Looking at the four photographs below, could you guess that the Chinese children and African child have something else in common other than, possibly, age? The youngest child was about four years old when the photograph was taken. The oldest, at the time I met him, was reaching his teens (pre-teen).
These children all have parents working overseas. In the top left hand corner photo, the two are cousins. The younger girl’s father is the youngest son. He has been in the US for at least a decade. He met the child’s mother in New York, who’s also a Chinese national who has been working overseas. The taller girl in the same photo has parents in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Both of her parents married in China and left for South Africa together. They have a shop and have become permanent residences of that country. Before the taller girl was sent to boarding school in Fuqing city, she lived with her grandparents. The parents didn’t think the school in their hometown was sufficiently good. Her grandfather takes the bus into the city to bring her home for the weekends.
The top right hand photo shows a mother preparing a birthday cake for one of her daughters. She had returned home for a visit while her husband is still in Grahamstown, South Africa. They had two shops in that small African town, but have sold off one because business hasn’t been doing well. More specifically, the mother had returned to bring her youngest child, a son, who isn’t in the photo, home for her husband’s mother to care for. Because he’s extremely attached to her, accompanying him home was the only option. Unlike the other children who are brought back home when they’re a few months old or no older than two, he’s about two or three. Age matters because the more time parents and children spend time together, separation seems to become more difficult.
Indeed, the four young girls in the two above photographs were born overseas, in the US and South Africa. They were brought back to the fathers’ hometowns in China by relatives or friends. The emotional difficulty around separation is one reason for entrusting others to bring their children home, but some have businesses that they feel they can’t walk away from, don’t have enough money to make the trip themselves, or are undocumented in the host country and don’t have the qualifications to return once they leave. All four girls are being raised by paternal grandparents. If there are other family members living in the house, they would sometimes help out with childrearing. Sending their children back home to China to be raised by other family members, the parents’ primarily hope that they would acquire the Chinese language and understand the culture. Those in South Africa, who cannot send their children to private (i.e., white) creches (day care) or schools, don’t believe that their children would learn much in public institutions, where all of the students are Black Africans. Another reason is linked to the parents’ ability to raise their children. Some find it challenging to juggle business and childrearing. Others cannot financially afford to raise their children in the host countries; they often have more than one child.
In the bottom left hand corner, the young boy in the striped t-shirt was born in China. His mother only joined the father in Port Elizabeth, South Africa when he was old enough to take care of himself. During the day he goes to school. After school, a driver from the tutorial service would collect him and drive him to the tutor’s/teacher’s house. There, lunch would be prepared for him by an “aunty” and the teacher would assist him with his homework. The teachers are usually women, and they take on a number of students, ranging from a handful to no more than 20. The number of students they have reflect their reputation in elevating students’ test scores. Some overseas parents would pay extra for their children to stay at the teachers’ houses, as well. But, in this young boy’s situation, by dinner time, he gets dropped off at home, where he stays with his grandparents. According to the boy’s mother, this arrangement is best because the grandparents are illiterate, so wouldn’t be able to assist the son with his homework. Without doubt, the tutorial business (often consisting of a teacher, cook, and driver) is a lucrative one in these areas where many young adults go abroad to seek fortunes.
As for the young girl eating a slice of pizza in the bottom right hand photograph, she lives in Togo. She’s my friend Swift’s young companion whenever she’s in the country. According to Swift, the young girl’s “mother” works in Italy. Why is the word in quotations? This young girl is actually the father’s child with another woman. The “mother” in Italy has an 18-year-old daughter with another man. The couple, however, do have a son together. The young girl in the photograph stays with her father in the grandmother’s house. The grandmother is her father’s mother. So, in a way, it’s the grandmother who’s raising her.
In the context of China, the left-behind children that have received most attention are those of internal migrants. They are byproducts of China’s economic reforms and growth. One or both parents have left for the big cities to find work. Because of China’s hu kou policy, which restricts population movement, taking their children with them would mean putting them at a disadvantage as well. While adults wouldn’t be able to access social services, children wouldn’t be able to attend schools. This phenomenon caught attention in the US in 2015. The Economists has at least two stories on it printed on the same day in one month (see “Little match children” and “Pity the children“). The latter wrote: “For the parents of 61m Chinese children, the answer is to leave them behind in the villages where they were born, to be looked after by grandparents (often illiterate) or other relatives. Another 9m are left in one city by parents working in another. The 70m total is almost the number of all the children in the United States” (17 October 2015). About one month after, FT also printed a story with the headline, “China migration: Children of a revolution.” The journalist claims, “China has 61m so-called ‘left behind children’, all but orphaned by the mainland economic miracle” (27 December 2015). They have not yet caught on to the phenomenon of the left-behind children of parents who have gone abroad. What numbers would the journalists reveal for such cases? Would these “international left-behind children” be different from the “national left-behind children?”
Another situation to, perhaps, compare or begin to analyze together is the left-behind children of Chinese migrants and those of African migrants. Those studying China-to-Africa migrations have started to discuss how children are left behind with grandparents and brought back to Africa when they’re older, to either help with the family business or go to high school or college. I’m not aware of any studies on children of Africans who are in China yet. Perhaps, that’s because most are single men? Or because it’s a relatively recent phenomenon? But, what about studies on children of African migrants in Europe or the US? Frankly, I haven’t explored that literature, so I don’t know if such studies have been done. But, perhaps these children share more similarities with the left-behind children of Chinese migrants in Africa, particularly South Africa? To engage this last question, scholars (and maybe journalists) would have to continue to think outside of boxes (methodological and theoretical ones).