Luo Cong: First Child, Second Priority

Story written by Benjamin Hartwell
Sitting perfectly upright, hands resting on her lap, Luo Cong grins at us from across the restaurant table. “Yes, of course you may interview me” she agrees, “It would be my greatest honor.” Although the 24 year old waitress may only have a few years of experience working in the service industry, the occupation clearly suits her well. She speaks calmly, yet does not allow herself to forget that she is still at her job, evident by her persistent offerings to refill our tea.
As Cong retells the circumstances of her dropping out of junior high at the age of 14, she continuously directs any blame to herself. “It has nothing to do with anyone but me.” Despite describing her parents as indifferent to her success in school, Cong maintains her guilt. “My family did their best but I didn't work hard enough” she says with a seemingly scripted smile. However humble, in claiming sole responsibility Cong neglects to acknowledge the factors that likely obstructed her path to academic high school.
When Cong was 13 her mother became pregnant with a baby boy, prompting the entire family to move from their home in southern Shaanxi to a city in Zhejiang. While millions of parents in rural China move to cities seeking factory jobs, the majority opt to leave their children behind to continue their education. This is due to the rigidity of the hukou system preventing rural children from attending public schools in cities, instead forcing them to attend low quality, semi-regulated “migrant” schools. Furthermore, junior high students with a rural hukou are unable to take the zhongkao outside of their home county, essentially creating a dead end to their educational path if they live in a city.
Therefore, if a rural family chooses to have their junior high aged child living with them in a city it is generally implied that they are not interested in continuing the child’s education. Unfortunately, this was the case for Cong as she soon had to dropout of school during seventh grade to take care of her infant brother. Through her inclusion in the move, Cong’s education was sacrificed to allow both of her parents to continue working full time in factories. As she explains this, she doesn’t appear the least bit bitter. In fact, Cong seems to think she would not have been successful in school regardless, convinced she simply did not have the potential to be a good student.
While the Luos were undoubtedly able to make more money working in Zhejiang Province than in their home county, the move to the city may not have been solely motivated by financial gain. Although Cong did not report this, it is reasonable to speculate that her family’s move was made in part to escape paying the expensive fine for being in violation of China’s one-child policy. When the Luos moved to Zhejiang, they would have had the opportunity to avoid registering Cong as a part of the family, making way for the expected birth of their son. This practice is shockingly prevalent in China, evident by the roughly 13 million undocumented children, an estimated 60% of whom are female. The overwhelming discrepancy between the number of unregistered boys and girls is a product of China’s preference for males, yet another issue Cong seems to be a victim of.
Despite the one-child policy, many families in China are not content with “only” a daughter. This is commonly illustrated by families like the Luos, where an elder daughter is followed by a younger son. Additionally, while Cong ultimately dropped out due to the high opportunity cost of attending school, her parents’ favoritism of her younger brother was obvious by treating Cong as though she was expendable. The case for her brother’s prioritization is further supported by his recent move with his mother back to the family’s home county where he will be able to receive a quality junior high education in his pursuit of academic high school. Cong’s parents are clearly providing the very opportunities and support for their son that they stripped from their daughter.
Although Cong personally does not credit any exogenous factors for her situation, it appears as though the challenges facing rural Chinese families as well as her own family situation prevented her from ever having the chance to attain an education. What’s more, the little value placed upon Cong by her parents may have prevented her from realizing her true self worth. Sadly, Cong seems to have adopted this pessimistic attitude in parenting her own infant daughter.