Young girl takes on adult role in spotlight

Updated: 2011-11-03 08:23

By Li Yao (China Daily)

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Young girl takes on adult role in spotlight
Holding her 2-year-old cousin, Long Zhanghuan (right) smiles with her little brother at home in Haoyou village, Hunan province, on Oct 24. [Photo/provided to China Daily]

FENGHUANG, Hunan - Unrelenting media attention has brought hope, and a lot of disturbance, to a 10-year-old girl struggling through a difficult life.

Long Zhanghuan won widespread sympathy and media attention after a photo went online showing her carrying her 2-year-old cousin to school because she had to take care of him.

Long and her 5-year-old brother - from Haoyou village in Central China's Hunan province - have been living with their grandparents since their parents divorced five years ago. Her father has custody but has not been home for three years.

Her grandparents are raising eight of their grandchildren, all left behind by parents seeking jobs as migrant workers.

Her grandfather, 59, is suffering from a long-term illness and her 54-year-old grandmother's workload is too demanding.

Throughout the week, reporters from newspapers, magazines and TV from across the country have been flocking to her school, raising questions and asking to bring the girl out of the classroom to photograph her walking the mountainous road back home, said Wu Yansheng, principal of Shanjiang Primary School.

"Initially I wanted more people to know about students in similar difficulties, but it quickly got too aggressive for the girl and I had to cancel further visits," he said.

"The girl was too young and inexperienced to deal with such enormous media exposure. She broke down in tears after repeated interviews on Oct 25," Wu said.

Adding to the girl's uneasiness, Long had problems communicating in Mandarin, as she used to speak the local dialect of the Miao ethnic group until she was transferred from the village primary school this semester.

Long appears to react like her peers, turning around to chat with classmates and playing games after school. But she is mindful of suddenly being the center of attention and has become resistant to unknown questioners.

During a brief talk with a China Daily reporter after school on Oct 27, she turned her back at every question, looking elsewhere and barely responding, eager to run away as a crowd of curious pupils kept getting bigger.

Shortly after the talk, Long was encircled by officials from the education bureau in Fenghuang county who arrived with two bags containing new clothes, shoes, a schoolbag and stationery for her.

They put a new pink coat on her and presented the rest with encouraging words, all diligently recorded by a video camera.

Young girl takes on adult role in spotlight

A screenshot of the photos posted on Sina micro blog, which show Long holding her 2-year-old cousin during a class at Shanjiang Primary School. [Photo/provided to China Daily]

Mo Bokun, the girl's class teacher, said Long took off the coat when she returned to the classroom, saying she did not like it.

"She has had too much and barely knows what she did differently from other kids to have to go through this," Mo said.

Long and her grandparents are under pressure at home fending off unauthorized media interviews, but "how can a 10-year-old handle aggressive media probing?" Mo asked.

Long's hardship as a left-behind child is not uncommon in Shanjiang township. Children of her age often take up the role of an adult at home, doing housework and taking care of smaller siblings, Mo said.

Wu Xiaohui, the principle of the primary school in Haoyou village, said students sometimes bring smaller kids to keep an eye on them while at school, to ease the burden on adults during busy farming seasons.

The media exposure has disrupted Long's normal life, but also brought her unexpected help from philanthropists. However, other kids facing similar difficulties may sooner or later feel it unfair to make out Long as the only one struggling and ignore many others, Mo said.

On Oct 28, a charity group based in Beijing arrived and donated 30 pairs of shoes to kids in disadvantaged households, including Long.

According to the group, a philanthropist offered to donate 2,000 yuan ($315) a month for five years to Long's family so they could hire a helper and ease the children's burden.

Long's grandparents were grateful of the offer and thanked the widespread sympathy brought by media coverage. Her grandfather, Long Wanting, said the girl's father learned of the news, but could not schedule time to come back and check on the children.

According to statistics from the local education bureau, 24,225 out of 46,207 primary and secondary school students in Fenghuang county are left-behind children of migrant workers.

Wu Yongxiu, a teacher from Shanjiang Primary School, said financial assistance can only achieve a very limited outcome. Children have their emotional needs and parents should not overlook their irreplaceable role in a child's upbringing.

There are 756 students in the school, 452 living on campus, including first-graders. Too much responsibility, including basic personal hygiene like washing their hair regularly, has been shifted to teachers, as grandparents back home cannot properly supervise the pupils with their homework and help them form good habits, she said.

Pupils growing up in such loose hands have a high risk of falling into bad behaviors, such as ignoring homework, going to Internet cafes and freely spending hard-earned money from migrant parents, Wu Yongxiu added.

Merely sending money back home is never going to work well for the children's future, and at least one parent should be around, she said.