Born In The U.S., Raised In China: 'Satellite Babies' Have A Hard Time Coming Home

Oct 13, 2016
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Finding childcare is hard, and it can be hardest for immigrants who don't have extended family around to help. Many Chinese cope by sending their babies back to relatives in China. These satellite babies return to their parents in the U.S. when they're old enough to go to school. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC met some of them at a New York City elementary school.

BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: It's the first day of kindergarten at P.S. 176 in Brooklyn, and the parents and children are crowded around tiny desks. But while most kids are already busy drawing, one girl with bangs and a ponytail has scrawled only a few little shapes.

HONG ZHENG: She can't speak English. And she's been in America just three months.

FERTIG: Her mother, 31-year-old Hong Zheng says Vivien was born here. But she took her to southeastern China when she was a few months old to live with grandparents in Fujian province. This way, she and her husband could keep working in a restaurant until Vivien started kindergarten.

ZHENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

FERTIG: WNYC producer Richard Yeh translated.

RICHARD YEH, BYLINE: She says, "As you know, in Fujian, we have a lot of these cases."

FERTIG: Cases where kids are sent to grandparents because it's common in China for families to help out this way. Zheng says she cried for about a month after Vivien left. And she stayed in touch with her through video chats every day. She's happy to hold her child again, but Vivien now misses her family in China.

ZHENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

YEH: "Every morning, she demands a video chat with Grandpa. Grandpa is the one who spoils her, and she asks for him every morning."

FERTIG: Her principal, Liz Culkin, says more than two thirds of her students are Asian. She says many were sent to China and feel torn between two countries and two families.

LIZ CULKIN: They're coming back to people that they basically don't know.

FERTIG: Culkin says these students rarely speak English. Sometimes they cry more than usual or don't participate.

CULKIN: They're always looking around to see who's there with them. And that - they always need that sense of knowing where they are and who is there to protect them.

LOIS LEE: They're angry. Why did you send me away? How come my brother is here but you sent me away?

FERTIG: Lois Lee is with the Chinese American Planning Council, which runs after school and day care programs. She's in charge of a site in Flushing, Queens, which has a big Chinese community. Researchers have found these satellite babies can suffer from attachment disorder and other mental health problems, though there aren't any long-term studies on how they turn out.

Lee says more free day care could prevent families from sending children abroad. But in the meantime, she's trying to help by getting the kids to talk.

LEE: Out of all the people in this room right now, how many were born in the United States and went back to China or to another country...

FERTIG: Over the summer, Lee met with students going into fourth grade at a day camp run by her program.

LEE: Eleven, 12, 13, 14, 15 - thank you very much. Now the children who had their hands raised, you know that is what we call the satellite babies.

FERTIG: Everyone's heard this term before. And these 8 and 9-year-olds are able to talk pretty candidly

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I was, like, on a airport. My mom was, like, pulling my hand. I was like, (imitating sobbing) Grandpa, Grandma - why are you leave me now? And then my grandmother started crying.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: I felt angry.

LEE: OK. What about you?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: I felt frustrated 'cause...

LEE: Frustrated?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Because I had been, like, with my grandma and grandpa, like, for three years. And I didn't even know that parents exist.

FERTIG: We're not using any of the children's names because the families want to maintain their privacy. As the kids talk with Lee, she reminds them how far they've come. She recalls a boy they know who refused to go to class when he arrived in kindergarten.

LEE: Every morning, I would see him. I would take his hand, and I would walk him to class. Maybe I was, like, the substitute mama or something, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

FERTIG: This helps. Chinese community groups have been holding parenting workshops, too. Schools are also very involved.

VIVIEN: Daddy is running.

FERTIG: At P.S. 176 in Brooklyn, Vivien is flipping through picture books in her bilingual Chinese kindergarten class. It's a few weeks after the start of school, and her teacher, Brenda Tang, says she's doing really well. She plans to encourage her mother to keep building on their relationship. That way, time apart doesn't have to be a permanent setback.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.