Left-behind American children in China

Alia | December 6th, 2012 - 6:16 am

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.


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11 Responses to “Left-behind American children in China”

  1. sqy says:

    this is a very familiar and sad story for me as well…except for the part about ‘care for psychological health’, that is.
    both my parent are immigrants from fuzhou, and my siblings and i were all sent back to fuzhou until we were almost 5, except my brother.
    i am not sure if my parents were illegal immigrants or not, but i do know they acquired massive debt from immigration. they slowly earned money by working at takeout restaurants (which fyi, only has cantonese and american stuff) to pay off their debts and raise us.
    as the youngest child, i was the most sheltered of all of us, which frankly, means nothing at all, but my elder sisters had to help my parents by working at the restaurant and translating and taking care of affairs such as accounts, insurance, and the green card issue.
    I still remember, as a child, i had met my parents and infrequently contacted them through phone calls. the younger generation, at least, can see their parents through video chats. my first thought upon traveling to america by myself,was that she resembled my yimu. i could not immediately identify her as my mother. for me, my ‘parents’ were no more than voices from a white telephone. my father later moved to florida to take a job with relatives as a chef to support us, so we were even more distant. i was often disciplined as a child due to myclumsy and sensitive nature.
    years later i can look back ‘almost’ fondly upon these memories. my mother jokes about how i used to glared at her for just joking.

    this post really inspires memories about my childhood, so thank you for posting it.
    to Calm Down, i understand your opinion but also want to argue that i think the accepting policy really does not matter compared to the children who lose their chances at bonding with their families and grow up like me.

    another point here: i know the fish-drying-on-a-net thing that they do in villages. my parents did the same thing in florida! advice from an expert victim: it really does not work. there are ants.

    again, thank you very much.

  2. proste poparzenie. Potem to też z bagażem.

  3. M. Gorman says:

    Don’t kid yourself, there is more to this than you think. With American citizenship these kids will get a college education, something that was probably impossible for them in China. There is no argument on the value they place on education and, yes, they think that far ahead. Even better off couples; witness maternity tourism in California where pregnant Chinese arrive on a “vacation” that includes a birth.
    One of the ironies of the Dream Act and other attempts to get college benefits for illegal Latinos is that the spots won’t go to them anyway. Based on merit, these Chinese will blow them away academically. They are focused and driven.

    • Kenny says:

      Can get a college education without all that work. Many chinese students study overseas. What those people want is a better life, not just the college education.

    • sqy says:

      to M. Gorman, these things are not necessarily a replacement for a family. i was often depressed and wished for an ordinary life with a loving family. as i child, i once contemplated suicide, which I later realized was probably an overly-dramatic solution to a minor issue, but it was due to my mental and emotional health at the time.
      i don’t think you can enjoy the benefits of an american citizenship without your life, no?

  4. [...] only a few months old because their parents cannot afford to raise them in the foreign countries. OffBeat China picked up the story from Chinese media[zh] with lots of pictures. [...]

  5. Lurker says:

    They are NOT American children. They are Chinese children who, through absurd abuses of American law, happen to have US passports.

    • Amanda says:

      They ARE American citizens because they were born on US soil. You may not approve of the way in which their parents managed to get citizenship for their children, but that doesn’t negate the simple fact of their legality.

  6. [...] via Left-behind American children in China | Offbeat China. [...]

  7. Angry says:

    This is so messed up. I think the US should get rid Jus soli. What is the point of these kids getting US citizenship when they no little to nothing of the culture, politics or language of the states. Don’t get me wrong, I come from an immigrant family and this stuff gets me so pissed. My parents had to wait a long time to the US from a war raved country (they had to transfer to a camp then were allowed to come to America.) I was one when we immigrated. My parents both took the test and passed and although I was raised in the US for all my life, I too had to take the test when I turned 18. This is just sick and messed up.

    • Calm Down says:

      Well, as a 5th generation American, I welcome the expansion of our population as America was founded on this accepting policy. This sort of thing is our culture and since it seems like you don’t have the best grasp on our language either, so why don’t you read my name.

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