China Return

On this trip to Shanghai, my husband was the main event.  He was teaching at the law school and it was great fun to have a China adventure together.  And while he was teaching I was returning to “ T” village, the village where my Chinese colleague works and where we have been doing a Photovoice exploration with mothers who are members of the  “floating population,” migrants who come from the Chinese country-side to work in the cities.  The village, made up of 4000 people, is small corner of a big world and the mothers group is a small subsection of that.  But forgotten parts of the world have stories too.

 On this trip, we had a three hour meeting to “member check” – research-speak for going back to those who gave you their “data” to begin with to talk with them about what you heard and, in this case, saw in their photographs. The goal is to see if the researcher’s interpretation makes sense from the research subjects’ points of view. 

As before there was a lot to talk about and one conversation led quickly to many.  There were new babies to meet, specific problems to bring up with the agency social workers, as well as the task at hand. This group laughs a lot but tears come quickly too. Not ten minutes into the meeting, we were deep into talking about family elders – the other family members that are “left behind” in a quickly changing China.  Most of the literature at the moment focuses on “left behind” children, children whose parents move to the cities in search of work.  Children are left with grandparents or other relatives while their parents move to secure a better life.  Scholars speculate about and some have documented the ways in which this situation taxes a child’s well-being.  But elders are left behind too – a situation that does not fit with traditional intergenerational relationships in a country where filial duty is deeply engrained.

The first time we talked with these mothers about their photographs, we did not ask about elders.  But the answer to the question was in their photographs nonetheless.  You see there were no elders in their pictures and this absence, combined with silence, suggested an important theme we might have missed had we not taken an unusual approach to code our photographs for ideas and symbols that were not discussed in the photovoice transcripts.

 Elsewhere in Shanghai one sees elders everywhere, in the botanical gardens doing Tai Chi or dancing, or taking a grandchild for a stroll on city streets. On the weekends, three generations are often out together shopping or enjoying a fine spring day.   But in the mothers’ pictures there were none.  When we asked about the absence the tears began to flow.  “In China,” I was told, “ we have a saying ‘elders are a treasure for the family.’ Being away from them is terrible but we have no choice.  We call them every day.”   Immigrant parents from Latin America sing the same song with different harmony.  They lament the relationships their children will not have with their grandparents and remember how important those relationships were in their own growing up.  They worry that they are not present to care for their aging parents and that getting to them is so difficult when illness and infirmity demand.  It was a moving conversation and I felt grateful to be trusted, through my Chinese colleagues, with such information.

You may wonder as you read this, “so what?”  What could one possibly do about migrant separation from elders in China?  I, too, have my doubts.  But then again…this conversation is about an ancient, engrained cultural value.  Most Chinese people, no matter their station or status, espouse filial duty meaning that there’s reason to hope – if these stories are heard by those who can make change.  A graduation speaker at UNC several years ago said that all work worth doing is done in faith.   Migrating to a new home is also done in faith – faith that there is something worth working for, people waiting that will help you through hard times, and that your labor in some unknown corner of the world will mean something.  So perhaps we are on very different but parallel journeys these moms and I.  And my and my Chinese colleagues’ job is to make sure, to the extent we can, that their faith is sustained.

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