A villager wheels a pushchair with a baby sitting in in Houyu. Photo: Sino-US.com by Zhong Ying
With the bell ringing, 7-year-old Helen and her four-year old brother Eric dashed out of classroom to their grandpa’s side. The elderly man called out the kids’ English names and led them out of the kindergarten.
Chinese American kids Helen and Eric had just returned for summer vacation to their hometown in Fujian, a province on the southeast coast of Chinese mainland known as hometown of overseas Chinese. Their parents are running a restaurant in New York.
The fact is, Helen was sent back to the small village called Houyu to be raised by her grandparents eight months after birth. This is the second time she is back in China. The little girl seems a little bit shy, cautious in front of people she does not know well, while Eric, who has been living in the US with his parents, is much more cheerful.
Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian, is home to tens of thousands of left-behind children like Helen. Most of them would be raised by Chinese relatives till they are five years – the age when they can be enrolled in public kindergartens in the US. In Houyu and its neighboring villages, the phenomenon has been common since three decades ago.
A long history
From the late 1980s to early 1990s, only a few Chinese American kids were sent back to China by their newly emigrated parents with their American passports, Chinese visa and letter of authorization to be raised by Chinese relatives. Beginning the mid-1990s, the number of such families began to grow.
Before the 1940s, the main destination for Fuzhou natives was Southeast Asia where Chinese villagers could work as sailors for shipping companies based in Hong Kong and Singapore.
After the Second World War, most of the ships’ crew emigrated to the US and caused a gradual rise of Chinese population in New York. After China’s opening-up policy was launched, restrictions began to be lifted on citizens to go abroad for private purposes. Many Fuzhou people got the chance to emigrate to the US thanks to their overseas relatives, and this aroused an upsurge in America-bound immigration around the year 1986.
“A considerable size of overseas Chinese population is a factor behind the rising numbers of Chinese American kids being raised in China then,” Chen Risheng, a history professor at Minjiang University, told the sino-US.com.
Till now, the phenomenon has prevailed for nearly three decades. By 2012, according to the Fuzhou Municipal Overseas Chinese Federation statistics, nearly 10,000 “little US citizens” were sent to their relatives in Fuzhou.
Economic conditions and traditional views all contribute to the practice of sending kids to China,” said Chen. Based on his survey in 2004, new immigrants from Fuzhou usually work 80 to 90 hours per week in the US and are paid an average 3 to 4 dollars per hour. Except for statutory holidays, the immigrant couples were working all the time. Once there was a child, they could not afford babysitting services and were forced to send children back to China.
Related laws also encouraged the practice. As long as immigrant parents follow steps of New York’s Chinese consulate to entrust their children to the care of relatives in their hometown, they were able to send the babies to China.
Kids sleeping with ipads
The Houyu Kindergarten where Helen and Eric attend has strict management and 24-hour security. It is where the Chinese American children would gather for learning and playing.
Houyu Kindergarten Photo: Sino-US.com by Zhong Ying
Several years ago, sino-us.com reporters visited the special nursery school. Back then, expensive toys and branded clothes could help visiting reporters identify Chinese American kids. These days, however, with China’s economic boom, it is hard to distinguish the “little American citizens” from local kids based on their appliances and clothes.
“The only thing that could differentiate the two groups is their dependence on electronic kits like iPad,” said Lu Wei, the principal of Houyu Kindergarten. “Americans need this modern equipment to communicate with parents on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean,” explained the grandfather of Helen and Eric, who sadly told the sino-us.com reporter that the kids sometimes even slept with their iPad when they’d finished talking with parents through it.
A changed situation
There are two kinds of children in Fujian province whose parents are based overseas: one is like Helen who was born abroad and has foreign citizenship; the other kind refers to the kids born in China with parents leaving to work abroad when they were just babies. The first group of kids usually leaves China when they are old enough to get into kindergartens, while for the other group of kids, the separation with their parents would be longer. Until the parents gain foreign citizenship, they couldn’t afford to reunite with their children, and these situations were especially common in the 1980s and 1990s.
According to Lu Wei, Chinese immigrants are leading much more prosperous lives in the US compared with two or three decades ago, with babysitting not much of a burden to them these days. So, the number of babies sent back to China is decreasing. “It is predicted that there will be fewer Chinese American kids in the future, said Lu, “In 2010, there were over 50 such children in the kindergarten, while now there were only around 20.”
In the Zhang village neighboring Houyu, a kindergarten which targeted children of parents living abroad has been shut down for quite a while. When visiting, the sino-us.com reporter found the deserted place has been bought by a company and is waiting to be changed into a farmland. Empty classrooms and playground invaded by wild grasses illustrate a declining business.