Most residents in Zibo, a city in eastern China’s Shandong province, were walking fast, trying to find refuge from the cold winter that is part of life in early February.
But sitting by the sidewalk was a 10-year-old girl still wearing her school uniform, making sure she completed her homework on time. A bundle of sweet potatoes lay next to her in front of a sign indicating they were for sale.
The girl, nicknamed “Little Mei”, was trying to scrape together some extra money with her grandmother for her 2-year-old sister Qiqi, who was diagnosed with leukaemia and has been undergoing chemotherapy since May last year.
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On some nights, Little Mei was joined by her other sister, “Little Tong”, 5, followed her sister’s lead and thanked the people who had bought their sweet potatoes.
“My mum and dad are in Jinan taking care of my little sister, and I come here to sell sweet potatoes to get some money,” she explained in a Sohu news video. Jinan is the capital of Shandong and is about 110km away from Zibo.
Li Ling, Little Mei’s mother, told the South China Morning Post that her husband Wei Shubin had quit his job and joined her in Jinan to care for their youngest daughter with cancer.
When Wei quit his job, the family lost its sole source of income and have since gone into heavy debt. The family has raised over 52,000 yuan (US$8,250) through crowdfunding, but it is insufficient to cover the total treatment costs.
To help relieve the weight on her parents’ shoulders, Little Mei began selling sweet potatoes after school or during days off.
“It’s 12 yuan (US$1.9) per bag, and on good days, I sell more than 10 bags,” Little Mei said.
When Little Mei sold her personal record number of sweet potatoes, she called her mother using her grandmother’s antiquated phone.
“We made more than 120 yuan (US$19) today!” she exclaimed joyfully to Li.
Li cheered for her daughter, but, in reality, her heart was full of mixed emotions.
The mother was heartbroken to see her daughter selling sweet potatoes in the freezing winter, but she was also glad that her girl seemed to be growing up.
Li said she had no idea that her girls were doing this until she received a call from a stranger asking for a large order of sweet potatoes.
“We called them every two or three days, but Little Mei did not tell me anything, neither did their grandmother,” Li said.
Li and Wei have not returned home since May 2021 and Little Mei often asks her parents when they will come home.
“When your sister gets better, mum will go back to see you,” Li tells them. “Eat well and dress warmly when it’s cold.”
Li said she feels guilty whenever this question pops up because she has no idea when they will return.
According to Li, Qiqi is still in critical condition and has heart damage as a side effect of the chemotherapy.
“She is still so little; she has not seen the world properly,” Li said. “No matter what obstacles we face, we will do everything we can to help our child heal as quickly as possible.”
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