Story written by Wilson Liang
It is a hot day in June. As the engine comes to a stop, our gaggle of professors, students, and local officials shuffles out of the sedan. After a two-hour drive from the local county, we have finally arrived at our first destination, a house in Qian Fo Dong village, at the heart of rural China.
The house has walls made of white and green ceramic tiles. Barred windows line the house’s second floor, and hook-shaped eaves curve upward from its tiled roof. It is one of many identical structures that line the main road, which cuts straight through the center of the village. In the background, a cascade of green hills stretches as far as the eye can see. The air buzzes with lively chirping and the swishing of leaves in the summer breeze. If it weren’t for the power lines overhead and a few parked motorcycles, the sight could have been timeless, reminiscent of the age of emperors and dynasties.
As we head toward the front door, a woman comes out of the house. Her wiry hair is pulled back into a thick ponytail, and her tall frame is complimented by a white dress with a mesh pattern at the chest. In her arms, a toddler watches the approaching strangers with curiosity. We introduce ourselves as researchers from the local university and, with some help from the village officials, receive her consent to conduct an infancy development test and follow up with an interview. Using borrowed chairs and a small table from the house, we set up a makeshift workspace in the front yard. As one of the graduate students prepares the materials for the test, the woman begins to open up.
Her name is Yan Jingli, and the baby she is holding is her youngest son, Kun Kun. Yan is the wife of the household, and a mother of three. Even though Kun Kun is only two and a half years old, he already bears a striking resemblance to his mother. They both share the same broad cheeks, plump earlobes, and wide-set features that seem exemplify the Chinese visage. Kun Kun is wearing a little blue tank top with an Ultraman logo, and he sits comfortably on his mother’s lap. His focused eyes dart over each of us accusingly, as if to say Who are you people and why have you come to disrupt my nap time? However, Kun Kun’s attention quickly transfers over to the table, where he sees a growing pile of toys in front of him. Among them are colored blocks of different shapes and sizes, a few simple puzzles, and a collection of picture books. What he doesn’t know is that these toys are actually part of a Bayley test, a series of activities which will determine whether his little mind is learning faster or slower than his peers.
Yan peers over the table expectantly as the first activity begins. First, our graduate student presents Kun Kun with a plastic puzzle board, indented with cutouts of various shapes. Next, she gives Kun Kun the set of corresponding pieces, consisting of a circle, rectangle, square, and triangle. His chin hugs his neck as his head lowers to analyze the pieces. Slowly, he reaches for a rectangle piece, picks it up, and promptly jams it into the triangular cutout. “Wrong! Kun Kun! Try that one!”, Yan exclaims, pointing at the correct spot. After some deliberation, Kun Kun seems to decide that this advice is worth heeding, and places the piece down on the correct spot. Despite the initial setback, Kun Kun picks up the game quickly, and completes the rest of the puzzle without error. So far, Kun Kun has demonstrated an essential ability to recognize shapes, placing him on the same level as his city counterparts.
Kun Kun’s next test involves putting pegs into holes, a task that measures how he reasons spatially and connects motor and cognitive skills. He is given identical plastic pegs, and a board with holes to stick them in. He obediently picks one up and begins fidgeting with his stubby hands. After thoroughly exploring this new object, he places the stick horizontally on the board. “Kun Kun! Hold it like this!” Yan grasps his wrists and tries to make him hold the peg with both hands. Kun Kun complies, but his tiny fingers can’t seem to stay steady. The stick bounces and tumbles to the floor, and a flash of frustration crosses his eyes. He tries again, and misses again. Eventually, both Yan and our graduate student are hunched over, egging him on with encouragement. Finally, after what seems like a lifetime, Kun Kun manages to fill each hole with sticks, barely passing the activity.
The next several activities become progressively harder, and Kun Kun fails four consecutive times. By test rules, if he fails this next activity, the test will end and his score will be determined. He is presented with a picture book filled with animals, fruits, and other everyday objects. “Okay Kun Kun, which is the bird?”, the graduate student asks. Not understanding the question, Kun Kun stares blankly in response. Despite Yan persistently trying to guide his hands, Kun Kun remains unsure, pointing at random images in the book. For every object that he correctly identifies, two more leave him stumped, with a confused look on his face. At this point, I’ve come to a bitter realization. It doesn’t take an expert to know that babies are supposed to be loud. They are supposed to scream, kick, laugh, cry: all of the things that make them so infuriating and endearing. Yet, as cute as Kun Kun is, he has not uttered a single word since testing began. Nor has he displayed any real emotion. He seems more like a recovering coma patient than a playful toddler. After overlooking a cluster of bright green grapes, Kun Kun fails the activity and the test ends.
Kun Kun’s Bayley score is 84, 16 points below the 100-point average. His score places him cleanly into the “developmentally delayed” range of babies, marking him as significantly behind in learning by established standards. It is no temporary marker either, since having a low Bayley score has been proven to lead to lower IQs, level of education, and standard of living. Noticeably disappointed, Yan picks up Kun Kun and sits him back on her lap.
Afterwards, we have a short talk with Yan about Kun Kun’s upbringing. Does she play with him often? Are there any children’s books in the household? Is he expressive on a regular basis? Most of the time, the answer is no. She tells us this nonchalantly as she swipes at her rose-gold iPhone 6S, probably checking WeChat, China’s most popular social media app. When we ask if Kun Kun has any favorite toys, Yan brings out a massive transformer figurine, adorned with detailed designs and intricate moving parts. The toy is cool enough to make any two year-old jealous, but Kun Kun completely ignores it, and it goes untouched for the rest of the interview.
It’s easy to attribute Kun Kun’s delay to his mother’s foolish spending habits. Yan can be stereotyped as the poster village mom who’d rather buy personal luxuries rather than toys for her child. But the transformer figurine is a testament to the contrary. Yan is clearly willing to spend money on fantastic toys for Kun Kun. Her protective glances are as genuine as any caring mother. Just the way she holds him is enough to convince anyone that she loves him. When we ask if she is happy with her child’s development, she sighs and stares longingly into the distance. “Every mother wants their child succeed, right? But it’s his fate. There’s a saying in our village: ‘Fate is determined at birth.” Meanwhile, Kun Kun’s six year-old sister has returned from school, and has begun building a tower with lego blocks leftover from the Bayley test. Kun Kun toddles over, eyes lit up as he picks up a block and joins his sister. In many ways, the village saying is right. How Kun Kun interacts with those blocks will be indicative of his fate throughout life. Although Yan has probably given up everything for Kun Kun, she has not given him the most important thing he needs, and the most precious thing any mother can give their child: her time and attention.