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    How I Got to Know China’s Left-Behind Children

    Rural children who grow up apart from their families in the countryside are often stereotyped as shy and emotionally fragile, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.

    Left-behind children — rural children whose parents have gone into the cities in search of work — are a long-standing and well-known social issue in China. One 2016 estimate put their number at 61 million. As an urban high school student with parents highly involved in my life, this experience has long been of interest to me because of how different it is from my own.

    I recently had an opportunity to learn about the lives of my left-behind peers when I participated in a school-organized volunteer teaching program at a combined primary and middle school in Funan County, in the eastern province of Anhui. The 9-year-old school where I volunteered was built well and housed about 1,000 students — some left-behind children, others not. As I gradually got to know them, they challenged some of the stereotypes I had about rural children and forced me to reconsider what I thought I knew about growing up in the countryside.

    News reports often portray left-behind children as particularly introverted and emotionally sensitive. However, based on my experience, this isn’t the full story. Most of my students — the left-behind ones and the non-left-behind ones alike — were optimistic and enthusiastic participants in class. Some of the boys were shy, but this is hardly unusual, and after we played games together after school, they quickly warmed up to me. In short, they did not exactly conform to the stereotypical image of socially awkward introverts I’d been exposed to in the media.

    Curious, I asked my students whether they would be willing to fill out a psychology questionnaire with me. Known as the “Big Five” personality test, it measures five key personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A total of 30 students took part, 15 from left-behind families, 15 from those who lived with their parents. The first time I gave them the questionnaire, I got a surprising result: The left-behind children were shyer than their non-left-behind counterparts, but less sensitive — or as the test put it, less “neurotic.”

    But after talking with the students, I realized this result makes sense. In some ways, having your parents around all the time can be stressful and might make you more emotionally sensitive or nervous. One girl told me she was afraid because her parents had started fighting more often and much more aggressively — so much so, they were talking about getting a divorce. She said their arguing was nothing new, but the potential for them to split up was.

    While the plight of parentless left-behind children is better known, she was a reminder that just because your parents are an active presence in your life, that doesn’t mean you have it easy. Kids in her position must constantly tiptoe to ensure they won’t set off their parents. Under this kind of pressure, it is not difficult to understand why they might score higher on the model’s neuroticism scale.

    Then again, maybe not. When I ran the test again, with a slightly smaller sample drawn from the same students, the left-behind children scored as more sensitive than those who lived with their parents. Ultimately, I decided that the results were less important than the chance it gave me to learn more about my students’ lives.

    Even within the ranks of left-behind children, there is considerable variation in life experiences and emotional stimuli. One boy I visited after conducting my second questionnaire lives in relatively poor housing with only his grandmother to care for him. He has no one at home to talk to or play with. Another lived in a larger, nicer house with his extended family, and although his parents, uncles, and aunts all spend most of the year working elsewhere, he still has his grandparents and cousins with him. It would make sense that their emotional responses and experiences would be quite different.

    When I asked Ye Jingzhong, a sociologist who has spent more than 10 years studying left-behind children for his thoughts, he told me that the crucial difference between left-behind children and their peers is the lack of parental socialization. In his view, left-behind children are more likely to feel lonely and stressed and are more susceptible to anxiety, partly because they lack opportunities to communicate with others. Their parents are far away, and their grandparents are busy with the household chores and farm work.

    But Ye also cautioned me against drawing too broad a conclusion from any specific case. For example, children who live with their immediate families might feel stressed if their parents’ relationship isn’t strong, but there are too many potential variables to know for sure.

    I went into this experience thinking that left-behind children would definitely be shyer and sensitive than those who, like me, have the benefit of living with their parents. What I found, however, was considerably more nuanced. It’s entirely possible for children who do not live with their parents to be extroverted and emotionally engaged, and those who live with their parents can be nervous and stressed.

    Editors: Ni Dandan and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

    (Header image: Students at a rural primary school head home after school in Chongqing, March 14, 2016. Zhang Tao/Southern Weekly/VCG)