New Year Bittersweet for China's Far-Flung Families
New Year Bittersweet for China's Far-Flung Families

ZHUANGCUN, China—Nothing is more important to Yangyang than being with family to ring in China's Lunar New Year, but sometimes she feels the annual reunion is more bitter than sweet.

Her husband is one of the tens of millions of migrant workers who will make the annual migration back home to rural villages for China's most important festival, queuing for hours and cramming into trains and buses for the chance to go home.

But the joy of Yangyang's husband returning is tainted by the disappointment her children, aged 9 and 11, inevitably feel when their father leaves again after the holiday.

“When my husband first left, my older child was just one year old. When he sees the parents of other children coming home he's always very sad. He longs for his own dad,” she said.

Across China, the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, as the holiday is known, is not just about eating dumplings and lighting firecrackers to scare off bad spirits, it is a rare chance for husbands and wives and parents and children to see each other again as far-flung families are reunited.

For families like these, the long separations are simply a part of making ends meet in China's new economy, in which the rural hinterland faces a surplus of workers while booming cities are desperate for cheap labour.

Money sent back by Yangyang's husband in his nearly 10 years as a migrant worker has allowed the family to move from the traditional cave house the couple lived in when they first married, to a more modern, brick-walled courtyard complete with linoleum floors and a big-screen television.

But they are still paying back loans taken out for the house, and as the children get older, the top priority has become saving for their education.

“These few mu (hectares) of apples don't earn much, and other than that we have no income here,” Yangyang says, referring to the orchards that produce the region's main crop.

“Even though there is no fee for primary school, university is very expensive. If they want to go to college or university, we have to start saving now.”

Mass Return

In Zhuangzitou, a neighbouring village in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, Han Xiaocui and her children are in a frenzy, getting ready for the holiday.

The dust that is everywhere in the yellow earth hills has to be swept out of her courtyard home, the bed covers need scrubbing and food has to be prepared so everything is in order before her husband comes home.

Han says the whole atmosphere of her village changes as hundreds of working-age men — much of the village's adult population — return from the cities to celebrate the holiday.

“During Spring Festival it gets really lively here,” she says.

The highlight for her is the “shehuo” celebrations, a New Year's tradition unique to north China that was originally a ceremony to honour gods from heaven and earth.

Communities come together to take part in the street performances with dances, masks and face painting, the children held high on poles as residents parade through the village.

But in the poor, isolated villages of northwest China, Han's festive spirit marks her out as one of the lucky ones.

Her husband works in a neighbouring county, meaning it is relatively easy to get home.

“He always brings watermelon seeds and sweets for the kids,” she says.

With thousands of migrant workers owed back wages, some can't afford to come home at all, leaving their families disappointed.

Some are so desperate to go home that they resort to suicide or robberies, China's media has reported, cases that have prompted authorities to make pledges to improve their lot.

Eating Bitterness

And for others, the work isn't enough to escape their grinding poverty.

Han Qunyan, the village head in Zhangcun, says he distributes packages of grain at the New Year to poorer families.

In his village, he says, having a bit of meat to eat is about as festive as it gets.

“The atmosphere is still not very good even at Spring Festival,” he said. “A lot of people don't come back and a lot of people from here eat bitterness,” he said, using the traditional expression for bearing hardship.

For now, Yangyang is focusing on the positive.

Soon, three generations of her family will be together to ring in the Year of the Pig, eating together and then visiting in-laws and neighbours on New Year's Day.

But when the feasting is over, her husband will return to his work as a labourer and Yangyang will be left to console her children.

“When their father gets home they get so excited,” she says. “They don't want him to leave again.”

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