You are given a name, after you are born. It’s better than being called Third Sister. You have a name, but no number, no 身份怎 shenfenzhen, Household Registration, an Identity Card.
You have a name and you grow up happy, playing with your older sister, even without a number, without a registration card. You don’t know about those things, you are three, and your sister goes to school. She is five.
Once you are five, you want to go to school too, but you can’t. You want to play with other children in your village, but they don’t want to play with you, their parents shoo them away from you, as if you have the plague.
Your parents don’t take you out, like they do with Older Sister. When visitors come you are hidden, you mustn’t speak. No-one must know. You don’t exist, outside your immediate family.
When your sister is eight, she starts to teach you how to read. You make elegant strokes with a broken pencil, forming characters confined inside a box with diagonal and vertical lines. The lines help you know where to place the strokes to form the characters. You’d like to discover the mystery of books, to decode the meaning behind so many words, but your parents are poor, you don’t have many books. There’s not even newspapers, just the notices stuck on boards outside.
You’ve heard of them, and would like to see them, to see if you are able to correlate the words your sister has taught you with the writing on the wall, but you can’t go outside. You can’t be seen. You must be invisible, because the people you love could get into serious trouble if others found out that you actually exist.
You grow up and make yourself useful cooking and cleaning. You don’t go out much, so you don’t get to run or ride a bike.
Your sister has stopped teaching you, because she has too much homework herself. You move to Beijing, where your parents petition the government, to recognize you as legitimate, a second child, a second daughter. You know this is a good thing, because since the Ming dynasty people have gone to Beijing to petition the government. This is the way of the world. When the people can’t get help from the local law-makers, they go to the capital and petition the emperor.
Tiananmen has other people, fresh from the countryside, holding their petitions and hoping someone will see. Sometimes they do, and their case is heard. Sometimes the local lawmakers hear about you, and come to take you home. Beat you or jail you. Sometimes, you just give up. After you’ve petitioned the Emperor, there’s no-one left to turn to.
Your sister leaves school to get a job to support you and your parents, because they had an accident one day back at the farm, and are now disabled. The local lawmakers say if you pay 5,000 Yuan they will legitimize you, but your parents don’t believe them, and anyhow, they make 100 Yuan a month.
You turn 16. Eventually, a kind restaurant proprietor is prepared to give you a job, despite the fact you do not have a shenfenzhen. You feel useful, contributing to society by serving customers and washing dishes, and bringing your paltry pay home to your parents.
But if you get sick, you can’t get medical care. You have no Identity Card to show the doctors.
You are like a refugee inside your own country.
There’s thousands, millions, just like you. If you all gathered together, there’d be enough of you to equal the population of a place called the Grape Teeth Country, 葡萄牙 putaoya, Portugal.
But you won’t gather together, because you are invisible, scared, hidden and uneducated. You don’t know about the others like yourself, because you don’t know much about how society works.
But you know your government is trying to look after its people. With extreme poverty all over the country, and too many people that the fertile earth birthed, the government rules that only one child is to be born for each family. The policy works. The population becomes wealthier. Many people have televisions and washing machines. By the time you are 16, there’s so many cars you can’t see the bicycles any more, and some people are so rich they can afford mansions in five countries. People from another country, India, without the one-child policy, remained in desperate poverty.
You know the policy was good for your country. But you don’t really care. You know too that some local lawmakers implemented the law brutally. You know your father went to jail briefly, for always petitioning to get you an Identity Card.
But you still have none. You exist, but you have no identity, no schooling, no medical care, and you can’t get married. You are invisible, unidentifiable and unidentified.
Because you are stateless, because most people had one child, the majority of people now have food on their plates and shoes on their feet.
The government relaxes the rules – its allowable to have two children, now.
But you still are in limbo, an outcast with a name but no number, invisible, unidentifiable, unidentified,
Names for countries and people from other countries are given Chinese characters which sound like the word for that country in English or in that country’s language. Sometimes they are “positive” sounding – Portugal just got lucky.
There are many children and young adults who because they were a second child, and are not registered, are officially stateless. Petitioning the ’emperor’ has been a tradition since ancient times. Ordinary poor folk see it as their last resort. Sometimes it works Often it doesnt.