Zhao Guo Chao moved to Beijing from the neighbouring province of Henan to work as a delivery man and electrician two years ago.
While most other migrant workers in the city have left for the new year holiday, the 27-year-old stayed behind because he can’t afford the trip back.
“My family relatives and friends all want me to return for New Year. It’s not because I don’t want to go, but the situation doesn’t allow me to,” Mr Zhao told SBS News.
Mr Zhao spends most of his days waiting at a local market for someone to hire him. Work is sporadic and during slow weeks he makes less than $100.
He said it’s still more than he could earn working in his home town, where his wife and daughter still live. His daughter Zhao Er Ling is five-and-a-half, but she hardly knows him.
“I’ve seldom seen my daughter in recent years,” he said.
“I returned home last September but she didn’t recognise me. Every time she sees me she cries and says [she] doesn’t want to see this person. She says, ‘I don’t know this dad’.”
For many of China’s 260 million migrant workers, Lunar New Year is one of the few occasions to reconnect with children left behind in their home towns.
Watch: Lunar New Year explainer
China’s strict household registration, or hukou, system, means migrants and their families aren’t given access to public education or healthcare in major cities.
Researcher with Beijing-based think tank China Development Brief, Gabriel Corsetti, told SBS News local governments prioritise existing residents.
“City administrations may feel they lack the financial resources to give everyone in the city the access to the same quality of services, and so you have to consider the needs of the people who are already based there,” he said.
About one and a half hours drive south of central Beijing is the community of Li Cun where many migrant workers live.
In the city’s outskirts rent is more affordable, but in the days before Lunar New Year communities like Li Cun are practically empty. Most residents have returned to their home towns for the seven day holiday.
Kong Ling Lan and her family are among the few remaining. She moved to Beijing from China’s south as a teenager to work as a cleaner, and now she cares full-time for her 10-year-old daughter Lin Xue Qin and her two-year-old niece Yang Han.
While she isn’t travelling, the Lunar New Year holiday is no less special. Her son has come up to Beijing from her home town in Anhui province to spend the holiday, and it’s the first time she’s seen him in six months.
“He arrived on the 17th of January,” she said.
“Two days before he called me to say he bought his tickets and would come after his exams. A few nights before I couldn’t sleep. My heart was so happy.”
Ms Kong’s son used to live with her in Beijing, but was sent to her hometown two years ago because he wasn’t allowed to enrol in a Beijing high school.
With no surviving grandparents left in Anhui, he’s forced to live alone, a fact which continues to pain Ms Kong.
In a few years, when she’s old enough to begin high school, her daughter Lin Xue Qin must also leave.
“The first time I accompanied my son to return home I was so sad, even thinking about it now, it’s still very difficult, because we had no other choice,” she said with tears welling up.
Her son is now close to graduating from high school and is doing well.
“I’m so proud of him,” Ms Kong said.
“His teachers say he’s a hard worker and never gives them problems.”
But many of the estimated 60 million plus left-behind children in China are not faring as well. According to Shanghai-based social policy analyst Ying Shi, they often lack proper nutrition and physical care.
“Without their parents around them even their more basic rights cannot be realised,” she said.
“They are at more risk of injuries accidents etc. And education-wise they might not have good guidance and support, so it’s very hard for a child without parents.”
She said left-behind children are also more vulnerable to mental health issues.
“Some evidence shows that children without parental care have lower self esteem and have more anxiety problems,” Ms Ying said.
Mr Zhao’s daughter is cared for primarily by his mother-in-law. He said it was very difficult working so far away, but he believed the sacrifice was worth it for now.
“When my situation is financially better, I will go back to my home town because I want to give my family a warm home,” he said.
He’ll see his family again in October. Until then, he said he would continue to keep his head down and work hard, focused on the future.
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