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MICHELE NORRIS, host

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

All this week on the program we're hearing about rural China. Roughly two thirds of china's population is born in rural areas. But more and more of those people are moving to the cities to look for work. It's estimated that 200 million farmers have left their families and fields to make a living in China's booming cities. That's been described as the biggest internal migration in the history of the world.

NPR's Louisa Lim has this profile of one migrant laborer.

LOUISA LIM reporting:

Wu Dexiu(ph) starts up her moped to go to work, weaving feverishly through the traffic on Shanghai's busy streets. She and her husband left their tiny village nine years ago to make money in the city leaving their two daughters behind with the grandparents.

40-year-old Mrs. Wu cleans houses for a living. Despite spending almost a decade in the city, her open face and unguarded smile still reveal her farming background.

Mrs. WU: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: I like this job, she says. My clients trust me and its much easier than farming. Her income in the city is more the $6,000 a year, five times more than she'd earn in the countryside. Mrs. Wu's cleaned several homes already today. It's seven o'clock at night and she still has one more to do, but she isn't afraid of hard work.

Mrs. WU: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: I don't mind working a bit harder to earn money, she says. I want my children to have whatever city children have. I'll buy them whatever they ask for. I haven't yet bought them MP3 players, mobile phones or a computer, but I want to.

A few days later, the May holiday's approaching and it's time for a trip home. It's a five hour drive to her village in Onwei province in Central China. And the closer we get, the smaller and bumpier the roads become. It's a journey Mrs. Wu makes three times a year. Even so, she's taken aback by the pace of change.

Mrs. WU: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: We've been away for so long, we don't recognize anything anymore, she says as we drive through the local town. When we reach Tan Zhenkun Village we head straight to the family home. It's a two story white tiled house. Building it put the family in debt for years, one reason for the move to the city. Inside the kitchen, a huge meal is being prepared. This homecoming is a special moment.

Mrs. WU: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Where are your false teeth? Mrs. Wu asks her mother-in-law, Wang Jinan(ph). I bought them for her, she tells me. But she doesn't like wearing them because they're not very comfortable. 72-year-old Mrs. Wang and her husband have been looking after their grandchildren for the past nine years. It's a common arrangement here. Almost half the village has gone to the cities to find work.

We miss them, but if they don't go away, there's no money, they say. The family wouldn't have enough to live on or for the children's education.

Excited to be back, Mrs. Wu takes us to see her rice patties. They're farmed by her father-in-law, who still does the backbreaking rice planting every year. With his children working in the cities, he has little choice but to carry on.

He goes out to pull up vegetables for lunch. As we pick our way through the fields, Mrs. Wu looks like the urban sophisticate. Here, her all black outfit and high heels are meant to show just how far she's come from her countryside roots. Her daughters, Tang Deyun(ph) and Shanshan(ph), age 14 and 19 are proud of her. But they remember how difficult it was when she first left home.

Ms. DEYUN WU (Chinese citizen): (Speaking foreign language)

Ms. SHANSHAN WU (Chinese citizen): (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: We cried, we were very sad, they say. We didn't want her to go. She didn't try to explain it. She just left.

Hard at work in the kitchen is Mrs. Wu's sister-in-law, Tang She Fang(ph). She's conjuring up a feast with dishes of home cured pork, bamboo shoots collected from the hillside, homegrown cabbage, eggs from the family's hens and baby crawfish caught in the paddy fields. At 48 years old, she's never left the village. She's envious of those who do go to the cities. When I asked her why she stayed behind, a tear wells up in the corner of her eye.

Ms. TANG SHE FANG (Chinese citizen): (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: I had to look after three younger sisters and one younger brother, she says. From the age of 12 I stayed at home to cook and care for them.

The family finally sits down to eat, the mother-in-law putting in her false teeth. Apart from the father-in-law, everyone at the table is female. The absent men are either working the fields or off in the cities, building the new China. Today's happiness marks months of hard toil and separation. The countryside is becoming a place for the very old or the very young. And no one at this table wants their children to grow up to be farmers.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Tan Zhenkun Village in Onwei Province, China.

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