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When Families Are Separated, How Can We Help?


“She doesn't know me anymore,” my friend Xiao Min remarked offhandedly one day, as though this fact didn't bother her. As the weeks went on, I would slowly discover that this statement reflected a very deep pain in Xiao Min's heart. The first time she brought it up, though, I was surprised she would treat the matter so coolly. After all, she was talking about her own daughter.

Xiao Min had recently returned to her hometown after working at a factory in Guangzhou for three straight years. She and her husband had left to find factory work when their daughter Li Na was three years old. They left Li Na in the care of her paternal grandmother. During their time in Guangzhou, neither Xiao Min nor her husband had ever come back for a visit, not even during Spring Festival. They didn't have enough time off or enough money for the trek back. Being apart from her daughter was hard on Xiao Min, and she tried to keep a connection through brief phone calls back home each week. However, it was hard for such a young child to maintain a relationship with a faceless voice on a telephone.

Three years later, Xiao Min returned home. Somehow, she expected that home life would immediately return to the way it had been before her departure. She was hurt when Li Na was shy of her, and didn't want her own mother helping her pick out clothes or taking her to school. At night, Li Na wanted to sleep with Grandma, not Mommy, because that's how it had been for as long as Li Na could remember. Li Na regarded Xiao Min as a stranger who had suddenly come to live with them.

Xiao Min soon suffered another blow. After an additional year in Guangzhou, her husband finally returned home. Rather than a joyful reunion, Xiao Min was disappointed to discover he had picked up a heavy drinking habit and a girlfriend during their year apart.

When she told me about her husband, Xiao Min again related the news in a very nonchalant way, as though she was simply lamenting that the price of garlic had gone up. She shrugged her shoulders and muttered, “mei banfa,” which means “there’s nothing you can do.”

Xiao Min's story is not unique, and neither is her reaction. As Ma Li observed in “The Decay of the Chinese Family,” large numbers of Chinese families are split up each year as workers leave children or spouses behind as they pursue jobs elsewhere. This isn't limited to one socio-economic stratum. People from poorer areas may leave villages for factory work, but wealthier people also leave for educational or business opportunities in other cities or even other countries.

When the families are finally reunited, the problems that the lengthy separation has caused become obvious. Women may discover that their kids don't behave, their husbands are glaringly unfaithful, or that other aspects of their home life are far from ideal. Over the years, I have heard different friends mention these kinds of problems with the same shrug that Xiao Min gave me, coming to the same conclusion she reached: mei banfa. For them, this is just how it is, and there's nothing you can do about it.

As Christians living in China, how can we help our Chinese friends who are facing situations like these?

First of all, whether our friends are believers or not, we can gently encourage them that this is not how life has to be. We can help them see that, although it may be common in China for families to be apart for extended periods of time, it is not healthy or normal.

We can also show them that there is something that can be done. This is where marriage and parenting resources become very helpful, especially those that are applicable to an Asian context and provide practical steps towards improving family relationships.

Sometimes, our friends approach us when they are still considering moving away from spouse or children. In those cases, we can help them think through the impact it will have on their marriage and family. Often, they are only focused on the money they will earn, and are not used to taking other things into consideration. Ma Li mentions that there is a problem with “commercialization of family relations” in China. Conversations revolve around how much family members are earning, not on relationships. We can help our friends see that income is not the only factor that should be given weight when thinking of taking a job away from home.

If we can talk with them beforehand about issues that might arise, our friends will be able to make a more informed decision. Even if they decide to leave, perhaps they will be more aware of potential problems, and do some things to prevent them rather than figure out solutions after the damage is already done.

In all situations, we need to be true friends who will listen to them and pray for them. The paths they're on are not easy ones, and it is very tempting for them to simply give up.

For Xiao Min, although it has been difficult, she is not giving up. She committed to praying for her relationship with her daughter and husband, and has already seen God work. She and her daughter now enjoy a close relationship, and her husband has given up his girlfriend. Although his drinking remains a problem, Xiao Min hangs onto the hope that God will change that, too.

By walking alongside our friends who are facing the difficulties of being apart from family, we can show them that they don't need to accept “this is just how it is.” Through stories like Xiao Min's, we can share with our friends that their situations are not mei banfa. There is hope.

Sarah Stone

Sarah Stone (pseudonym) is an American who has done development work with minority communities in China for over a decade. She currently lives in southwestern China with her husband and two children. View Full Bio