A recent survey shows that average Chinese children sleep about an hour less than their American counterparts. Researchers attribute this to the heavier academic burden placed on Chinese children.
But Xiaodan, a 12-year-old girl in Chengdu, sleeps a lot less, even during the summer vacation. It is not because she has a lot more school work to do or because she is a slow pupil. She has to get up early to join her aunt and help her clean a section of the street by the Jinjiang River.
In fact, Xiaodan started in August, when her aunt hurt herself in a fall, and was hospitalized. Sometimes Xiaodan has to get up as early as 3:00 am and work in the rain.
Ever since pictures of the girl cleaning the streets of Chengdu appeared on the Internet, she has drawn a lot of media attention. All the major Chinese language Internet portals as well as several newspapers and a local TV station have carried Xiaodan's story.
While a lot of netizens have praised her as "the most beautiful city cleaner of Chengdu", others have mulled over the resilience and tenacity of the 12-year-old.
They marvel at the fact that Xiaodan could be such a hardworking and understanding person. Her story testifies to the Chinese saying that "children of the poor grow mature early".
Indeed, I have heard some college teachers complain that some students have been so spoiled at home that they do not even know how to use a broom or a mop. Some of their mothers actually travel several hundreds kilometers by train to university campuses regularly to help wash the clothes of their children.
The story of Xiaodan also exposes the disparity between the urban and rural areas. Xiaodan is a girl from a rural family, whose mother has mental problems and who has been raised by her grandmother. She started to help collect grass to feed pigs when she was 5 years old.
However, at least to her aunt, Xiaodan is not really unique. "Our children cannot compare to the boys and girls of Chengdu," she says. "She must labor more in order to know life is not easy and to study hard."
But the story of Xiaodan underscores more than teaching children how to grow up.
Even though her aunt has recovered, Xiaodan still works in the streets on most weekends. That way, she says, she can help relieve part of her aunt's work so that she "would not fall down again". Meanwhile, she also helps her aunt to earn her full salary. Otherwise, "her salary would be cut," she says.
Without doubt, Xiaodan becoming a temporary street cleaner reveals that street cleaners work without sufficient social and medical safety nets, which has affected their life and the life and studies of their children.
While we praise and admire Xiaodan and children like her, we must recognize the problems that have forced a 12-year-old to take the place of her aunt as a street cleaner. We must also push the government and other related institutions to work out measures to help relieve the burden on the young shoulders of children like Xiaodan.
It is laborers like Xiaodan's aunt who make the city clean and urban life convenient.
The city beauticians are entitled to the necessary safety nets which provide them and their children a better living. Xiaodan, and children like her, would be able to get proper hours of sleep.
(China Daily November 22, 2007)