Both Shou Bao Zhuang and Lao San Yu were farming villages with homes clustered along major roads. The homes used to be surrounded by farmland, now mostly appropriated for new development projects, including the construction of low and sprawling homes for migrant workers. The original residents of Shou Bao Zhuang and Lao Shan Yu no longer farm. They rent out rooms and lease their land to the new comers, the migrants from all over the country.

Supporting the growing population, Shou Bao Zhuang offers many stores—supermarkets, restaurants, barbershops, public baths, car repairs, clothing and cosmetic boutiques, mobile phones, film development, and hardware stores. One can get almost everything one needs in the neighborhood. Working in the stores is not easy. The hours are long, often 11 to 12 hours or more. Labor is cheap and competition intense.

When I first entered the area in 2006, I was struck by how the sky got greyer and the air thicker with the pollution from traffic, industries, and coal-burning furnaces. Cars, buses and trucks moved through crowded streets teeming with activities on both sides of the road. Crowds of people waited for buses, shopped, and ate in restaurants or at sidewalk stands. Crossing the street in the incessant traffic was difficult. Often the heavy smog dimmed the sunlight.

Some of the migrants have become urban farmers, cultivating mostly vegetables on make shift farms with piled up soil. They grow their vegetation either in the open fields or in large barracks covered with clear plastic sheets. They work constantly. In addition to weeding and feeding their crops with chemical fertilizers, the farmers irrigate the fields and control the temperature within the barracks. They wash their crops after harvesting. They stack them up in tight, well-organized bundles, discarding the ones that do not appeal to the eye. A farmer told me, "Dealers will not buy them because they don't look good." They work very long hours for very low margin of profit. Even that is better than no income back at home.

During my last visit in May 2009, I saw that multi-storied buildings had mushroomed in Shou Bao Zhuang. The frequent crackling of firecrackers indicated the intensified building activities. Workers celebrate the installation of main posts in new construction with firecrackers. The crackling can start as early as 5:30 in the morning. Clearly, people are excited about the progress, but there is a dark underside to all the changes.

On my first impression, Dandelion students seemed happy with their laughter and energy. I imagined them blessed with a lifetime ahead, full of possibilities. After working there, however, I became aware of bleak undercurrents, the result of the unforgiving economic situation that tears families apart. During special workshop sessions, students often expressed sobering emotions through drawing and writing.

On one occasion, students were asked to draw images that told stories about themselves. One drawing showed a tattered tree with broken limbs. Placed below the image were the words, “I am like this tree, worn out by the wind and broken.” In another a student imaged herself as floating leaves and described herself as “Torn from the tree, I am like these leaves, rootless and without directions.” Another image revealed a little girl kneeling on the ground. With raised hands held together and tears running down her face, she begged her parents for patience and understanding. I realized that many have already experienced much pain in their young lives.

In the spring of 2009, I read a series of articles by students that deeply moved me. The writings exposed the loss and intense yearning of some of the children, left behind by their parents when they were little. Their anxiety and fear of living in today’s society is in part rooted in their sadness and insecurity.

These are two of their stories.

Longing, My Heart’s Journey
by Lu Ping

Under the hot sun, standing alone in the wide-open farm field, I gazed at a faraway place. There might live my most beloved mother. I imagined that maybe one day I could live together with her, even if in poverty.

To live is hard. In order to make a living, my mother took off, leaving me behind to stay with my grandmother. My grandmother’s severe scolding of me at times made me realize that I was an abandoned child.

My days passed by very slowly. I would sit on a stoneroller under a big tree counting from one to ten and then repeating, one to ten. I have grown in age, but my world remained so small that it could be counted within ten numbers. But I knew then that one day I would leave this smoke-covered little village. I did not want my world to be limited by ten numbers. I did not want to be confined within this misty and smoky farming village.

I so eagerly waited for that day when my mother earned a bit more money than usual. When she would relax and recover from a day’s tiresome work, she would suddenly think of me. She would remember that she left a daughter back at home in the village. How I wished that this would become real.

Finally I was not disappointed. One day, my relative and I took the train to Beijing. I was coming to find my mother, whom I knew in my mind but could not remember what she looked like. I trusted that she would love me.

Life in the city was much better than that in the quiet village. Mother took good care of me. Even when she was very tired, she still smiled kindly towards me. It seemed to be in every mother’s nature to look after her children.

One day I was separated from mother again. I came to a new and strange environment, which was filled with children of my age. I cried. I did not want to be with strangers. Where were you, mother?

What I remembered while attending primary school was changing schools. Because I came from another province and was not a resident of Beijing, I was not accepted by public schools established by the government. Only private schools would receive me. It made me feel unwelcomed and distraught.

When I was ready to enter middle school, mother chose to send me back home to attend school there. She entrusted me to a family at our home village. What an awful feeling that was! My health deteriorated. Mother fetched me back to be with her in Beijing. I thought that my future might be ruined at this point.

Now I know that I have no means to make a choice about my life. Maybe my fate will decide for me. But I don’t want to concede and I must not concede. I have walked such a long path and it must not be in vain. I need to control my destiny. I will change my future.

It does not matter how vague and confusing everything is. I must insist and hold on.

The sun is sizzling hot. Alone, standing on the high bridge in a dark evening, I dream about the future.