Photo: Courtesy of Liz Zhong
Q+A: Liz Zhong, Ed.M.’18
How one alum is building relationships between children from rural areas and their migrant worker parents
When Liz Zhong was 12, she knew what she wanted to do: teach students living in remote areas of China, her country. She had seen a documentary about rural children and felt a connection when she realized many shared her love of books and reading. But then after college, while volunteer teaching in a remote village, Zhong learned something that would further shape her career: It wasn’t enough to just work with the children — she also needed to work with their parents, who, she discovered, often lived far away, in big cities, in order to earn a living. As a result, the relationship between migrant worker parents and their children was fragile: the children felt left behind and parents found it difficult to share their own sadness over the situation.
Zhong now lives and works in Guizhou Province, the rural community where she first volunteered. She has been interviewing students about their lives and then taking that information to the big city factories, where she works with parents on becoming better communicators. Earlier this year, Zhong talked to Ed. about separation, parent workshops, and the man in the pink shirt.
Why are parents not with their children?
My students’ parents work mostly in urban factories. They make different things, such as shoes, toys, electrical parts for the phone, etc. The parents are mostly from rural areas. When they leave home for work, many of them choose to leave their children behind with grandparents or other caregivers because it is difficult to register rural children for schooling in urban districts. At the same time, some parents' relatively low income and night shifts make it hard to bring a child. … There are currently millions of rural children left behind while a parent or parents work away from home.
And you’ve found that this absence affects their parenting?
Parents’ income and paid leaves are limited, so they normally go home only once or twice a year. While parents’ work brings more money home, it's hard for them to quickly adjust their parenting practice from acts of service to verbal communication, which most Chinese parents aren’t good at. Therefore, conflicts and misunderstandings develop as the separation gets longer. It is not uncommon for children and teenagers I work with to feel emotionally disconnected from their parents.
This disconnect was what first got you thinking about working with parents, not just with students.
In 2015, a very bright girl hugged me and suddenly burst into tears before I left. She couldn’t control her crying and said, “You are better than my parents. They don't care for me.” That’s when the emotional challenge they face became more visible to me. After some interviews, I learned that almost half of them, when reaching fourth or fifth grade, thought their migrant worker parents were neglectful in some degree. I tried ways to support them emotionally and yet found those ways unsustainable because volunteers and teachers can’t always be there for them. That’s when the idea of engaging with migrant worker parents came to my mind.
First you talk to the students?
We collaborate with three schools, from primary to high school, to discuss with students what they are going through in life. We want to find topics and good ways for parents to talk with them. ...We’ve had some really informative findings. For example, we learn that some parents leave home in the middle of the night while the children are asleep to avoid causing sadness or to forbid their children from crying or begging because the departure is also sad for the parents. However, this makes the young children, especially the boys, who are less encouraged to show vulnerability, feel devastated for days.
It's not all negative, though, correct?
What’s been touching to me is that despite the separation and the disconnection children sometimes feel, they have such strong, loving feelings for their parents. I want to share a story of my student Wen in the eighth grade. Wen started working with me when he was in the seventh grade. One night in our group discussion, I asked the students what they want to say to their parents when they leave home for work. Most students wrote a lot of words on their small patch of paper, whereas Wen handed in a piece of white A4 paper with very few words: “I don’t feel anything or care about it when they leave.” Later, in other discussions, he mentioned that he felt lonely. I tried to approach him after our discussion, but he didn't say much, and left quickly. One time, when we interviewed our students on their parents’ money saving behaviors away from home, Wen agreed to be recorded. He shared, “I went with my aunt to where my mom worked during one summer vacation. I went into the room she rented and saw that she was cooking noodles. We eat rice at home, but she eats what? She eats noodles!" (Rice is what people here normally eat as staple food and is more expensive than noodles.) "I feel so bad and guilty that sometimes I talk too loudly to her. Mom, I have a good life here at home. Please take care of yourself when you are away.” Wen is not the only one. Many children and teenagers have shared more and more about their love for their parents after letting out their disappointment and sadness. I guess our work has helped them to reflect on their relationships with parents and to see that there is always love within the seemingly overarching disconnection.
Is this the information you bring later to the migrant parents?
We learn from the students the best ways to talk to them and then create free, short video classes for parents. We go to factories to do workshops. We share personal stories on why we do this work, facilitate discussion among parents to find their own good practices of engaging with children from a distance, share our findings on children and their emotional needs, and help parents practice communicating in a more vulnerable and emotional way. By doing this, we hope to reduce parents’ excessive guilt and powerlessness, improve their self-efficacy as parents, as well as the group efficacy, and identify parenting practices that can be easily copied.
Do you work all over China or in just one area?
The work with students is at one place, in Guizhou Province. They are the sample we learn from to extrapolate the bigger population of rural children with migrant worker parents. The work with parents is now in Guangdong Province, but we are thinking about spreading it to Beijing and Shanghai and nearby regions where migrant workers gather.
Tell us about the guy in the pink shirt.
My work with the parents wouldn't have started this fast if there weren’t a guy in a pink shirt. As a semifinalist of the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge, I was asked by this guy many good questions about my idea of engaging parents when I tabled to recruit teammates. I thought he must be interested in my work. But when he said, “Do you think those people are responsible parents? Do they actually care for their children?” I couldn't answer him. He smirked and left. Angry at how he viewed those parents and by my inability to answer him, I scheduled two factory workshops and returned to China during the winter vacation in 2017 to understand who the migrant worker parents truly are. The moment I saw them, I knew that guy was wrong. They were so looking forward to hearing what I had to share about child development. Moms wiped their tears in class and a dad handed me a poem he wrote for his child. It goes like this:
Just like the anticipation of the monthly salary,
The three hundred kilometers’ distance cannot withstand my billions of acres’ emotion.
In my mind, there is always your voice learning to speak while pointing at my photo.
In my memory, there is your reluctance to hug me when I returned home.
“Dad, come home tomorrow” is something you like to say the most on the phone.
No matter how hard I try,
I will never pay back the debt I owe you.
I owe you a happy childhood.
Those two workshops allowed me to see parents’ deep love for their children. They are not irresponsible or unwilling. They just don’t know how to communicate. I believe, with tailored support for them, these parents will be able to express their love through verbal communication. This is what motivated me to make this program into reality.