Chinese girl, 12, sells her hair for US$48 to buy phone to call her migrant worker mother

He Jingling was unhappy with seeing her mother just once a year, so she sold her most valuable asset

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 February, 2018, 11:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 February, 2018, 12:16pm

He Jingling may not have had much as a 12-year-old living with her grandparents in rural northwestern China. But she had one thing of value: her long hair.

Yearning to talk to her migrant worker mother who had moved away from their village in Shaanxi province to find work elsewhere, the girl took a bold step: she sold her hair to raise money for a smartphone she could make free video calls.

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“My hair was long enough to reach my hip,” He said in an interview with Jiangsu Television this week. “This is the biggest income I have contributed to my family.”

He, who lives halfway up a mountain, had been unhappy with the one visit per year she got from her mother each Lunar New Year. Her mother left the village to become a migrant worker after her divorce from He’s father.

Last month, after watching a friend make a video call to his mother, He sold her hair for 300 yuan (US$48).

“Mummy is far away,” He explained of the decision to sell her hair. “She doesn’t have much money to spend on phone calls, so we can’t speak too long on the phone.

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“I can’t see her face during phone calls anyway,” she said. “It’s better not to call.”

The girl said she felt envious watching her neighbour video-calling his mother “every time” she visited him.

“My friend could also take photos with his mother and save them in the phone,” He said. The only photos she had of herself and her mother together were when she was a baby, she said.

He’s grandparents eke out a meagre living by raising chickens and operating a medical herb farm on a few acres on a steep mountain slope.

Together these pursuits bring in annual household income of about 7,000 yuan.

Although President Xi Jinping has vowed to eradicate rural poverty by 2020, many people in rural China still have to leave their children in the care of grandparents to search for work elsewhere.

A Unicef report published in October found that 68 million children had been “left behind” by parents working in other cities.

Meanwhile, a 2013 study by Beijing Normal University and China Development Research Foundation found that about 40 million or 16.7 per cent of children in China were living in “relative poverty”.

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“Relative poverty”, according to the study, was defined as having an annual family income of less than 4,213 yuan per person in rural areas and 9,659 yuan in cities.

Despite the financial challenges, He has become a hard-working, forward-thinking optimist.

In the winter, when her home gets too dark for reading, writing or studying, she does her homework outside. When she is not studying, she helps her grandparents raise the chickens and take care of the farm.

He’s grandmother, Zhang Shufeng, said she worried about the child’s future even though she was in the top five in her class.

“If [He] is indeed good at studying and gets admitted into a university but I don’t have enough money to pay for the tuition, what can I do?” Zhang said.

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She said she “cried quietly” at the thought of being unable to afford a university education for He.

“I wiped away my tears when the child came home. I don’t want to give her any pressure.”

In mid-January, He and her grandmother set out before dawn on a one-hour trek through the snow to sell chickens at the nearest market.

At the market, He, who is normally shy, transformed herself into an enthusiastic huckster.

“Our chickens are really good. It’s not expensive,” Jiangsu Television showed her telling prospective buyers.

Later, He said she overcame her natural shyness by focusing on the task at hand: “I just really wanted to sell the chicken,” she said.

It was a good day, resulting in the sale of two chickens for 162 yuan.

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Zhang rewarded her granddaughter by giving her 10 yuan. He considered buying a pair of gloves with the money, but after examining a pair on sale for 5 yuan, she decided to pass.

“They are too expensive,” she said.