On a sweltering night in July 2011, 17-year-old Zhang Juanzi arrives at her farmhouse in the remote village of Silong in Hunan province. Despite the cramped 12-hour van journey from Shenzhen, the young girl bounds past the wooden doors to wake up her 5-year-old brother, Zhang Yi, whose face scrunches in the flickering light. He is thrilled by her arrival, but when he sees his mother, Huang Dongyan, he recoils into his sister's arms. He will not look at Huang, who is squealing at him, begging him to say "Mommy."
After many minutes of this game, Huang, exasperated, pulls out a plush animal. "Say 'Mommy,'" she lilts. "Mama," he says, snatching his new toy. Huang had hoped for a better start to her visit. She will soon deliver some life-altering news to her son: After this visit, she will move him to Shenzhen, the city where she, along with about 12 million other migrants, maintain their fragile economic circumstances by producing shoes, iPads, and other exports sold all over the world.
Huang and her son have a strained relationship, one damaged by Huang's absence. It has been months since they last saw each other. Her son seems to view Huang as a stranger who visits once or twice a year and demands his affection. Huang blames the country's housing registration policy, or hukou system, for their broken bond. The hukou system denies social benefits to China's some 150 million rural migrant laborers who move to urban areas for work. Because of this policy, migrant workers like Huang are forced to leave their children behind in the village to receive schooling, health care, and other necessary services.
Roughly 58 million children like Yi are left in China's countryside without their parents. This might be economically necessary, but it is emotionally disastrous: Chinese University of Hong Kong researchers found that adolescents left behind in their villages were more likely to engage in risky behavior such as binge drinking, and have increased thoughts of suicide. The children separated from their migrant parents are also more likely to have learning disabilities and psychological problems, says Zhang Ping, a researcher at the Psychological Science Institute of Guangdong Province. In school, they lack focus; at home they lack guidance.
Before Huang brings her son with her to Shenzhen, she wants to bridge the emotional distance. But on this morning in July, she can't seem to attract his attention. "Let mommy feed you," she says, but Yi has already left the table, breakfast of chicken feet in hand, and is prancing toward his sister.
Yi's only contact with his mother has been by phone, a few times a month. Parenting by phone is the norm for this generation of migrants, says researcher Zhang. Many migrant parents, including Huang, ask about school and the family but little else. This limited scope of interest makes it difficult to establish a real bond, which is formed when parents help their kids through problems. And the aging, ailing grandparents, typically charged with rearing a brood of grandchildren, struggle with the physical demands of farming the land, maintaining the house, and raising a new generation. "The changing speed of China is unprecedented," Zhang says. "For grandparents living in an isolated village, their knowledge of the world outside is too far behind what is really happening in Chinese society."
Later, when Yi asks his sister to clip his nails, Huang insists on doing the task. "You listen to your sister, but not your mother?" Huang teases, with pain in her voice, as her son ignores her.
Wang Yanlin, a shy, rosy-cheeked 17-year-old, says she often felt depressed and abandoned, even though she understood why her parents took jobs hundreds of miles away from their home in rural Hunan province. Her father, a construction worker, and her mother, a factory cleaner, left her as an infant to work in the industrial city of Dongguan, which borders Shenzhen. While her parents called home several times a month, it wasn't enough to forge real closeness.
Wang's depression grew worse when her peers, also children of migrant workers, started physically attacking her. "Every kid who had parents could say, 'I will tell my parents, and they will teach you a lesson,' but for me, when I was bullied, I couldn't say that," she says. Once, on a desolate country road, a group of kids hurled rocks at her. One heavy stone fractured her leg and knocked her to the ground. She lay there until she found the strength to hobble home. "When I told my grandmother, she told me that it was my fault, that I shouldn't hang out with those people," Wang says. "That was one of my saddest memories."
In recent years, a rash of suicide attempts by children has rattled the migrant community. In September, three preteen girls in eastern Jiangxi province attempted suicide by jumping off a two-story building because they feared the consequences of not completing a class assignment. The girl who initiated the jump lived apart from her migrant parents. Two summers ago, five primary school students attempted group suicide at a temple in Shaanxi province. Local media reported that a passing villager found the sixth-graders just after they tried to drink a mixture of herbicide and soda. Four of them were left-behind youth.
Without parents around to protect them, these children have also been targets for kidnapping. In May 2011, the Chinese investigative business magazine Caixin reported that local family-planning officials had seized more than a dozen children in Hunan province between 1999 and 2006 and sold them to orphanages, which then put them up for lucrative international adoptions. Many of their parents had lived hundreds of miles away.
One father, whose faulty phone connection only let him call home once a month, didn't know until weeks later that his baby daughter had been kidnapped in the spring of 2005. He rushed home and gathered the roughly $900 required by local officials to get his daughter back, only to learn that she had been sent to a local orphanage. By the time he found the orphanage, his daughter was gone.
By their teen years, sometimes as early as age 13 or 14, many children of migrant workers decide to become laborers in factories. Left-behind child Peng Boyan struggled with depression each time her parents left her. At age 16, she decided to drop out of school and join them as a factory worker in Shenzhen.
At first, she felt freed by her new city life, working late nights alongside new friends and watching TV instead of going to bed. But the thrill wore off quickly. Now, in her early 20s, she feels that she has aged a decade since leaving home. She works 11-hour days at an electronics company, pulling night and weekend shifts.
"Maybe I was energetic at that time because I was young," she said. "Now I am no longer. This is the most tiring work I have ever had." The roughly $315 she makes each month -- $475 if she works weekends -- is satisfying, but she wonders what could have been if she hadn't followed her parents to the factories. "I felt that I was clever and good at schoolwork when my parents were at home," she said. But once they left, Peng couldn't focus.
Peng believes she could have gone to college or qualified for a better job if she had stayed in school. But even with parents to take care of them, rural children face an uphill climb to better their social standing. The main path to urban hukou for rural children is through a college education, says Donald Treiman, a social demographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies migration. But few migrant kids are able to get that far in their schooling.
Many rural areas lack high schools, so parents who want their children to ascend the educational ladder are required to pay dormitory fees at a more distant school that many cannot afford, adds Treiman. "If you get into a university, you're set," he says. "If you don't, you have to go home and be a peasant."
By the time Zhang Juanzi graduated junior high, 60 percent of her classmates had already dropped out to find jobs outside their town, she says. As they fled, only older people and children remained in the village. Some of the elderly spread hurtful rumors about Juanzi's relationships with boys and late-night outings. She couldn't wait to get out.
For years, Huang worried that her daughter might dash to the city for easy factory money, and hang with a bad crowd, or worse, stumble into prostitution. At one point, Huang encouraged her daughter to find a job in Shenzhen, so she could keep an eye on her. But by then, Juanzi had held a summer job at a factory and began to understand her mother's life. She decided instead to complete her high school degree in early childhood education.
This past summer, she fulfilled her dream, if not her mother's, of moving to the city of Dongguan to begin an internship as a kindergarten teacher. "It's nonsense to talk about what I hope she will do," says Huang, who had urged Juanzi to stay near her home village. "She won't follow my suggestions. She makes up her own mind."
Huang wants to give Yi what she couldn't give Juanzi: daily attention and guidance through his most formative years. On their day-long journey back to Shenzhen, she tucks Yi's sleeping, pint-sized body into the crook of her arm. This move to the city, she hopes, could restore the intimacy her family has lacked for years.
Still, Huang worries about the discrimination Yi will face as a migrant child. Yi speaks his local Hunanese dialect, but only knows a few phrases of Mandarin. Public schools often deny children like Yi entry because they don't have urban hukou, or the city education benefits that come with it, while migrant schools opened by NGOs and charities don't draw skilled teachers. "If my son was born in an urban family, his life would be very different," says Huang. "Just look at the welfare, living conditions, and education standards of city kids. It's so different for kids of migrant workers."
Jiang Caihang, a waifish, sharp-featured 23-year-old woman from rural Hunan province, says discontent among migrant families is palpable. "It is so unfair to kids," says Jiang. The migrant children in the city are denied proper schooling, while the left-behind kids "are forced to do housework that city kids would never have to do. All of this influences their future job opportunities. Kids should have the right to get an education in the city with their parents."
Reform efforts by local governments can only go so far. "While they recognize the needs of migrant workers in factories, there is a reluctance to allow them to share in the benefits," says Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based human rights group that advocates for factory workers. Hukou reform can be taxing for cities, which would be forced to pay benefits for their new urban residents.
Huang says she is nervous, but ready to face the hardships of bringing her son to the city. Any number of events could upset the delicate balance of this new life and send Yi back to the countryside: unaffordable school fees, a change in Huang's work schedule, an unexpected medical expense. But for now, she just wants to enjoy the presence of her son, who seems thrilled with the move. To village children, city life is glamorous. Holding his mother's hand, Yi lets his eyes wander toward the young women in their office clothes and the men smoking together on stools outside noodle shops.
Back in Huang's matchbook-sized studio apartment, located in a residential neighborhood in northwest Shenzhen, Yi jumps on the bed, screaming joyfully while he pries open a pomegranate. His whirlwind of energy overwhelms Huang. "My son has never been so close to me before," she says, elated.
To Huang, this is her second chance at motherhood. "I've never had any experience bringing up kids or taking care of kids -- like zero experience," she says. "The only thing I know is it's very difficult. My hope is that my son will help me learn."
Together, they are learning how to be a family. She grabs Yi's rainbow-colored plastic sword and taps him playfully on the stomach. He squeals and calls her "Mommy," all on his own.