SHANGHAI — Li Jian sat in a cool, dim kindergarten principal’s office and grinned as he shelled out a thick wad of colorful bills from his worn leather wallet. Principal Jin Taohong smiled back as she punched numbers on her calculator and collected 2,200 yuan – $360 – three months’ tuition for Li’s 5-year-old daughter.
That stack of bills will allow his beloved Li Xin to eat three nutritious meals every school day, color squares and triangles in workbooks, sing to the tune of a sleek black piano and, hopefully, attend college.
These basic kindergarten activities aren’t always realities for children such as Li Xin, who was born into a family of poor migrant workers. Like millions of others, her parents left their rural home in Sichuan province, hoping to earn a share of China’s new prosperity in a village just miles away from the booming city of Shanghai.
In doing so, the Lis took a chance, deciding to live outside China’s important residential registration system, a bureaucratic filter that divides urban residents from rural workers. The hukou system, as it’s known, can determine which benefits citizens receive depending on where they live.
Those with residency permits for big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have access to quality health care, education and other benefits. But those who live in poor villages receive little to no government help, especially when it’s time to send their children to school.
“I want (Xin) to learn,” Li Jian said. “Education is important. If she has talent, I want her to go to a university.”
Though the kindergartens of Shanghai are just a subway ride away, his daughter can’t attend them without the all-important Shanghai hukou.
That’s how Li, 47, came to be sitting in a principal’s office counting out a tuition payment for his daughter’s education at a beautiful kindergarten that was built two years ago to serve the children of migrant families in his village.
The children of migrants often are compelled to attend schools that are close to their home villages, where the quality of education is spotty, said Jin, who’s been an educator for more than 35 years.
In many such schools, teachers aren’t qualified and school conditions are shoddy, she said. In the past two years, the Beijing government has shut down and demolished dozens of these migrant schools because they’re unsafe or ill-equipped for education, according to news reports.
Li Jian is lucky. Aiyou Jiufeng, the kindergarten for migrant kids closest to his home, is a shining beacon of hope in Jiufeng village, otherwise notable for its garbage-ridden landfills, run-down shacks and stray dogs.
Once a farming village about 25 miles from the skyscrapers of downtown Shanghai, Jiufeng is now home to migrant workers who’ve left their villages to seek prosperity in the city.
Some of them spend nine-hour days transforming planks of wood into material for boats, others work on the hundreds of construction sites in Shanghai and still others subsist by collecting trash from the streets to recycle for money.
The poverty is inescapable. Children walk through dusty streets barefoot, and slabs of plywood and tarps serve as roofs to keep the rain out of the dilapidated sheds used as homes. Though migrant workers want their children to attend universities in the hopes of obtaining high-paying careers, few can afford it.
But poverty doesn’t mean hopelessness.
Tucked in the heart of the tiny village, the 2-year-old Aiyou Jiufeng kindergarten is a different world. Cooks prepare lunch for more than 120 smiling students in a stainless steel kitchen, an in-ground pool sits next to a playground for summer swimming, and teachers stand behind newly constructed chalkboards to teach their students Chinese characters and simple math equations.
The kindergarten employs qualified teachers, and it has bunk beds for naptime, classrooms with hardwood flooring and a playground for recess.
Kindergartens such as this one are in higher demand, its principal said. The trend is catching on because of the emphasis the government has placed on education in the past 20 years, stressing a vigorous curriculum for children who are preparing to take China’s grueling college entrance examinations.
Fortunately for Xie Bing, a 43-year-old migrant worker who left his home in rural Anhui province to take a job with a storage company near Shanghai, Aiyou Jiufeng is close to his home. If it weren’t, his 5-year-old daughter, Dina, wouldn’t be able to show off her powder-blue Mickey Mouse coat to her classmates during recess.
“I wanted to choose the closest kindergarten,” Xie said. “I want to make (Dina) better developed for education.”
Location is a key factor for migrant workers. If a migrant school isn’t near a family’s home, parents struggle to find one for their children.
Aiyou Jiufeng’s enrollment quadrupled to more than 120 students in its second year. About the same number are expected to enroll for the next school year, the principal said.
Jin said the school was funded through tuition and corporate donations. Most parents are more than willing to pay, as each payment brings them closer to the dream that their children will move on to brighter futures.
The reality is still daunting, however.
At one of the country’s top colleges, higher education is available mostly to the wealthy as little financial aid is offered. At Shanghai’s elite Fudan University, officials estimate that less than 5 percent of students need financial assistance for tuition payments. The university doesn’t track the socioeconomic backgrounds of its students, so there are no official statistics.
“All want to have a higher education, but it can’t be guaranteed,” Jin said.
Most Fudan students have parents who also attended college and hold high-paying jobs. Few, if any, have parents who worked in construction or repaired furniture in migrant villages.
For migrants’ children especially, poor education leads to dead-end jobs. That’s a lesson that workers such as Deng Yungbo learned the hard way.
Deng, 26, is a migrant from the countryside who never attended kindergarten. He came to Shanghai to work for a furniture company, in hopes that his twin 1-year-old daughters will have it better than he did.
“I just can’t make a good living,” Deng said. “I just want my family to have one.”
Gallagher, a student at Penn State University, reported this story for a class in international journalism.