Letters Home: Migrant Children Write Away Their Pain
BEIJING — The class of fifth-graders at Minren Primary School has been asked to write about a gift their parents gave them. They have no idea they’re actually undergoing a therapy session.
A placard pasted on the blackboard displays the lesson’s theme: “I love this gift so much.” Guan Jun, a Beijing-based nonfiction writer who is the instructor for this mid-December day, paces between the desks. “What you need to do is search your memory and tell the story,” he says in a gentle voice, making sure not to sound pushy.
In June last year, Guan joined a writing program initiated by On the Road to School, a Beijing-based NGO that focuses on the psychological condition of left-behind children — those under 16 without adequate parental care because one or both parents live and work away from home. By August 2018, there were nearly 7 million such children living in rural China. In its annual psychological survey conducted among 11,126 left-behind children last year, On the Road to School found that 40 percent of them meet their father, mother, or both just twice a year at most. Such separation leads to negative emotions like anxiety and even resentment toward their parents.
There is growing public attention on the poor quality of life and substandard education endured by many left-behind children. Last January, a viral picture of an 8-year-old left-behind child with icicles in his hair after an hourlong, frigid walk to school distressed many netizens, who later donated warm clothing and heating equipment to his school. Though Liu Xinyu, founder of On the Road to School, acknowledges the importance of material aid, he thinks mental health care is just as important. “Often people will ask me whether or not the children have enough food. How should I answer them?” Liu asks. “There are kids who have enough food and those who don’t. But do we have to wait and care about their [psychological] problems only when they have enough food?”
“I talked with Liu, thinking we could hold a writing workshop and help children work through their psychological issues through writing,” Guan remembers. He and Liu based the workshop on narrative therapy, a type of psychotherapy that encourages people to play the role of narrator and describe their personal experiences and values. “Let’s say your life is made up of 100 dots on a page, and 80 dots are bad and 20 dots are good,” explains psychologist Shi Xiaoxia, who is an advisor for On the Road to School’s writing program. “Many people may see all the bad dots and conclude that you’ve had an unhappy life. But if we focus on the 20 good ones, we can help people embrace positive change.”
Armed with this formula, Liu and staff members contacted rural schools where a majority of students are left-behind children. Prior to the lesson in Beijing, they had two trial lessons in Jiangxi and Henan provinces, in east and central China, respectively. “The cost of giving regular writing sessions outside Beijing puts much financial pressure on us,” says Liu, who received 50,000 yuan ($7,400) in funding for the program from the Yifuze Foundation, which focuses on improving social equality in China. In the end, they chose two schools in the capital for trials of the regular writing lessons.
The students at Minren — a primary school in suburban Fangshan District in southwestern Beijing — are not technically left-behind children, but the children of migrants who have come to the capital for work. Like genuine left-behind kids, they have limited contact with their parents, who are busy making ends meet in the city, Shi says. Among 31 students in a Minren fifth-grade class, seven live in the school dormitory and only see their parents once every month at most.
Shi explains the theme of the first writing lesson at Minren: “If the children don’t tell this story, they might not realize the importance of the gifts they receive from their parents. But with the theme ‘I love this gift so much,’ they need to go back through all their gifts and recount their favorite. By narrating it, they can reflect on their parents’ love.”
Before they start writing, the students spend a while “warming up.” A girl at the back of the classroom centers the title on top of her notepaper, then stops to shape a piece of yellow playdough; the boy sitting next to her holds the paper up, staring at the instruction in a daze; at the front, two boys stand up, whispering to each other. Guan seems more relaxed when most students at the class finally quiet down and concentrate on their writing.
In the winter of 2014, Guan spent 100 days in a remote town in northwestern China’s Gansu province to write a nonfiction work about left-behind children there. Although the children got along with him in less than two weeks, Guan found it difficult to communicate with them about their innermost feelings, especially about their parents. In his writing, he described a communication session for children to practice talking about family, when a confused student asked the teacher, “Can I not talk about it?” During the writing lesson in Jiangxi last June, a student in his class suddenly burst into tears.
The uncertainty about the children’s feelings has been a weight on the teachers’ shoulders. “Children who are cared for by their grandparents tend to have more limited emotional interactions with them than they do with their parents, so some children become relatively more sensitive, and some introverted children may even become withdrawn,” says Shi, who takes part in other psychological assistance activities involving left-behind children. Although the Ministry of Education released guidelines on providing psychological counseling to primary-school and middle-school students in 2015, Shi says that many schools, especially those in rural areas and those that serve migrant children like Minren, often cannot pay for or even find psychologists.
When the school bell rings, announcing the end of the 40-minute lesson, the students hand in their writing, put away their stationery, and rush to the school cafeteria to get their lunch. Only one student does not hand in his work. He stopped writing after just three lines. “I asked him whether or not his parents talk with him every day. He simply said they are busy running a supermarket,” says Shi.
Guan, Liu, Shi, and other staff members spend the lunch break reading students’ writings, most of which fill a page of more than 400 characters and describe everything from a purple plush bear, to a long-anticipated toy gun, a surprise birthday cake, and even a small egg tart. “You see, this student writes that his parents got divorced. He would probably not mention this if it was a normal writing task,” Shi tells Guan. It is one of their goals for the lesson that students can reveal their true feelings through the lines, not bound by any rules or pressure. In one piece, after recalling a warm birthday gathering with family, a student writes, “Now I want to ask my mom: Which one is more important, your work or me? I love you, Mom!”
In the afternoon, four students are invited to the front of the class to share their stories with all the pupils. When a boy tells the story about a pair of knitted wool shoes he received from his mother, he bows his blushing face close to the article and reads in such a low voice that back-row students can hardly hear him. The rest of the students are told to write down their feelings while listening to the story, to make them aware of how their understanding of child-parent relationships might change.
Once the sharing section is over, the students are given more pages of paper and asked to write a letter to their parents. “Oh my! More writing?” some students sigh. After a few minutes of hesitation, the girl with the playdough writes: “I used to make you angry so often. I won’t behave this way anymore.” Under the line she draws a heart shape and writes, “I love you, Dad and Mom.”
Liu and Shi agree that they need to keep observing how each session goes before they can judge the program’s success. But Shi sees optimistic signs from the girl’s letter. “Usually there would be no opportunity for them to say these words,” says Shi. “The students may feel awkward and uneasy to express their true feelings in the beginning, but later they will get used to seeing the positive side of their lives.”
Liu says they plan to roll out the program at other schools only when they are convinced of its effects. After the day’s lesson at Minren, he and his colleagues discuss the problems that came up. The introduction should have been better, they agree. “It’s fine to have problems,” Liu says. “I believe there are more solutions than problems.”
Two weeks after the lesson, Liu and the team receive replies from the students’ parents. The results are mixed. Some parents express their joy at receiving a letter from their child. “This is the first time I’ve written to you. I want to thank your teacher for giving us the opportunity to communicate,” writes one mother. Another letter is tinged with regret: “I’m sure that, deep in your heart, you want to be able to do all the things you like. I’m your mother, yet I know so little about that.”
But some parents take a sterner tone. “I shouted at you, because you argued with your younger brother,” writes one. “You are the elder sister and should be more tolerant of him.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Students take a break at Minren Primary School in Beijing, Dec. 13, 2018. Fan Liya/Sixth Tone)