A gray marble monument stands at the village’s entrance to document the latest fundraising feat: half a million dollars collected in 2011 to bring the villagers tap water. Donations overwhelmingly are made in dollars, remitted by local sons and daughters who work in America.
Elsewhere, plaques and other privately funded community projects – from streetlights to sewer lines – dot the landscape. And villa-style mansions with marble pillars now tower over mustard-colored brick shacks.
The mansions’ inhabitants are mostly the elderly and their grandchildren. While China’s countryside is teeming with such families as working-age adults migrate to cities in search of higher wages, the difference here is that many of the children are Americans by birth. They are known as yang liu shou er tong, or “left-behind foreign kids.”
The children are sent back to China because their parents, mostly illegal immigrants in restaurant and shopkeeping jobs in the United States, work long hours and can’t afford day care. The children often don’t see their parents until they’re old enough to return to the country of their birth in order to start grade school.
In a single district that encompasses Houyu and 200 other villages, there are 5,000 such children. In the provincial capital of Fuzhou, they number between 10,000 and 20,000, according to estimates made by officials in 2012.
For this village and others like it in southern Fujian Province, the “left-behind foreign kids” represent a challenge and an opportunity for educators. Because China does not allow dual citizenship, the US-born children are not eligible for local public schools. Instead, they attend private schools set up by villagers especially for them.
A 2012 report from Fuzhou city and district officials says many of the kindergartens run by villagers for the left-behind foreign children are not up to the standards widely followed by government schools. For instance, village-run schools often do not require teachers to be licensed.
Teachers also struggle with educating children whose parents aren’t always vested in readying their children for the transition to a foreign land.
“What the parents care about the most is livelihood,” says Lu Fabin, a principal at Houyu Primary School and Kindergarten. “There is very little they can do about their children’s education. And some don’t care that much anyways.”
One of his students is four-year-old Zeng Huliu, all bundled up in pink against the unseasonal chill in this southern coastal province. After lunch, Huliu paced around in the playground outside her kindergarten before taking her nap. She last saw her parents in central Florida two days ago – over Skype.
“Sometimes, when she’s unhappy, she doesn’t say much,” says her grandmother Lu Ying, stuffing a peeled grape into her palm. “But then her parents can’t tell because they aren’t around.”
Grueling restaurant jobs leave Huliu’s parents little time to call home, let alone take care of her. So as soon as she was weaned off her mother's milk at 10 months old, Huliu was sent back to the village. Her parents plan on bringing her to Florida next year.
Like many who left the village, Huliu’s parents entered the US illegally; they cannot travel abroad freely. Her father left home in 1998 at age 20 to work at a Chinese restaurant run by close relatives in the US, and her mother waits tables at another Chinese restaurant.
Among the Chinese, the coastal Fujianese are famous for their wanderlust. Many prominent ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia trace their roots here. Beginning in the 1970s, boatloads of Fujianese were smuggled across the Pacific to toil in Chinatowns in the US, mostly on the Eastern seaboard. Even after China’s socialist economy was transformed by private capital, Fujianese still looked overseas for opportunities.
The tradition of emigration runs so deep that many Fujianese villages have set up friendship clubs in the US to pool money for the benefit of fellow villagers. The club’s name is emblazoned on many of the marble plaques in Houyu, which has at least 3,000 locals in the US, three times the size of the village’s current population.
Jiang Huizhen, who has 20 years' experience in preschool teaching, expanded her kindergarten two years ago in a refurbished school building on donated land in the nearby Guantou township.
Now, out of her 200 students, nearly 4 in 5 are born overseas, mostly in the US. She has worked hard to engage the absentee parents in school life. They can see their child through a live feed from the school’s playground and can chat with the teachers on microblog sites.
The teachers often find out a child is being pulled from school on short notice. Five-year-old Ou Binqian is to go by the end of this month, before the Chinese New Year’s. “I’ve been to the US before,” says Binqian. “My dad took me to the amusement park. I had classes to learn English.”
Ms. Jiang says teaching English isn’t her teachers’ strong suit, but it is more important to inculcate in the children a sense of independence and responsibility. For midday nap, every child is taught to fold their blanket and put away their clothes.
“No matter where they go, inevitably there’ll be a sense of strangeness,” Jiang says. “What all kids need is a sense of security.”