Born in Beijing


In the last gasps of summer vacation, 9-year-old Wang Jiarun – whose English name is Jerry, after the cartoon mouse – is careening through a two-story spiral model of the Milky Way at the Beijing Planetarium. Sweat shining on their necks, Jerry and two friends pile into a mini rover and take turns guiding it across a videogame projection of the moon. They jostle on the blue-backlit podiums facing interactive touchscreens and squeal “CUOWU!” every time one guesses wrong on the galactic quiz. They send a keychain bobble skidding across the tile floor, one of Jerry’s friends wrestling it out of his grandmother’s hand after she picks it up. “He’s never been this naughty before,” she says, shaking her head, but the other adults present agree that the trio is acting pretty much like all third-grade boys everywhere.

Gu Meichang is riding out her final days of freedom fanning herself on a stool and watching TV in the two-room concrete home her parents rent for RMB850 (US$136) a month. The TV is in the front room, along with washing machine, plastic table, dresser and bed where Meichang sleeps. Two dusty red lanterns hang in a corner and a slick green poster advertising a soft drink runs along the length of her bed. The walls are lined with plastic totes, all stuffed to the seams. Below the dresser are dozens of flip-flops her mother will sell. On this day, she could go look for friends, but worries they’re all helping their parents work. Instead she lets time slip by inside. Her father is at a construction site and her mother spends all day at the market, but for the 15 minutes where she gets someone to watch her stand and comes home to make lunch. Vacation is boring now that her older sister has returned to Shandong for high school.

Jerry and Meichang are both 9 years old and entering the third grade. He lives in a fourth-floor walk-up located in a quiet neighborhood split between apartment complexes and traditional housing in Fengtai District. She lives below the Dahuangzhuang Bridge beyond the East Fifth Ring Road in a low-slung, illegal structure housing six other families. His two-bedroom apartment is equipped with modern amenities and a flatscreen hung above an old-style Chinese cupboard. Meichang’s family cooks outside and uses a public restroom. Garbage is deposited in a wide, flat, sour-smelling pile just beyond the building. Birds and flies rise out of it whenever someone walks by. A man sleeps next to the garbage pile. Easily overlooked, he’s on the margins of the margins.


Meichang doesn’t have an English name and isn’t interested in one, but she and Jerry have a lot in common: They both like fast food and animated movies and traveling. They’re good students. Jerry’s teachers praise his manners. Meichang has been class monitor for two years running; she worries a lot about losing the position. They both plan to go to college. They know life is hard if you don’t. They know Apple is a great computer company. Jerry is hoping his mom will buy him an iPad. Meichang doesn’t know what an iPad is, but she knows the Apple logo because she’s seen it on clothes her mom sells. They both have people sleeping in their living rooms. Meichang is the common space dweller of her family, and Jerry’s grandfather took up residence in his living room this year after his grandmother passed away. They’re both afraid of ghosts, but don’t believe in God. They each have proud, smiley mothers who ply guests with fruit. They have mixed feelings about the opposite sex (Jerry: “Girls are always childish.” And Meichang: “Men are grumpy and rude.”) They think it’s good to help the less fortunate. They are Young Pioneers. They took the oath on Children’s Day with right fist raised pledging to “contribute everything to the cause of Communism.” They have the red kerchiefs to prove it.

Where Jerry spent summer in an endless loop of English classes, painting classes, classes where he learned to play Go and countless hours of homework (usually five a day), Meichang finished her summer vacation homework three days after class ended, though there was other work teachers told her to do, work like drawing, exercising and helping Mom and Dad at home. To that end, she cleans the table, tidies the room and helps her mom fold clothes to be carried back from the market each day.

The biggest difference between the two children is that Jerry’s family is local and Meichang is, in common parlance, a migrant, one of the floating population. There are 12.6 million children who live with parents working outside of their hometowns. But the terminology is imprecise. Meichang has only migrated as many times as Jerry has, which is zero. She too was born in Beijing and has spent her entire life here. Still, the difference is crucial. It is the legacy of half a century of rural-to-urban population management and it has cut a chasm between two kinds of Chinese citizens based on bureaucracy and birthright.

The household registration (here forward, hukou) system started in the 1950s as a means to control population movement, which was necessary for the planned economy. Until Reform and Opening Up in the late 70s, people who wanted to move needed local authorities’ permission. In 1984, the State Council issued a “Notification on the Question of Peasants Entering Towns,” stating rural people could move to urban areas, provided they did not rely on the state for food aid when they did so. Moving did not entitle people to the public benefits (always better in cities) of their new homes. To receive local services like health care and welfare, one would need to transfer hukou to the new city or town. In the early 2000s, smaller cities and provincial capitals began to remove limits on how many migrants could apply for hukou. However, Beijing and Shanghai are still the most difficult cities in which to secure permanent residency. In the early 1990s, a single individual who wished to purchase a hukou for suburban Beijing might have paid RMB30,000-50,000 (US$4,817-8,029), an inconceivable cost for most migrants. Few were given out. Today, a black market Beijing hukou can cost up to RMB150,000 (US$24,087), according to some reports.

Jerry’s paternal grandparents moved to Beijing from Hebei Province to study in the 1950s and remained here ever since, thus ensuring a Beijing hukou for their child, Jerry’s father, and also his future wife, Jerry’s mom, who is not from Beijing. His father grew up in a Fengtai District hutong, which was demolished and replaced with a modern apartment complex where Jerry now lives. Meichang’s grandparents are back in Jinan. Her parents were introduced through a village matchmaker and moved to Beijing in the mid 90s. Her father does manual labor and her mother used to work in a factory carving trinkets out of ivory until the supply dried up. Then she opened the clothing stand, which pays better. The family’s situation is fairly stable, though they spend most of the year apart from their teenage daughter. For migrant parents, access to education is one of the harshest measures of inequality. It is perhaps the single greatest hardship of urban living for families.

In the 1980s, the first wave of labor flowing into cities was mainly single adults. By the 1990s, families were increasingly moving together and by 2000 the National Census showed 30 percent of migrant children had resided in cities since birth. Complicating things further, though, was education policy, which is set nationally but funded locally. In 1986 the Compulsory Education Law took effect: children from age 6 to 15 were required to attend nine years of school, six years of primary and three years of middle school. Urban schools were unenthused about assuming the burden of educating a rising tide of transplanted children. According to policies implemented in Beijing in 1998 and 2002, migrant children with guardians in their hometown (like a grandparent) should go to school there. Migrant families that qualified for enrollment in Beijing had to pay extra fees to enroll their children. They also had to produce six certificates, including a temporary residence permit, to ensure their child’s place. The burden of cost and arranging paperwork was too much for many families with neither money nor time to spare. To fill the gap, migrant communities established unlicensed private schools, which had scant resources compared to their public counterparts and high teacher turnover due to low pay. These schools still play a part in educating Beijing’s migrant children, especially in suburban areas where public schools are limited or filled to capacity. Occasionally, crackdowns shutter schools, leaving children without classrooms. But the majority of new Beijing children, like Meichang, attend public schools. In 2009, municipal government did away with a long list of fees associated with “temporary enrollment,” but things are still far from equal for the two kinds of students.


Jerry’s life revolves in a fine-tuned orbit around his education. His mother is the unflagging helmsman of this process. She quit working when he entered elementary school in order to track his development full-time. Of course they’ve read the parenting books, Jerry’s parents say, but all the good methods are buried under the reality, which is competition. All the students will be taking the same tests to get into the same schools. His never-ending mountain of homework and cram schooling is inescapable. Everyone else is doing it.

Meichang’s parents work seven days a week, so they rely on the school to monitor her progress. Meichang says part of the reason she studies hard is because the teachers are good to her and she doesn’t want to disappoint them. Her homework burden is light and the only extracurricular schooling she’s had was a five-day handwriting program in summer 2011. She enjoyed it and would happily attend more if there were opportunity.

One similarity in both children’s school stories is their parents’ reliance on their network to obtain coveted space in the public school system. Jerry attends a newly-built, red-brick school with a bright row of poinsettias in the entryway and metallic statues of happy children. It’s equipped with a grand piano, a garden, a film studio for the school news, cooking classrooms, science labs and a “joyful education” philosophy that emphasizes global awareness and a familial teaching environment. His parents used social connections, by way of dinners and gift-giving, and paid a one-time fee of RMB30,000 (US$4,817) to secure a slot outside their home district. Meichang’s school is less grand. It’s a one-story structure with basic facilities — classrooms, bathrooms, a computer lab and a concrete yard for recess. On our visit a fourth grade class was standing in formation outside as their teacher circled the group, scolding them for poor behavior. When she spotted a boy whispering she pushed him out of the line. About half the students at the school are migrants. Meichang’s mother says they got lucky: She was a precocious kindergartener and tested highly. Through this, her parents were able to get introduced to the public school administrator. “We didn’t pay much. Just some small gifts for our contact. But I heard many families paid at least several thousand or even several ten-thousands,” her mother, Yang Yulin, says.

While public school access through grade nine is markedly improved from a decade ago, children like Meichang must take the college entrance exam, the gaokao, in their home province. Thus, most children return home for high school in order to prepare. Meichang’s older sister lives with their grandmother in Jinan. It’s often extremely difficult for children to adjust to life away from parents and the city to which they’ve grown accustomed. Dropout rates are high.

Her parents call her sister once a week. If Meichang falls asleep before they dial, she regrets it for days after. There are other older kids living nearby and sometimes they’ll guide the younger ones to a nearby park to fish or sneak watermelons (“No one notices, we always have a big team,” Meichang says). The group is always changing, though, when autumn rolls around and some go back to hometowns for school.

As long as she doesn’t wander too far, Meichang has free range of her neighborhood. She can visit her mom in the market where there are sidewalk barbers, piles of fruit and ghost money for sale, corn husks trampled into the pavement and gummy braids of uncooked noodles next to a stand selling dentures. Meichang can also go to the park and play jump rope, ping pong or badminton. She has one stuffed animal, a plush pig, but thinks it’s kind of boring and wishes for Barbies. She’s never used a computer but doesn’t envy her friends who have. She knows it’s bad for the eyes. She doesn’t think kids should play with cell phones either because radiation is bad for the brain. Outside is where the real fun is. One favorite game among her friends is Restaurant. Meichang is always the waitress. She and her friends collect cast-off bowls, plates, packing boxes, disposable chopsticks, grass, leaves and thrown-away vegetables. Dirt is salt. Water is Sprite, and water with a little mud mixed in is Coke. Thick mud paste becomes dumplings, buns and noodles.

Jerry, on the other hand, delights in computer and mobile games. He says he’s too grown up to play with toys. He’s also too grown up for Ultraman, a Japanese series about an investigator who can turn into a giant solar-powered, robo-space man equipped to fight monsters. “Some of my friends are childish, they’re still watching Ultraman,” Jerry says. Jerry admits his fear of ghosts and the dark probably comes from all the Ultraman he used to watch. He used to be on a rollerblading team at the Bird’s Nest. He was good. But the commitment was too much with all his homework. One of Jerry’s preferred modes of entertainment, easily accomplished and not requiring a trip out of home, is dropping water balloons out the window. One time he startled a man who was clipping his nails so much that the man cut himself. He shouted and cursed and then marched upstairs and knocked on the door. Jerry wasn’t punished since he “had the courage of admitting his mistakes.” Sometimes dropping balloons does good, he says, it waters the neighbor’s flowers.

Jerry likes exploding balloons because they’re like bombs. He wants to be a bomb scientist, but not the kind that works for the military. He’s afraid they’d always want him to come up with new ideas and he might not have any good ones. Plus there’s the financial problem of doing experiments. Maybe they wouldn’t give him money, so instead he wants to get a job and fund his own research. “I know every scientist is crazy about the Nobel Prize,” he says, “but I don’t know any Chinese who’ve won it.” He doesn’t think he’ll get married because it’s hard to support a baby. Babies need a lot of things and children are “noisy, terrible creatures.” He imagines he’ll live alone and take a bus to work, to be environmentally conscious. He’ll see his friends on the weekends, but not too often since everyone will be busy, and he won’t have a pet. How can a single man take good care of a pet? “I will be lonely, but all the talented people are lonely,” Jerry says.

born3Meichang thinks she might like to be an airline stewardess. She knows airlines hire to a standard of height and beauty but figures there’s “no problem on that point. I’m confident in myself.” She hopes to only work six days a week. She wants to have kids, “maybe a girl who is as pretty and smart as me. I’ll love her but I won’t buy her snacks, which will make her stupid and fat.” She wants to live in a bigger house, definitely bigger than the one now, hopefully with two stories. Her parents will live there too so they won’t get lonely. She wants to make RMB10,000 (US$1,605) per month. She hopes to own more pretty clothes and a bicycle. She wants a husband who is handsome and smart, “like the intellectuals I see in TV shows.” She says the most valuable trait in a husband is nobility. Money isn’t such a big deal. “Being rich can also be a bad thing. A lot of rich people are mean. And there is an old saying, ‘One may be poor but never ceases to be ambitious,’” she says. If she could go anywhere in the world, it would definitely be somewhere clean. She thinks the cleanest place is probably somewhere in Europe, maybe France or the UK. Rich kids are not clean.

Meichang is not interested in wealth. She says rich kids are “spoiled and can’t do anything for themselves. They can’t clean house or their clothes.” She says she doesn’t know any rich kids, but when her mother reminds her there’s a boy in her class who has been abroad she replies, “He isn’t rich. He went abroad because he’s good at basketball, so he went on a team exchange.”

Jerry doesn’t know any migrant kids, but he doesn’t think they’re different from him. “I’m very familiar with one migrant adult. I call her a laughing tigress. She’s my mom, who comes from Sichuan. Her mood changes so quickly,” he says. Jerry’s maternal grandparents used to be farmers. Every other year his family travels south to visit them. He says he likes Sichuan better than Beijing because there are dirt paths and big mountains. He likes hiking on rainy days because it’s fun to walk in the mud.

Despite differences in what they seek for themselves, Meichang and Jerry basically agree on the big stuff. War is the worst problem in the world. When Jerry is a bomb scientist he says he’ll find somewhere safe for his experiments so no one gets hurt, like he sees on the news about explosions in Syria and Iraq. Meichang thinks there should be a person who can stop war. “If I could, I would want to do that,” she says. They both see that their city needs improvement. Meichang thinks a lot of people are coldhearted. She’s heard the stories of drivers hitting people on the road and leaving them for dead. She’s worried about food safety. She’s seen people in market making food with bad ingredients. Jerry knows Beijing is too polluted. He’s seen the dirty rivers. He thinks it would be good if there were a general who controlled the planet and had the power to make people clean up the environment.

They’re optimistic too, though. Jerry learned London is called the foggy city because its water and air used to be really bad, but now it’s improved. Maybe Beijing will too. For her part, Meichang is confident the laws will change. Her mom told her they would. She believes she will take the gaokao in Beijing. About a week after she told us this, the Ministry of Education called on local governments to release plans to enable migrant children to take the college entrance exam in the cities where they live. Families will still need to provide a heap of paperwork to validate their child’s place in the city education system, but it’s a step in the right direction. One that brings two children, who live three rings apart, or an hour in traffic on a typical day, a little bit closer to each other.


That’s Beijing, 2012
Photos by Noemi Cassanelli

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