Ruyan stayed back Ruyan when her parents moved to the city when she was seven months old. Now eight years old, she is supported through child sponsorship in her community in China
When it comes to her days at school, Ruyan has only a general sense of time. At 7 a.m., she’ll wake and read until class starts. Lunch is at 12. After, she has a bit of a break to play with friends or to go to the school library. Later in the afternoon, a short piece of music plays over the loudspeaker to signify the start of the afternoon class. It’ll play again to signify dinner. And after dinner, there will be an “evening class,” which is better described as time to do homework with her classmates.
But “homework” is a bit of a misnomer. Eight-year-old Ruyan stays at her school’s dormitory from Sunday to Friday. She sleeps in one of the top bunks in her room. Her school is considered small, with six teachers and 52 students. One of the 52 is also Ruyan’s brother, Ruli, who’s 11 and in Grade 4. Ruyan loves her brother. He plays games with her and defends her when their parents aren’t around, which is a lot of the time. Their parents, Minghui, 35, and Yaping, 27, live away from their Yulong
community in China
, residing instead in Lijiang, the big city that’s hours away. The siblings’ grandparents are their main caregivers. This has been the case ever since Ruyan was seven months old.
Ruyan inside her dormitory at school.
Ruyan and Ruli, who on a cool May morning wear complementary-coloured-jackets—she in orange and he in blue—share a common experience in modern-day China, where many parents live apart from their children in order to earn a better wage. One estimate puts the number of children like Ruyan at 60 million
. Just as it’s hard to quantify, it’s hard to qualify what that experience does to a child.
Thankfully, their grandparents have shown great care for their Ruyan and Ruli. When they’re at home, Grandpa always helps out with homework. When she’s at school, Ruyan misses her grandparents. She also misses her parents, but can’t put why into words. At one point, Ruyan didn’t see her mom for a full year. Usually, she sees her parents only twice a year—for Children’s Day and Chinese New Year. Ruyan is pragmatic about her parents living away from their community. "My parents should work in the city [to earn more]," she says, but adds, "It would be good if my parents didn't go, because they could stay and help my grandparents do the farming."
Ruyan with her grandparents at their home.
Ruyan and her brother, Ruli.
Ruyan’s grandparents farm corn, beans and wheat. On Fridays, Grandpa, Wenzhong, 55, takes a break from helping his wife, Xiu, 46, and goes to pick up Ruyan and Ruli at their school. It’s a two-hour walk to their home. On Sunday, they all make the same walk back to school.
The family’s home is modest with a postcard mountain view that overlooks the grandkids’ school. Xiu says Ruyan is smart and disciplined, and she’s easy to raise because of this. But not her brother. When Xiu says this, everyone laughs. Boys will be—well, you know. Wenzhong is also very proud of Ruyan. He’s eager to show a test on which she got 96 out of 100.
Xiu understands her daughter’s decision to move with her husband to Lijiang. She says they were very poor and that working in the city would give them an opportunity to earn more.
The Yulong community.
Ruyan plays with a friend during their lunch break at school.
Poverty in China can be easily misunderstood. The country’s record-breaking economic growth
over the past three decades has been marked with widespread inequality, especially when comparing urban and rural families. One estimate states that at least 82 million people still live below the poverty line
, which is why World Vision works in the country. Both Ruyan and her brother are sponsored by Canadians. Their school has also benefited from toilets, solar energy street lights and other projects aimed at improving the living conditions in their village.
Wenzhong and Xiu share a common dream for their grandkids. They want them to be educated and to find work outside of the fields. In essence, they want them to find work in a city just as their parents have. But Xiu says, “They must work hard to earn a good life.”
Ruyan and her grandfather, Wenzhong.
Ruyan is young, but how she is now hints at a promising future. When I first met her, she softly greeted me with “hello”—an easy English word she might have picked up from her brother, who’s learning the language. But after a day spent in her company, a much harder word to say, at least for me, was “goodbye,” which her parents must know all too well.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of Childview Chinese-English edition.