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From China to NYC—and Back Again


Fuhua Zhai, PhD, is reticent to discuss his personal journey from rural China to Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service. But he said the journey was integral to his interests and research in early childhood education, early interventions, child welfare, and child rearing.

“I didn’t have that many opportunities myself, so I know firsthand that if we provide education and opportunities for disadvantaged kids, it will make a difference in their lives,” he said.

Whether the cohort is underserved communities of New York City or rural-to-urban migrant families in China, Zhai provides quantitative analysis of survey data in the hopes of affecting policy.

Most of his research has focused on disadvantaged children in the United States. However, the native of China has begun to delve into childcare and education issues in his home country with a focus on migrant workers in Beijing.

He has been working with researchers from five universities in Beijing to collect data on family resources, migration experiences, and parents’ views on traditional values, child rearing, and education practices. He is also gathering data on children’s school experiences and developmental outcomes.

Zhai described a country in the midst of extraordinary transformation, but still rooted in some ancient traditions, such as Confucianism, which fosters a preference for sons in a family. He said that traditionally boys, especially eldest sons, have been given more opportunities to succeed. China’s former one-child policy has further influenced the preference.

The one-child policy was implemented differently across the urban-rural divide, with cities strictly enforcing the policy and many rural areas allowed more than one child, especially if the first one was a girl.

Even though the recent phase-out of the one-child policy will free couples from the pressure to have sons, Zhai’s research shows that boys will still be favored compared to their female siblings when it comes to education and opportunities.

Part of the reason, he said, is because China doesn’t have an established pension system; instead the country still largely relies on traditional values where children, especially the eldest son and his spouse, take care of their parents in old age.

“It’s very complicated to shift from the traditional values to a new system,” said Zhai. “That’s why I want to see through data if girls are discriminated of investment in their education and if they are at a disadvantage.”

Zhai’s work also examines the effects of the country’s urban vs. rural services. In the planned economy, urban residents were provided with better services than rural residents, including child education, he said. Even today, Chinese citizens must register with the government as an urban or rural household status.

China’s “Rural” Status

Even as millions of rural residents move to the cities for better opportunities, their “rural” household registration status stands, thereby preventing their children from participating in the city’s formal school system.

“The parents can’t receive several social benefits and their kids can’t go to the public schools,” said Zhai. “It’s a huge problem.”

He said that many of the “rural” migrant communities that live in the cities have started informal schools, but most teachers don’t have proper training. And the problem may intensify, as many expect there to be a baby boom over the next decades now that the one-child policy has lifted.

Zhai said that there are a lot of efforts in China being undertaken to reform the system, and he hopes that his studies will provide solid evidence from data analysis supporting more change.

“The good part of being an outsider is that I can see the system from afar and analyze objectively,” said Zhai.

“But the truth is I know this from both sides, inside and out.”


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