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Creativity Blossoms in the Great Migration

On the industrial outskirts of Beijing, the transient children of the world’s largest migration taught artist Lily Yeh about finding healing and rootedness in creative power.
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Awakening Creativity Play Button by Lily Yeh

CLICK HERE to view the photo essay:
How students transformed a school in an industrial backwater into something beautiful.

Photos courtesy of Lily Yeh and New Village Press, from Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms.

A chance meeting in 2003 brought me together with Zheng Hong. Zheng Hong, who holds a PhD in Paleontology, had just earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy
School of Government at Harvard University. Moved by the dire situation faced by migrant workers in her beloved city of Beijing, she recruited help from her friends and numerous volunteers to create the Dandelion School for children of migrant workers.

One thing I had always wanted to do, but never had the opportunity, was to transform a whole school environment into a stimulating place for learning, filled with colors and inspiring images. The Dandelion School offered me a rare opportunity to realize my dream to create a total learning environment with the engagement of the whole school community.

It is easy to measure the impact of the physical transformation of an environment: we only have to compare the before and after pictures of the place. However, when community members participate
in transforming their environment, the process often triggers other kinds of transformation, affecting the minds and hearts of individuals and the whole community. These changes, and especially
their long-term effect, are much harder to assess or measure.

The Biggest Migration in Human History

Families are forced apart as parents move into urban centers to find work, often leaving the old and young behind. As a portion of the population becomes richer, the other portion suffers uncertainty, alienation, and deprivation.

When I was in high school, I liked studying history. But I also remember the pain of studying Chinese history of the past two hundred years, filled as it was with the corruption of the court, the invasion of foreign forces, the unequal treaties, and the humiliation and suffering of common people.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, China shows a very different picture: confident, powerful, and proud. Under Deng Xiao Pin’s reform policy, China has force-marched its economy from poverty to prosperity, at least for a portion of its vast population. The country hosted a most impressive Olympic games in 2008, with a breathtaking opening performance, in its daring and striking new sport facilities.

At the same time, China is witnessing a massive migration of over 150 million people from the countryside to cities, from underdeveloped to highly established economic areas, and from the central and western regions to the eastern coastal provinces. It is the biggest migration that has ever happened in human history. Traditional agricultural practices can no longer sustain villages. Families are forced apart as parents move into urban centers to find work, often leaving the old and young behind. As a portion of the population becomes richer, the other portion suffers uncertainty, alienation, and deprivation.

I wanted to witness and understand the impact of this momentous happening on the Chinese people, society, and especially the young. My opportunity came when Zheng Hong, a founder and the principal of the Dandelion Middle School, established solely for the benefit of the children of migrant workers, invited me to visit the school.

The Dandelion School is located in the Shou Bao Zhuang Village in the Daxing District, an industrial area on the outskirts of Beijing. Based on the figures provided by the police department, it has a resident population of 846 and a floating population of 11,000, mostly composed of migrant workers and their families.

Along the several main streets that feed into Tuan Ho Road, the major avenue connecting to the Beijing highway system, Shou Bao Zhuang is bustling. Situated on the opposite sides of Tuan Ho Road and facing each other diagonally stand the Dandelion School and the well-off China Performing Arts High School. Next to that school stands the entryway to Lao San Yu village.

Both Shou Bao Zhuang and Lao San Yu were farming villages with homes clustered along major roads. The homes used to be surrounded by farmland, which is now mostly appropriated for new development projects, including the construction of low and sprawling homes for migrant workers. The original residents of Shou Bao Zhuang and Lao Shan Yu no longer farm the land. They rent out rooms and lease their land to newcomers—migrants arriving from all over the country. Labor is cheap and competition intense.

On one occasion, students were asked to draw images that told stories about themselves. I realized that many had already experienced much pain in their young lives.

When I first entered the area in 2006, I was struck by how gray the sky was and thick the air was with the pollution from traffic, industries, and coal-burning furnaces. The heavy smog dimmed the sunlight. Cars, buses, and trucks moved through crowded streets teeming with activities on both sides of the road. Crowds of people waited for buses, shopped, and ate in restaurants or at sidewalk stands. Crossing the street in the incessant traffic was difficult.

Some of the migrants have become urban farmers, cultivating mostly vegetables on makeshift farms with piled-up soil. They grow their vegetation either in the open fields or in large barracks covered with clear plastic sheets. They work constantly. In addition to weeding and feeding their crops with chemical fertilizers, the farmers irrigate the fields and control the temperature within the barracks.

They wash their crops after harvesting and stack them up in tight, well-organized bundles, discarding the ones that do not appeal to the eye. A farmer told me, “Dealers will not buy them because they don’t look good.” They work very long hours for a very low margin of profit. But even that is better than being without income back at home.

Migrant Labor Huts photo by Lily Yeh

The dwellings of migrant urban farmers.

Photo courtesy of Lily Yeh/New Village Press.

 

Torn from the Tree

That spring, I read a series of articles by students that deeply moved me. The writings exposed the loss and intense yearning of some of the children, left behind by their parents when they were little.

On my first impression, the Dandelion students, with their laughter and energy, seemed happy. I imagined them blessed with a lifetime full of possibilities. After working there, however, I became aware of bleak undercurrents, the result of the unforgiving economic situation that tears families apart. During special workshop sessions, students often expressed sobering emotions through drawing and writing.

Awakening Creativity Book Cover

Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms
by Lily Yeh
New Village Press, 2011, 224 pages, $34.95.


On one occasion, students were asked to draw images that told stories about themselves. One drawing showed a tattered tree with broken limbs. Placed below the image were the words, “I am like this tree, worn out by the wind and broken.” In another a student imaged herself as a cluster of floating leaves and wrote, “Torn from the tree, I am like these leaves, rootless and without direction.” Another image revealed a little girl kneeling on the ground. With raised hands held together and tears running down her face, she begged her parents for patience and understanding. I realized that many had already experienced much pain in their young lives.

That spring, I read a series of articles by students that deeply moved me. The writings exposed the loss and intense yearning of some of the children, left behind by their parents when they were little. Their anxiety and fear of living in today’s society is in part rooted in their sadness and insecurity.

The story of two siblings haunts me. Domestic violence and the imprisonment of their father led to the breaking up of the family. After he was released from prison, the father returned to his homeland. Staying behind in Beijing, the children lived with their mother in a tiny two-room apartment. In order to support the family, the mother had to start working in the underground economy, but that work was deeply damaging to her children. The son finally left home to live with his father. Unfortunately, the father’s despair at his inability to find work led to his becoming an alcoholic. The son returned to Beijing, where his anger led to an act of violence, preventing him from returning to the Dandelion School, which he obviously cherished. People have found him lingering at the school gate. He now works as a day laborer wherever he can find a job. Life is already closing in on him.

His sister’s reaction to her situation was quite different. She stared into space all day long and had very little response to her surroundings. One day she drew a portrait of herself, saying, “I am like this wooden puppet. I have no heart.”

I figured that if I really wanted to understand the living condition of the migrant families, I should do some home visits.

In the United States many schools host parent and teacher meetings, but not home visits. So when I heard that the Dandelion School requires its teachers to do home visits for every student in their classes, I was intrigued and impressed. I figured that if I really wanted to understand the living condition of the migrant families, I should do some home visits. Asking the school leadership for help, I was accompanied to visit a special family, whose livelihood depended on recycling trash.

During my first visit to Dandelion in 2006, I was struck by a large area allotted to trash collection near
the school in the county of Shou Bao Zhuang. It contained many subdivisions, each hosting and recycling a different kind of trash—glass, metal, paper, tires, old clothes, plastics, and foam materials.

Trash Colony photo by Lily Yeh

The trash-collecting neighborhood in Shou Bao Zhuang in 2006.

Photo courtesy of Lily Yeh/New Village Press.

 

Families lived in the trash compounds for cheap housing and easy access to goods. Even though migrant workers in general are on their own, with no rights, no land, and no legal protection, a powerful hierarchy has firmly established itself in the trash-collecting business.

Mr. Ku, the owner of Zheng Jun Hotel where I stay during my visits to Dandelion, began his career collecting trash. Due to his keen sense of business and shrewd maneuvering, he is now a millionaire owning several properties and businesses—an amazing accomplishment common among daring entrepreneurs in the new China.

Although born into this big capital city, the little boy has grown up in this humble house with no facilities. His playground is the trash land. Their situation seems dim and grim, but still I found glimmers of hope.

But many families are not as lucky. The family I visited was composed of the parents and four children, three girls and one boy (the youngest), ranging in age from seven to seventeen. The girls had not had the opportunity to go to school until they came to Dandelion. In 2010, the middle two children were studying at Dandelion under a scholarship plus room and board.

Due to a leg injury, the father lost his ability to do any work other than trash collecting and recycling. The mother and children all help with the work. They built their modest house in the middle of the trash ground. They are allowed to collect only the cheapest materials, plastic foam boards, and nothing else. Although born into this big capital city, the little boy has grown up in this humble house with no facilities. His playground is the trash land. The smelly, polluted air is what he has breathed since infancy. The family’s most prized possession is an abandoned white puppy they found on the street. Their situation seems dim and grim, but still I found glimmers of hope. The children have decorated their home with colorful plastic flowers, which they found while rummaging. Displayed on a mud wall is the pride of the family, two rows of awards in red and gold colors, announcing the children’s various academic achievements.

Generation Dandelion

Shu Li photo by Lily Yeh

Liao Shu Li and her parents.

Photo courtesy of Lily Yeh/New Village Press.

Among the 150 million migrant workers in China today, 18 to 20 million are school-age children. Beijing alone has 500,000 migrant youth. The sadness, hurt, anger, and despair expressed by some of the children in the Dandelion School reflect the hidden wounds of numerous migrant children. We must call attention to this social phenomenon because so many emotionally ill people cannot make a healthy society.

Although recently admitted to the Dandelion School, delicate and pale Liao Shu Li had a will of iron and had distinguished herself in her study and service. Her parents grew and sold vegetables. We decided to pay them a visit.

Migrating from the countryside of Henan, they had toiled for seven long years in the urban farms, hoping to create a better future for their two children, Shu Li and her brother. “Not only have I not made a penny, I am tens and thousands of yuan in debt,” the father sighed. Shu Li’s mother had been badly injured while working in a factory. They did not have money to care for her properly, and a piece of low-quality metal was inserted to restore her shoulder blade temporarily. This often caused her great pain. They hoped that someday they would earn enough money to have the shoulder properly fixed. When we talked about school, Shu Li’s mother broke down.

Mosaics photo by Lily Yeh

From Philadelphia to Rwanda, Lily Yeh's work with trauma survivors has proven how art can empower and heal. Her five years with the Dandelion School helped transform it from a setting that reflected the dreariness of its industrial surroundings to one that reflects the beauty of its collaborators.

Photo courtesy of Lily Yeh/New Village Press.

“I feel so sorry that we cannot sufficiently provide for our children. Many young people have the means but they do not want to go to school. We don’t have the resources, but our children excel in studying. They want to attend school so much. We had originally decided that all of us, including Shu Li, would work to support the son to get an education.” But Shu Li was determined to get an education, too. She and several of her girlfriends managed to find the Dandelion School, which offered them tuition and room-and- board scholarships.

Her parents thought that it was some kind of scam to trick them out of their children. The mother told me, “Although we are poor, we will manage. If we die, we want to die together.”

Shu Li’s story has a happy ending. In addition to being an outstanding scholarship student, she has recently won top prizes in creative writing, with good cash awards to take home. As a top student in every field she commits to, Shu Li has a bright future.

Philadelphia Mural photo by Alejandro Alvarez
Painting the Town Prosperous
Urban artists revive our neighborhoods and show us how to share our gifts.

Dandelion, what an appropriate word to name a school that serves the children of migrant workers! The dandelion’s seeds, feathery and light, drift with the wind to wherever they land. The tenacity of the plant helps it endure, put down roots, and live on. It is a perfect symbol of the situation tolerated by many migrant families, driven to wherever they can find jobs. Unassuming but tenacious, they endure, raise their young, and hope for a better future. They form the force that builds the enormous urban landscape in China; their labor brings the country its confidence and prosperity. Yet they live on the fringe of the cities they built and are often invisible to mainstream society.

My hope is that what those students have learned through their participation in the project will give them confidence in their own creative power and inspire them to dream and take action to shape their own future.


This article was adapted for YES! Magazine from the book Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms, by Lily Yeh, published by New Village Press, 2011. From 1986 to 2004, Lily served as the co-founder, executive and artistic director of The Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia, a non-profit organization with the mission to build community through art, learning, land transformation and economic development. She continues pursuing her vision through her new organization, Barefoot Artists, Inc., which teaches residents and artists in devastated communities around the world how to use the transformative power of art to bring healing, self-empowerment, and social change.

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