BEIJING, Nov. 9 (Xinhua) — Before Liu Ruiping was interviewed for the first time to share her story as a caregiver, the former peasant from north China's Shanxi province carefully penned down a speech on two pieces of paper for fear of missing any details.
However, when she started speaking in front of post-graduate students from a Beijing university, there was no sign of coyness typical of a rural Chinese woman. She spoke with eloquence and in an accent-free Mandarin.
A 48-year-old mother with three children, Liu has worked in Beijing as a babysitter for three years, singlehandedly lifting her family out of poverty like many of her fellow "sisters" in Lyuliangshan, a mountainous area known for its grinding poverty.
Once destitute farmers, many local women now spoke proudly of their new jobs in big cities and salaries several times higher than their peasant husbands. The changes took place within only five years after the city of Lyuliang launched an ambitious project to send out legions of care workers.
Liu remembered vividly how she was once a "housewife buzzing around the kitchen, children and her husband," a moniker of self-mockery among local women, only to grind out a meager subsistence. "Life back then was so poor and suffocating," she said. "We had to rely on government subsidies to scrape by."
"Now I earn twice as much as my husband, who stayed in the village to tend to the lands," she said proudly.
In 2014, there were almost 590,000 people living in poverty in Lyuliang, where 10 out of 14 counties were labeled as poverty-ridden. After China in 2015 set the goal of eradicating absolute poverty by 2020, the city government initiated a project to train locals into babysitters, nannies and caregivers under the brand "Lyuliangshan caregivers," hoping their higher urban salaries could aid the local anti-poverty campaign.
So far, the project has trained 58,299 people and helped secure a job for 31,516 of them, the majority being middle-aged housewives with little education.
Out of mountain
Liang Xiangnan, director of the city's center for skilled personnel exchange, said initially it was not easy to persuade villagers to work in other cities, especially as caregivers. "Locals said it was like a servant's job, very demeaning."
When Liu's Wangjialing village held a conference to advertise a free-of-charge program training caregivers in 2016, Liu, determined to secure a bright future for her children, became the only villager to apply.
"My family opposed the decision. They said working in a big city was full of dangers, and I could be duped into a pyramid scheme or something," Liu said. "But I said it was a government-backed program, and I trusted the government."
After a month of training, Liu was hired by a housekeeping company in Beijing. However, for a woman who had lived in a small village for decades, adapting to life in a metropolis was not easy.
"When I took the subway for the first time, I boarded a train running in the opposite direction. I cried helplessly because of my poor Mandarin. I didn't even know how to ask for help."
The resolution to earn tuition fees for her children kept the mother together. "I kept telling myself: My children are not destined to be poor people like us, and I must try my best to send them to universities out of the mountain."
Liu cried in glee when receiving her first monthly paycheck of 4,000 yuan (about 605 U.S. dollars), which has been raised to 7,000 yuan over the years. Having saved 150,000 yuan needed for her children's education, she has reset her goal to 300,000 yuan. "I wish to save the down payment to buy a house for my younger son."
Officials now portray women like Liu as heroes in the local poverty reduction drive. Large photos are displayed inside a government-run service center for caregivers, showing them being laureated as national model workers.
This helps dispel some of the stigma attached to the profession. "In the past, I dared not tell my neighbors I was a nanny. Now I can proudly declare it," said Yang Junping, a 47-year-old single mother and professional babysitter.
Apart from heightened government publicity, many local women were encouraged into this trade by other "sisters" - neighbors, friends and relatives who had been enriched by their caregiving jobs, according to Liang.
The director said the working experience in big cities not only financially empowered local women, but also "broadened their horizons and gave them greater ambitions."
Li Yanfeng, president of the Lyuliang Health School, which holds training courses on caregiving, testified to the psychological changes.
"Before going to cities, our trainees were often diffident and lacking common courtesy. They were reluctant to face media cameras fearing their neighbors gossiping," he said. "Now they are much more confident and motivated."
"About 80 percent of the trainees are women, and women are usually the educators in their families, so their improvement will be passed down to their children. This will be a big boost to our poverty reduction cause," he said.
Now about 400 locals, including some men, are attending courses at the school, which even has a Japanese class to train caregivers before sending them to Japan. Local officials hope their experience there will not only improve their incomes but also help bring back the country's advanced practices in caregiving.
Yang the single mother now dreams about working in Beijing after years of babysitting in Lyuliang through further training. "The best thing about this project is that now when a woman wishes to start a career, there are ready opportunities."