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After the grueling final examinations in June, or gaokao (高考), Chinese students are finally enjoying their well-earned summer vacation. Especially with the pandemic under control, parents are bringing their kids outside to enjoy some precious family time.

However, not all kids get this luxury. 

Recently, a video documenting a Chinese “left-behind” boy has gone viral. He has just one wish: for his parents to take care of themselves while working up north.

“Left-behind” Children from Guizhou province (click to read their story!)

The Story of "Left-Behind" Children

Twelve-year-old Liu Kangbo studies in a village in China’s Hebei province. With the lack of job prospects in their village, his parents chose to “drift up north."

They became waste sorters in Beijing. This summer, they have chosen to stay and work instead of visiting Kangbo back home.

“Drifting north,” or 北漂 is a common occurrence in China. It is when people from small towns migrate up north to bigger cities such as Beijing to find work. 

Although larger cities have better pay, they also have higher expenses. This forces many parents to leave their children in the village with their grandparents. 

These children are thus dubbed “left-behind.” Kangbo is such a child.

Recorded by his teacher, this video is Kangbo’s message to his parents. Instead of asking for gifts or toys, Kangbo asks for his parents to sleep earlier and eat their meals on time. 

Unable to hold back his tears, he implores: “Don’t skip meals. Bring lunch boxes. Do not miss a meal just to save money.” 

When Kangbo’s teacher asks Kangbo how he knows of their situation, he responds that he’s visited them before. 

“They sleep three hours a day. Sometimes, they don’t even sleep. My dad has to drag the waste as soon as he returns. He sleeps for a while and then does it all over again.”

Kangbo deeply understands the reason behind his parents' labor. 

“[My parents work so hard] because they want to give my grandpa, me, and my sister the best,” he says. “[After] I join the army when I grow up, I can give my parents money every day.”

Drifting North

To date, there are 9.01 million “left-behind” children in China, like Kangbo. A wider definition counting all children with at least one parent working away from home would put the number at 61 million.

These children are all offspring of migrant workers forced to find work in larger cities. Many of them are part of the people who “drift north,” specifically to Beijing. 

"Who exactly is a 'north drifter?'" you may ask. The “north drifters” are people, with or without education, that have drifted to Beijing for work. 

Often times, they don't have permanent resident status in this city. Many barely have enough expenses to cover the sky-high rent. 

In other words, they are a group of people nursing their dreams in a foreign city, each with their own story. 

Rapper Huang Mingzhi has a song that describes this very phenomenon. In his “Stranger In the North 飘向北方” featuring Wang Lihong (otherwise known as Leehom Wang), he brings to us the very lives of these "north drifters."

In his song, some people are “debt-ridden.” Some are “wandering aimlessly.” Some have children at home, like the parents of Kangbo. 

But all of them are working towards their own goal. Like our Asian American community here, they persevere even in a foreign city. 

Going Forwards

Chinese artist: 浩轩手绘 https://www.zcool.com.cn/work/ZMTk4Mzc3ODA=.html

Although China still has many left-behind children, the country is rapidly developing. In the last thirty years, nearly all provinces in China have been alleviated from poverty. 

The need to “drift north” has been gradually decreasing, and more and more people are able to stay in their hometown. 

What’s more, with advancing technology, it is easier and easier to keep in contact with our loved ones. 

However, I think we all understand Kangbo's feelings, perhaps now more than ever. Because this past year has been a hard one for everybody. 

Cities were immobilized, people were stranded, and many families were forced to stay apart. 

But even faced with all this, we know that someday we'll see our loved ones again. Not through the phone screen, but in front of our own eyes. 

This year will pass, our worries will blow over, and we will carry on. Because at the end of the day, there is only one way to go: forwards.


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Emilie Zhang

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