An Eye-Opening Family Visit to a Chinese Migrant Workers’ School

  • Ethan Gelber and Jane Higgins
  • 14 August 2017

Beijing is working hard to style itself as a high-functioning modern metropolis. Yet all is not as it sometimes seems. Shiny new facades, enormous shopping centers and extensive highways can’t hide darker truths about small businesses being forced out and historic hutong neighborhoods being bricked up to make way for mega malls. There are hidden human costs too – those of a city powered by poorly paid “migrant workers” who labor in the construction, retail, service and other industries but sacrifice their rights to government services such as healthcare for their families and public education for their children.

The faces of migrant workers' children in China

The faces of migrant workers’ children in China (and the authors’ sons). Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

For non-Chinese travelers in China, it is not immediately evident who these migrant workers are. Unlike in the West, where “migrants” are usually people from beyond a country’s borders, migrants in China are other Chinese citizens living in one city but with “registered households” in other, usually rural, parts of the country.

Foreign visitors to Beijing, for example, will find no easy way to distinguish between native-born Beijingers and migrants. However, the difference in status – described by some as “institutionalized discrimination” – is striking.

This was very present in our minds when we traveled to the outskirts of Beijing to visit a special school for the children of migrant workers. One among many educational stops on our 11-month family trip around the world, the visit was an experience we were eager to have with our two young sons, Rohan (10 years old) and Kaian (seven years old). This was not just because our kids could observe and engage with kids from another culture, but because we could talk about important social issues as well. (Jump ahead for three impressions of the visit, two from the boys and one from Jane.)

A group picture of the visitors and kids and teachers at the Chinese migrant workers school

A group picture of the visitors and kids and teachers at the Chinese migrant workers’ school. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Migrant Workers in Brief

According to reports, there are approximately 282 million rural migrant workers in China, amounting to greater than one third of the country’s working population. This staggering number has been fueled by China’s explosive growth and the subsequent need for cheap labor, particularly in factories and construction sites.

So, migrant workers are the people who responded to new economic (and social) opportunity outside their communities after decades of having been restricted only to their native localities through the hukou system of hereditary household registration introduced by the Communist government in 1958. Designed to help manage several government programs, including welfare and resource distribution, migration and criminal surveillance, the hukou system gave local residents access to benefits and services, but only in their home jurisdictions, not others.

Joining the morning physical exercise at the Chinese migrant workers school

Joining the morning physical exercise at the Chinese migrant workers’ school. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Starting in the late 1980s, however, rural Chinese (and laborers from other urban areas) followed job availability to the fastest-growing cities, making hukou enforcement impossible and leading to the de facto end of travel restrictions. But, despite this newfound freedom of movement for people, the old system hasn’t officially been dismantled and continues to serve as the basis for denying migrants access to family social supports in their adopted homes.

Migrant Workers’ School

The impact on the children of migrant workers has been considerable. As official non-residents of a city, migrant workers with children are faced with a difficult choice. They can leave their children in their hukou in the care of others, dividing families for months, and sometimes years, at a time. Or they can pay high fees – fees they usually can’t afford – to have their kids educated and receive welfare and healthcare through the official channels of their adopted cities.

Thankfully, another education solution has sprung up on the outskirts of Beijing in the form of privately run schools that cater to children of migrant workers. Fees in these are schools are kept as low as possible and charitable support is always welcome.

The authors' son Rohan performs magic tricks for the class at the Chinese migrant workers' school

The authors’ son Rohan performs magic tricks for the class at the Chinese migrant workers’ school. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

This is the type of school we visited – a heavily-used but orderly complex of buildings surrounding a central yard, all at the end of a busy, dusty lane in a far-flung corner of the metropolis. We learned, though, that it is much more than the day school we thought it was; instead, it is a true home away from home, a boarding school for several hundred students aged six and older. Parents visit on the weekend… assuming the parents are able to get away from work.

Three Impressions

The following are three descriptions of our visit.

From 10-year-old Rohan:
At the Chinese migrant workers’ school, all of the kids were very friendly. We got to hand over a donation to help keep the school running, do a physical education class in the courtyard, attend a regular English lesson and show off some of our skills. I performed a magic trick.

Although I think the school is great, it is not there for a happy reason. It is there because the migrant workers can’t send their kids to the public schools without paying a lot of money.

Rohan posing with kids from the Chinese migrant workers' school

Rohan posing with kids from the Chinese migrant workers’ school. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

I really liked going to the school because all the kids were really nice. I also liked it because you could see how the kids went to school and how they lived.

In particular, I remember one very brave student. Her name was Sally. She worked hard to learn English and was an excellent spokesperson for her class. She was 11, living away from home and could only see her parents on the weekend. I imagine Sally’s life would be very hard, not seeing her parents for five days straight and living and sleeping in big dorms at the school where the rules are very strict, bathrooms shared with hundreds of students and you have to do your own laundry! WOW, right? Life must be very hard for the Chinese migrant worker students.

From seven-year-old Kai:
Our visit to the Chinese migrant workers’ school was great. I loved the PE class. It was awesome. There was one girl named Sally. She told us that she could only see her parents once a week. I played her some music. Rohan showed her her magic. Rohan is a natural magician.

Sally (second from the right) is Rohan's assistant in a magic trick

Sally (second from the right) is Rohan’s assistant in a magic trick. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

From Jane:
Based on our visit of just a couple of hours, my impressions were that the children there seemed well accustomed to their regimented routine of lessons and were delighted to receive foreign visitors. Watching the four of us (two parents, plus two boys) hop about in physical education class must have been entertaining, but the students were all too polite to laugh much!

In English class, little spoken English was volunteered, with the exception of one lovely girl, whose chosen English name was Sally. Sally asked us questions about our home, the boys’ school and our experience in China. Our delightful guide, Snow, helped a great deal too. However it was really the music Kai played on his ukulele and magic tricks shared by Rohan that broke the ice.

The authors and their children with the English teacher at the Chinese migrant workers' school

The authors and their children with the English teacher at the Chinese migrant workers’ school. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Many of the teachers are migrant workers (from outside Beijing) themselves and seem to care about their work. The facilities are basic and a little run down, but for these children this place of education represents new opportunity and is a good place to be. A place not too far from their parents who aspire to and strive for brighter futures.

Maybe Things Are Looking Up?

Although migrant workers still face an uphill battle for full rights and recognition, there is reason to believe that more and more Chinese understand and appreciate the migrant predicament.

One of China’s latest literary sensations is an online autobiographical essay called “I Am Fan Yusu” that has been viewed millions of times and attracted tens of thousands of comments. In the essay, Ms. Fan, a migrant worker who labored as a nanny, describes the hardships of her life, including her desperate urban existence after she left home at the age of 20 to travel to Beijing in pursuit of intellectual improvement.

Visitors are welcome to participate in morning exercises at the school

Visitors are welcome to participate in morning exercises at the school. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

The writing echoes lessons taught through exhibits at the small, private Culture and Art Museum of Migrant Workers (CAMMW) located in Picun, the community where Ms. Fan lives with more than 20,000 other migrants near Beijing’s Capital International Airport. (CAMMW is a project of Migrant Workers’ Home, an NGO dedicated to supporting the rights of migrant workers and providing education for their children.) A step forward from that is Guangzhou’s new-in-2012 Museum of Migrant Workers, the only migrant-experience museum built with government money.

And perhaps better than all of that is the attention city and national politicians are now paying to the plight of migrant workers. Whether that is just lip service or a harbinger of real change to come remains to be seen.

School kids at the migrant workers school take part in group exercise

School kids at the migrant workers’ school take part in group exercise. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

For now, though, visits to schools like the one that welcomed us offer glimpses into the real lives of many Chinese families caught up in the fast-paced economic development of the country. Unfortunately Chinese cities are straining under the weight of their own success. That has made life harder for some. Children like those we met work very hard despite the obstacles they and their families face. We hope they get to see the bright futures they so definitely deserve.

Would You Like to Visit?

To visit this school and, by extension, help secure an education for these deserving children of Chinese migrant workers, contact Global Family Travels (GFT), a tour operator that emphasizes authentic cultural experiences through which travelers can learn, serve and immerse. GFT’s China Cultural Crossroads tour includes a stop at the school in which we spent some time.

(Full disclosure: GFT invited us to take part in the migrant workers’ school experience. Our opinions about it remain entirely our own.)

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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Asia, children, China, Eastern Asia, family travel, HIFeat, opinion, personal experience, poverty, whl.travel,

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