Born In The U.S., Raised In China: 'Satellite Babies' Have A Hard Time Coming Home : NPR Ed Some immigrant families from China send their U.S.-born babies to their home country to be raised by relatives. Psychologists are studying what happens when these children return home.
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Born In The U.S., Raised In China: 'Satellite Babies' Have A Hard Time Coming Home

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

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

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Many working parents in the U.S. struggle to find childcare for their young children. Typically, they turn to daycare centers or nannies. But for some Chinese immigrants, one popular option has been sending their babies back to China to be raised by relatives. Now, some parents say they're regretting that decision. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: After a long day of cleaning hotel rooms, Chun Zheng walks home through the alleys of Boston's Chinatown to a warm hug from her 5-year-old son, Jay.

CHUN ZHENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

H WANG: "Are you a bad egg?" Zheng teases her son in Mandarin. Her daughter, Joyce, stands off to the side.

How old are you, Joyce?

JOYCE: Seven - almost 8.

H WANG: She and her brother Jay were born in Boston. But for the first years of their lives, they lived with relatives in China's Fujian province. Joyce spent more than four years with her aunt who she calls Ma.

What do you call your mom?

JOYCE: Mommy.

H WANG: So you have two mommies?


H WANG: (Speaking Mandarin). I asked a Chun Zheng if she felt sending her children to China was one of her life's hardships.

ZHENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

ZHENG: "It's the worst hardship I've ever had to bear," she tells me. But at the time, Zheng and her husband were living in a small room. They shared a kitchen and a bathroom with strangers, and they worked long hours at restaurants to save enough money to eventually bring their kids back. So, she said, it was a choice they had to make. And Cindy Liu says many other Chinese immigrants have done so, too.

CINDY LIU: Anytime you eat at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, it's likely that somebody in that restaurant has a child who is in China at the moment.

H WANG: Liu, a psychologist at Harvard University, says no one knows exactly how many Chinese immigrant families send their babies to be raised in China. That's partly why she started a research project on what some psychologists call satellite babies. They usually come back to the U.S. in time to start school. Researchers say you can find similar arrangements among immigrants from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

LIU: I think a lot of times it's about survival and people's need for survival in a globalized era.

H WANG: Leslie Wang, a sociologist from the University of Massachusetts - Boston, is another researcher on the project. Among Chinese immigrants, she says, sending satellite babies is a choice made by not just working-class parents but also those in the middle class.

LESLIE WANG: What they share culturally is that in China there's often the expectation that grandparents will take primary responsibility for caring for their grandchildren to allow their own children to work.

H WANG: Wang adds that growing up far away from their biological parents may not be traumatic for all satellite babies. But some social service providers, like Yoyo Yau of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, are concerned that parents and children are often not prepared to be reunited in the U.S. Children may not be ready to leave their relatives in China. And those years apart sometimes lead to resentment.

YOYO YAU: That separation is so heavy for the parent to bear because they say, I'm the parent here. You should love me. I love you. How we cannot do it? But the child just can't.

H WANG: That's why Yau has organized parenting classes and offered counseling for mothers and fathers of satellite babies, including Chun Zheng. She remembers visiting her children once a year when they were in China, but she says her daughter sometimes wouldn't come near her. Zheng says she would often fly back to the U.S. alone with her heart broken.

ZHENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

H WANG: "I felt like I couldn't breathe," she says. These days, she's trying especially hard to make up for the time she lost with her daughter, Joyce.

Do you miss your aunt and your family in China?


H WANG: Last year, Joyce wrote an essay for school about why her mother Chun Zheng is her hero. And she says she wants to stay in the U.S. for school.

JOYCE: My auntie says when I grow up, that I can go back to China to work, and she will go wherever I go.

H WANG: Researchers say they don't think this satellite babies phenomenon is going anywhere as long as affordable child care stays out of reach for many immigrant families.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Boston.

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