The first time I saw Li Zhenhua, he was locked inside his house while his grandmother was away visiting relatives. Through the crack in the door, I witnessed big eyes full of fear and expectation.
The second time I met him, I walked 40 minutes with his teacher, Xing Ruyu, to reach his home. The teacher suggested we drive along the mountains, but I ultimately opted to hike to better understand the seven-year-old’s routine shuttling between home and school. “He does it faster than you!” grinned the teacher along the way.
The boy wasn’t home when we arrived; he was herding sheep on the hillside while his grandmother cooked. “He will be back soon,” she revealed, pointing at the mountain path. Before long he emerged from behind a sheep seemingly running out of his control - maybe because the shepherd was too young.
As soon as he arrived at the house, Li wasted no time helping his grandma cook, demonstrating maturity far beyond his years. While he ate, his grandma filled a bottle with porridge - his lunch for school - along with some thin pancakes.
The little boy can’t help but weep when witnessing classmates leave the classroom hand-in-hand with their parents.
His parents work in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, and haven’t been back in three years. They haven’t even sent photos for some time. The only pictures the boy has of his parents are his father’s old diploma photo and a pre-marital photo of his mother.
At school, Li Zhenhua studies hard. He was appointed class monitor and his scores have always been at the top. His excellent performance has earned him several awards. “Why do you work so hard?” I asked. “My dad says it’s the only way I can get into school in the city,” he reveals with eyes full of longing. “Someday I’ll go there with my parents.”
Every time dogs bark in the village, the boy rushes out to see if his parents are returning. But he is never happy with the results.
Throughout China are countless boys and girls just like Li Zhenhua, growing up hungry for only the sight of their parents.