Working without a Net: Mothers in Tongji Village

Note: If you are reading my blog and commenting, I’m not ignoring you. I can’t get to my blog right now. A colleague is uploading these for me.

Today was spent mostly in Tongji village with mothers who have migrated from the countryside to work in Shanghai. They’ve been working on a photovoice project and today and tonight were the discussion sessions for their photos. For those of you unfamiliar with photovoice, it is a participatory research method that asks participants to take pictures in order to answer a particular question. Then, in a group format, individuals describe their pictures and a conversation ensues. And what conversations they were. I’m still reeling from tonight’s which concluded about an hour ago. The first mother showed her first photograph: A self-portrait standing in her workplace, a hotel where she cleaned floors. Her opening words: This is where I work. I cannot read or write so this is the kind of work that I am able to do. Two or three photos later she took us to a hospital bed where her youngest son was donating bone marrow for her 14 year old son who has leukemia. They moved to Shanghai after the diagnosis because they could not get treatment in their home province. Now they face bills of 10,000 rmb per month. The younger son has returned to live with neighbors in the home province because the family must work and spend time at the hospital. And following treatment the older son will return to the home province for middle school without his parents because of the complex schooling situation for migrant children.

Each mother had her own story and each was struggling and working hard in different ways. One cooks three meals a day for ten people in a kitchen the size of a closet. But the most devastating stories concerned health care. What I am learning as I continue to work in China is that life here brings many of the policy questions we struggle with in the U.S. into very sharp relief. Should people have access to health care that doesn’t devastate them financially? It really is a yes or no question. Fed up with the media? Try living without an independent press and see if your opinion changes. Are you sure you want the government intimately involved in your family planning decisions?

There were other heart-stopping moments during the evening. Mothers who reached out to one another saying, “Call on me when you need help…I’ve been too harsh with my children and felt bad too. You are not alone…We need each other. We should have meetings like this more often.” And, my Chinese colleagues…by the end of the morning meeting there were plans to build a playground because the mothers talked about there being no safe place for children to play in the village. These social workers already built a library, started a tutoring/study hall program, in addition to doing individual work with residents. By the end of tonight’s meeting, there were plans to coordinate with the children’s hospital where the above mentioned boy was receiving treatment and to start a support group for moms. Such suffering and compassion all together seems to have produced an explosion of ideas an intervention points and a group of 17 moms willing to be part of making a difference in their community.


  1. This post brought tears to my eyes, Mimi. I can only imagine what it must be like to hear these women’s stories in person. It is also exciting to hear about the impact social workers can make in China.

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