Editor's note: As the nation prepares to celebrate Children's Day on June 1, China Daily traveled to meet youngsters growing up in the countryside, and the migrant worker parents forced to leave them behind.
Zhou Jing sat in her yard watching a black cat play with two 10-day-old kittens. Her face was unable to hide her jealousy.
Zhou Jing, one of the "left-behind children", stands at the door of her home in Fushan township, Henan province. Xiang Mingchao / China Daily
"Sometimes, it feels like I've been abandoned by my parents," she said with a sigh.
The 14-year-old sees her mother and father only once a year, if that. She said they don't even call on her birthday.
Like millions of youngsters across China, Zhou is a "left-behind child", a term used to describe the children of migrant workers who remain in the countryside and are raised by elderly relatives.
In Zhou's case, she lives with her grandparents, her half-sister and her cousin in Fushan township of Henan province. Her parents, both factory workers, are several hours away in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province.
He Enfu, Zhou's 68-year-old grandmother, said they work in the city to earn more money, whereas if they worked on farmland in the mountainous village they would hardly make any money.
"There are nine people in my family, and we only had 4.5 mu (0.3 hectares) of farmland, from which we could just feed ourselves and seldom earn any money," she said.
"The mountainous region is not suitable for factories and there are not so many job opportunities here," said Qiu Zhouhe, deputy head of Fushan. "As a result, most young people go to other places to seek better jobs."
He said there are 31,000 people in the town, and more than 7,000 of them have become migrant workers.
According to the All-China Women's Federation, roughly 58 million children were left behind in rural areas by migrant-worker parents in 2010 nationwide. That works out to about one in every four children in rural regions.
About 79.7 percent of left-behind children are cared for by their grandparents, and 13 percent were left to their relatives or friends, while the remaining 7.3 percent live by themselves, the federation said.
Zhou's parents were forced to leave their daughters in the village because they could not afford the children's expenses in the urban region, where education fees, food and housing are more expensive, said He, the girls' grandmother.
"By working day and night without any weekends, her parents can earn 4,000 to 5,000 yuan ($629 to $786) a month," He said.
When they talk on the phone, Zhou said the main topic of conversation with her parents is if she is behaving and making progress in her studies.
"We seldom have any topics other than the two routine questions," the teenager said.
Zhou's parents declined to be interviewed, saying only they feel sad for failing to stay with their children.
Xiang Yongjian, 33, left his daughter in the village when she was born seven years ago.
Although he said he missed her very much, he explained that he and his wife could not take the girl with them to Foshan, Guangdong province, where they worked from 2003 to 2011.
"Both my wife and I worked around the clock without holiday in the factory, so we had no time to take care of a baby," he said. "Our incomes added up to no more than 2,500 yuan a month, not enough to hire a babysitter."
The couple missed their daughter so much that they cried when they heard her voice on the phone, he said.
"The feeling became unbearable when we saw some other parents playing with their children in the park," he added.
For nearly seven years, Xiang and his wife had to be apart from their daughter to earn more money.
"No money, no happiness," he said. "Maybe it's short-term pain to be separated from my baby, but we have no other choice. None of us want to live in poverty."
Xiang's wife gave birth to a boy last year, and they decided to return home.
The salary of Xiang and his wife reached 7,000 yuan a month before they left the factory in Foshan. However, he said he would rather give up the job in exchange for being with his children.
"I have already given my daughter a complete childhood away from her parents, and I do not want to do that to my son," he said.
With the money he and his wife earned in Foshan, Xiang managed to build a three-story villa in his hometown, buy a car valued at 70,000 yuan and set up a restaurant near a primary school in the county.
The economic reward has made him quite happy, but his 7-year-old daughter has become "too disobedient", which made him worried.
The girl used to tell him that there was no homework after class, but her teacher told him that the pupils have to do homework every day.
"To punish her for telling lies, I used to lash her hands with a small whip," he said. "I was too angry to hold my temper."
Xiang attributed his daughter's rebellion to the long separation. "Anyway, I owe my daughter a lot," he repeated several times.
Unlike the parents who miss their left-behind children very much, most of the left-behind children interviewed by China Daily said they do not miss their parents that much.
"I can't even remember what my dad and mom look like," said Zhou Jing.
Zhou said she missed her parents when she was bullied at school by naughty classmates.
"If my parents were at home to protect me, the situation would be better," she said.
Contact the writers at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org