream of local residents. A large number of illegal immigrants gives local government a big headache. To prevent illegal immigrants, some villages are even tightly controlled so that villagers cannot apply for visa. But the peak time of illegal immigrants has passed. Legal immigrants are on the rise in recent years.
Xiao Xin’s dad works in the US. His mom works at a local tourism destination. His biggest wish, however, is to go to the US: “I will be in the US next year.”
Waiting for these children in US is a very different life. Two children from Fujian and another one from Wenzhou are doing their homework in a public recreational area near the Manhattan Bridge. Both of their parents work in restaurants. They are doing their homework while waiting for their parents to get off work.
On 8th ave, Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Chinatown, a Chinese boy points at the American national flag and says loudly in mandarin: “The Five Star Red Flag [national flag of China]!” Walking besides him is his younger sister and his pregnant mom. So many Fuzhou immigrants live here that Brooklyn Chinatown is also called the Little Fuzhou.
Back to their hometown in Fujian province. Many of the left-behind population still depend on the sea for a living and live a poor life. Making a living overseas isn’t easy, especially for illegal immigrants. But as long as there is still a steep exchange rate between RMB and US dollars, more people will continue to choose to go out, with the hope that their kids don’t need to live a poor life in a fishing village.