Leaving home at 18: Vignettes of student migration

1957. 1987. 2017.

An artistic rendition of Chenghai High School in watercolour Artwork by Ludmilla Nunell

There are three women across three generations in my family — my grandaunt, my mother, and I — who all left home for university at the age of 18, each at vastly different times in China. We tell different stories.

1957 Xiaolin

Xiaolin is my grandaunt’s pet name. She is the sister of my mother’s father. I call her Laogu in Chinese. Until her, no one in my family had been to university.

Back then, she was the cute one in the family. She was not tall, and she had big eyes and beautiful long black hair. Her journey began in Chenghai, a small town in southern China which sits by the sea and a place I still consider my hometown. She was leaving for a city called Guangzhou after 18 years in Chenghai. The two places were 500 kilometres from each other. But without a plane or train, the trip took more than 10 hours.

1957 is a year that makes little sense to me. It is a world so distant from my own that I struggle to form a picture of what it looked like and how the move must have felt.

My grandaunt says it was an era when men and women did not have equal rights. Things had changed by the time my mother and I were born. When she was younger, she saw many girls married off at young ages. Many of them didn’t live happy lives. Many suffered domestic abuse.

Those girls tried to run away from their husbands and return to their parents’ home. But it was forbidden. Their family would ask them to keep living with their husbands. There was no solution. The only choice they had was to accept it, and tolerate it.

“Education was my only way out,” my grandaunt told me.

But that was not easy.

She started primary school when she was 10. She went through junior high and managed to get into the best high school in my hometown. She doesn’t tell me exactly how she did it, but “work hard” is a common refrain in her wisdom and life advice.

“I wasn’t a smart kid, but I did try to work hard,” she says. “And because there were only a few girls in my high school, we all thought we needed to work extra harder to show each other that there was actually a way out.”

She graduated from high school in 1957. In a stroke of luck, that was five years after China first established the college entrance exam. The exam gave rural students, like my grandaunt, an opportunity to gain higher education.

So my grandaunt took the exam. It gave her the chance to leave Chenghai for the provincial capital of Guangzhou to study at university.

On the day she left home, it was my grandpa, her older brother, who sent her off.

“Remember, don’t put your head out of the window,” said my grandpa.

My grandaunt says these are the only words from my grandpa that she can remember from the farewell that day. It was a quiet departure, absent of the hugs that one associates with relatives leaving here in the West. But in one way, my grandpa’s words meant everything. In my own memory, my grandpa had the characteristics that occupied all male family members of his generation: he was responsible, supportive and organized; a serious man who cared about the family. The family was his life’s cause. He did everything for its health and longevity.

But he would never admit to that. Words like “I love you” and “I’m gonna miss you” were not in the instinctive vernacular of traditional Chinese families.

This truth applies to me as well. Back at home, I have never had the courage to say “I love you” in Chinese to my family. That is the Chinese side of me.

1987 Yingying

Yingying is my mother’s pet name. 30 years after my grandaunt, she made the same trip from Chenghai to Guangzhou, also at the age of 18.

Her dormitory room at Sun Yat-sen University was in an old building. It was hot. She arrived in the middle of a record heatwave. There was no fan in the room.

“At that time, I thought Guangzhou was the furthest place I could ever go,” my mother told me. She’s telling me this over the phone. The last time I saw her was several months ago. She’s aged. Time has crafted some wrinkles on her face. But there are parts of her which have remained unchanged too. She still has short hair, a round face and a penchant for simple clothing. She is the same height as me.

On the precipice of internal migration, my mother uprooted a comfortable and stable life for a new and uncertain one. She never imagined that Guangzhou would later become a place where she studied, worked and lived. Guangzhou is the city where I grew up.

My mother got her chance to go to university through the college entrance exam as well. In those 30 years between my grandaunt and mother going to university, China underwent the Cultural Revolution. Between 1967 and 1977, the college entrance exam was cancelled. Aspiring students of this period were left behind, a lost generation.

My mother’s time feels clearer to me than my grandaunt’s, in part, because there is more data available for that period. In 1987, based on statistics compiled by Sina Education, there were 2.28 million students taking the same college entrance exam across the country as my mother. But only 0.62 million, 27 per cent of them passed the exam and had a chance to go to a university.

My mother was lucky: she was born in a convenient time, she passed the exam, she entered her dream school and ended up studying her dream major. More importantly, she had a family who was able to support her four-year degree, a financial burden that most families couldn’t bear in those years.

As she left home, it was also my grandpa who saw my mother off on a bus. The station was not far away from home. It took them only 15 minutes to get to the station by bike.

“Your grandpa and grandma wanted me to bring everything,” my mother says. My mother was planning to study an English major. My grandparents permitted her to take the only radio at home.

My mother ended up carrying two huge suitcases with her, “but there were no wheels on my bags,” shesaid to me. Then she laughed and feigned jealousy over the more expensive suitcases I use when I travel now.

Luck did not make leaving home easier. “It basically means you left home forever,” she says.

China has a system in which people register their residency as a family, called hukou. When my mother moved, her residency status was altered from Chenghai to Guangzhou. China’s political institutions continue to guarantee that once a person leaves home, they do so not just geographically or emotionally but also “officially,” bringing with it the emotional baggage inherent to all migration: a sense of undefeatable displacement and loss of belonging.

Even though my mother wrote letters to her family every week, returned home once a year and received money from the family, the fact that she has not been an official family member on the residency paper continues to make her sad now, more than 30 years later. The change of residency made her lose her spot in the family and with it, her birthright and a part of her identity.

It takes me a while to make sense of this contradiction in her mind.  She has been living in Guangzhou for more than 30 years. She no longer feels like she belongs in Chenghai. In effect, the symbolism of Chenghai in her life no longer provides any practical comfort anymore. When we return to Chenghai for Spring Festival every year, she looks uncomfortable when we are forced to sit and maintain conversation at a dinner table with extended family members. My mother, father and I have become accustomed to a small  family and returning to Chenghai, where an extended family resides, can be jarring for us all.

But even if my mother has now lived in Guangzhou far longer than Chenghai, she still can’t move on from the loss of home. Her nostalgia for Chenghai never disappeared, neither in 1987 nor now. I suspect those feelings will be with her forever. On the day she left home, just before she boarded the bus, my grandpa reminded her: “Remember, don’t put your head out of the window,”

Across 30 years, my grandpa who sent my grandaunt and mother off with the exact same words.

It was not until recently, when my mother went to visit my grandaunt, that they discovered this fact.  It was more than a coincidence. Both could only remember this single sentence. Everything else my grandpa had said on the day had been blurred by the incessant march of time.

My grandpa proved to be the backbone of two generations of my family. He sent the girls in the family out for university, but lived his whole life in Chenghai, clinging onto the preservation of a place called home, and waiting for them to come back.



My turn came two years ago.

I am certainly the luckiest of us three. That much is apparent from the financial support my parents provide me and the opportunity of higher education given to me.

I was 18 when I left Guangzhou to come to Sydney for university. Like many in my shoes, this was my first time being that far away from home, on my own, and for such a long time.

My parents came to the airport with me and we went through the check-in process together. At the entry to the departure gate, we were silent. I didn’t cry. That moment felt stunningly normal, as if I would return a week later, unchanged.

This is my family. We never say goodbye in a cheesy way.

But it was surprising that my mother asked for a hug. That was the first time we had hugged in around  a decade. I gave her a big hug, even though it was probably awkward.

“If anything happens, just a phone call and a flight ticket and I will be there with you,”

That was the last thing my mother told me before I went on my flight. The words offered comfort, but I didn’t  give them a second thought, until later, when the full extent of the 7500 kilometres between us became obvious. I said goodbye and walked through the departure gate.

I didn’t look back. I was not brave enough to see how I would feel if I did. Looking back was an admission that I would miss them more. I didn’t give in to it. And so, the responsibility and burden of missing someone was left on my parents as they watched me walk away. Three times I’ve returned to Sydney after university breaks. Three times  I’ve I kept that habit and never looked back.

“I feel sad in my heart,” my mother tells me when I ask her how the cycle of separations and reunions make her feel. “Parents will naturally think that it is the best and safest for their child to stay at home, next to them.”

Meanwhile, she convinced herself that in fact, it was a good thing for me to have a chance to study abroad. “You miss your child when she leaves home, but if she can’t leave home, that would also be a problem, right?” she asks, seeking assurance. My mother was the one who was leaving home those 30 years ago, but when 2017 came, it was her turn to send her daughter off.

“What were my parents thinking about back then, when I left home?” my mother asks me. She knows I don’t have the answer.

After I walk through the departure gate, my mother and father have cultivated their own habits. They find a place in the airport to sit down and grab some food, and then they begin to wait. They wait until they see my flight take off. They’ve done this every time I’ve returned to Sydney  in the past three years. They have a three out of three success rate.

“Every time you leave and we go back home, it feels a little different. We see different things at home every time after sending you off,” my mother starts to murmur. It sounds like crying.

She uses the word “different” to substitute “sad” to convince me, and herself, that she is totally fine with me not being at home. But we both know we are not as fine as we pretend to be.

“I don’t know whether you still remember or not. I once told you ‘if anything happens, just a phone call and a flight ticket and I will be there with you’,” says my mother. I tell her I remember.

“I also said those words to your grandparents, but I don’t think I will say it to anyone else in the future,” she says. “One is the person who I gave birth to, one is the person who gave birth to me, these are the only people I will give those words to.”

Much like how my grandpa only said “remember, don’t put your head out of the window” to his sister and daughter, my mother gave her words to her daughter and her parents.

I have come to realise that these words were not merely for my comfort. They were a promise which carried weight. My grandaunt is over 80 years old now. She has lived in Chicago for nearly a decade now. Learning English and fitting into a new country has not been easy, but she seems to enjoy it. It was snowing in Chicago a month ago and all the trees were coated in snow. On her balcony, she discovered two birds had built a nest. Soon afterwards, there were three blue eggs. Every day, she makes a habit out of tidying the nest.

My mother has lived in Guangzhou for more than 30 years. It is the place where she studied, found a job, got married and had me. I have fond memories of her waking at 6am and making breakfast. She’s retired now. The habit of getting up early lingers.

Very soon, it will be the summer break again and I will be returning home. My mother jokes with me that every time my father and her go to the airport to pick me up, even though my father pretends to be calm, he stays on his feet, and wanders around the arrivals gates, waiting to spot me. He can’t sit still and wait.

I laugh and play along. But in fact, I can’t wait either.