Juanzi had always been fiercely independent, a trait older generations viewed as inappropriate for girls. At age five she learned to travel solo, enduring a 12-hour bus ride to Shenzhen all on her own. By her pre-teen years, she would roam around town and traverse weedy trails to meet friends on hillsides or mountain cliffs, far from the prying eyes of adults. Often she never returned home at night, finding better company in the bedrooms of her friends -- other children whose parents also worked in provinces far away.
When Huang got the call about Juanzi's wayward behavior, she took a six-month leave from work to attend to her daughter, sitting her down for several long talks. "When you miss out on an education you become an unskilled laborer for life," explained Huang, who left school before completing junior high. She made Juanzi write her a letter promising to focus on her studies; otherwise, she would have to get a job alongside her mother at a factory in Shenzhen.
Huang believes those six months saved her daughter from destruction. Juanzi wrote the letter, tamed her quarrelsome tongue, and obeyed all of her mother's wishes. She returned home every night to study and to sleep in her own bed.
To Huang, Juanzi's obedience signaled reformation. But to Juanzi, it was a temporary concession she endured until her mother returned to Shenzhen. "I don't think [those six months] caused much change," Juanzi says. She stopped arguing, but that was because she preferred silence to her mother's "hot temper," she says. Once her mother returned to Shenzhen, Juanzi returned to her old life.
"My mom doesn't know much about me," she says, adding that her mother seemed more tuned into village gossip than what was really going on in Juanzi's life. "I wasn't playing hooky," she insists. As for her closeness with boys, Juanzi admits that she had platonic guy pals, the kind she would call "bro" and joke with after school. Then, when one of them patted her shoulder in plain view of the local gossips, her reputation plummeted.
After Huang returned to work in Shenzhen, Juanzi resumed her independent ways. Her teenage years were peppered with many more impromptu girlfriend sleepovers, one memorable all-nighter at an Internet café just for the hell of it, and a birthday bash upon turning 14 that she says was the perfect celebration: Her crew of left-behind friends snuck beer into a secluded mountaintop temple and spent the day drinking, throwing cake at each other, and receiving birthday wishes from elderly temple-goers, who even shared in their beers.
Privately, Juanzi mourns that she and her mother barely know each other. This parent-child disconnect, forged after so many years of absence, seems irreparable. Juanzi's voice falters when she reflects on the day-to-day intimacy she never enjoyed with her mother. "It's like something stuck in my heart," she says. "I cannot breathe." Some migrant workers move their children with them to the city. Xiao Hongxia, the founder of the women's migrant group Time Women Workers Service, moved her two children from their rural Hunan home to Shenzhen in an attempt to rescue them from village isolation. But sending children to school in Shenzhen costs approximately $160 to $320 per semester per child, according to various migrant parents interviewed, whereas rural education -- which is admittedly substandard -- ranges from around $63 to $95 per semester per child. Huang and her husband together earn roughly $781 a month. Paying private tuition for two kids in the city would have been impossible.
Staying in the village isn't practical for the parents either. Back on the farm, Huang's mother-in-law tends fields of peanuts, string beans, corn, and chili peppers. A few chickens and goats stalk around the farmhouse, but that's hardly enough to sustain a family. "For us rural people, life is not affordable if you do not work outside for money," Huang says, pointing to the dearth of young adults in her village. "We have no choice." Improvements in farm technology have reduced the need for physical labor in the countryside, and cheap consumer electronics like televisions and cell phones have exposed village dwellers to the opportunities and material pleasures of city living, says University of Washington geographer Kam Wing Chan, who has studied the hukou system. He notes that technology and migrant life have improved village conditions, but have also forged a sort of "keeping up with the Wu's" mentality. When parents decide to stay in the village, they deny their family the financial security and comforts that other villagers enjoy. Since her last trip home during the 2011 Lunar New Year, Huang has rethought her approach to parenting. With Juanzi grown up and distant, Huang worries that the same fate awaits the relationship between her and her son. After months of discussion, even though their combined salary would barely support it, Huang and her husband decided to bring Yi to the city with them. So on a sultry July day in 2011, Huang packs her bags for the long journey home to Silong to collect Yi. Juanzi, who recently started a job as a kindergarten teacher's assistant in a neighboring city, joins her mother on the trip. After a grueling, day-long, 500-mile drive from Shenzhen, the van drops them off at 4 a.m. near their farmhouse. The tiny mountain village is silent. Juanzi runs ahead, disappearing into a hilly forest, calling her brother's name. Through the darkness, Huang lets her feet guide her up the familiar curves on the road back home.