Zhouzhuang village, Zhecheng county, Henan province, April 2013
Every day these devoted grandmothers patiently line the school gate, watching their precious grandchildren play around the large, dusty playground.
They smile and chat amongst each other, sometimes leaning on the gate, sometimes on a wooden foldable chair, sometimes crouching down, hands comfortably dangling over their knees. Some of them bring stalks to deftly weave into straw hats, some bring younger grandchildren*. Sometimes they’re silent, just watching the children play.
You’ll almost never see parents among them.
Behind them are the lush, carefully tended fields and the village. They’re farmers here, the ones that have stayed. Like many small, poor villages all across China, Zhouzhuang is practically devoid of their able-bodied population, the parents.
They set forth, fanning out across China as migrant workers to earn a better living, return only every one, two or three years to see their families, have a child and then make the heart-wrenching choice to leave him/her with their parents so they can make money elsewhere to provide a better life.
This scenario is playing out all across China, with a lot of local and international media coverage, award-winning documentaries and public debates, but it still hits harder when you see this firsthand.
The children miss their parents very much. I didn’t ask any of the children I chatted with about this because I felt it’d be needlessly intrusive, but another volunteer** was local older Chinese woman, and they confided in her, crying. I did notice that one of the brightest, most confident (and even cleaner) students in my class had his proud mother every day helping him. She was a teacher at the school.
Don’t think it’s just the grandmothers raising the children though. The grandfathers may not stand at the gates (at least what I’ve observed over a week), but they’re there every day as well when it’s time to pick the children from school.
In this, it’s similar to the urban cities of China – doting grandparents picking their grandchildren. I see this all the time in Shanghai when school lets out. An elderly, indulgently smiling man or woman, wheeling a bicycle along, as the grandchild sits in the child’s seat and excitedly chatters about the day.
*Yup, younger grandchildren, as in siblings. You see, even with the one-child policy, there are a number of legal exceptions (such as being an official minority, both parents being an only child- though this changed recently), people who pay the very steep fine incurred for having a second child and people who take advantage of loopholes in China’s complicated hukou system.
**I was on a volunteer trip to rural Henan with a group of Shanghai-based westerners from all over Europe and North America.
FYI: I’ve been a skills-based PR / media / fundraising volunteer with the education NGO Stepping Stones for several years. They’re the ones that arranged this trip to the school. If you are interested in volunteering your time, expertise or money, check out their website here!