Friday, August 29, 2014

If you're reading this blog...

This blog has always created a dilemma for me.  I keep it anonymous.  I don't share it with colleagues, friends or family because I do not want to reveal the identity of the women I write about.  Why? There is a doubt within, a fear if you like, that if I do, somehow - inadvertently - trouble might ensue.  I love these women and their families and would never want anyone to come into harm's way.  My husband tells me I should not worry...but I do. 

But...I'm also craving feedback on my writing.  So, if you stumble across it, please consider sparing a minute to leave a comment or two.  I'd appreciate that so much.  Blink Blink

Thursday, August 21, 2014

An Astonishing Choice


I'm on my way.
Determined, at last,
To leave.

But first -
A final glance

At chickens
Pecking at melon seeds
Strewn across the yard

As unaware as you, my son,
Taking your usual repose,
your snoring soothes.

I like its steadiness.

But I must go.

I'm on my way.
Determined, at last,
To leave.

I'm sound of mind
And this pretense must end -

She wishes me gone -
the pest - you've heard her say
So finally, at jiu shi sui*,

I'm resolute:

I will no longer stay.

A few swift swallows
Is all that it will take.

* = 90 years old

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Update on Mei Mei (Youngest Sister-in-Law)

I love Mei Mei.  She's the sister-in-law who best knows me, with whom I never fail to feel loved.  She's a beautiful soul - gentle and wise - ever willing to patiently select words I can understand, given my limited Chinese vocabulary.  Ever sweet, ever thoughtful, ever kind.

Mei Mei's adopted daughter has turned out to be incredibly spunky, quick minded and independent.  I know Mei Mei sees her daughter's potential, realises she's especially bright.  It's always beautiful to see them together, to hear the articulate, animated little girl engaged in conversation with her Mama, surprisingly in Mandarin rather than the dialect since this is what's valued today.  When we visit, Mei Mei sometimes rides her moped to our new house in the ancestral village.  Her husband's village is about 15 minutes ride, and quite often, her daughter will be balancing confidently with her hands on the handlebars, perched on the seat in front of Mei Mei.  I'd be terrified, but for them it is absolutely normal to transport a little one like this.  Often, I've seen families of four or five all riding along a road on one small moped.

Right now, both of Mei Mei's teenage sons have, to her disappointment, stopped attending school.  They stay home much of the time - sleeping irregular hours and watching copious amounts of television, but they both also like to venture out to Internet cafes to play games.  The eldest boy might be found hanging out with other idle friends, but the younger son, an introverted fourteen-year-old, seems happiest in his own company. They are both too young to legally work in factories though the sixteen-year-old has dreams of following a friend to Shanghai as an unskilled migrant worker.  Mei Mei at this point refuses to let him go, knowing he is inexperienced and worrying that he could easily find himself in difficulties.  For now, it's mei ban fa, but surely the boys will soon enough need to find ways to support themselves.

Mei Mei is, naturally, concerned about finances.  For the past few years, she has toyed with the idea of working in a local plastics factory but as her daughter's been so young, it has not been a viable option.  However, now that her little girl is in kindergarten, she thinks about it more and more. It would involve a twelve-hour shift six days a week, something Mei Mei tells me she would not be afraid of at all.  It would certainly help as her husband continues to struggle to make a living selling pork each morning in the marketplace.  They rely heavily upon their own fields and chickens for food. But it is not wise, and Mei Mei deep within knows it.  There's no safety control and she's heard that the chemicals could make her really sick. That they have already harmed other workers' health forever.

Worried about Mei Mei being tempted, a couple of years ago we bought a village house from Mei Mei. It was the house she and her husband had begun to build and wanted to complete when she asked to come to work for us in 2007.  It's useless to us, really, but we knew that finances were overstretched and Mei Mei, unwilling to accept a gift, insisted that we take the house which still stood as an empty concrete block almost ten years after its initial construction. She had never managed to decorate it, living instead no longer on the main street of the town, but in a third home they had erected adjacent to her parents-in-law, another three-storey house of which she has managed to decorate the ground floor only. She used the money we gave to pay off some long-term debts and the rest I suppose went towards other daily expenses.  We kept the transaction secret so that no jealousy would develop amongst other siblings (though deep inside, I know the favouritism's there).  Not even Mama knows.

A few months ago, knowing that money continued to be tight, we started sending a small amount to Mei Mei each month.  In return, she goes over to our newly-built place in laojia once in a while, checks there are no problems, gives the place a clean.  We're fangxin le this way,  knowing that she doesn't need to put herself in harm's way by working in a factory and knowing she can still have time to spend with her daughter after school.  It's no solution to their financial challenges, but it's what we can do.  What we want to do, for I'll eternally feel grateful that when I had no option but to work, she moved over a thousand kilometers to look after my children for me.

I sometimes wonder what the future has in store for Mei Mei.  I suspect her eldest son will find some way to learn a meager living, will find a girlfriend for himself and will, like so many others around him, marry young and start a family of his own.  I expect the younger son will become a quiet loner, unable to connect to others and therefore reliant upon his aging parents.  As for their little girl, I believe she has incredible potential.  I imagine that she will forge her way through childhood, make it against the odds to university, leave the countryside behind, and then, in a Chinese daughter's filial way, ensure that Mei Mei is never left wanting.  And Mei Mei will be ever thankful that she did not hesitate, in spite of her economic difficulties, to open her arms and her heart to another person's daughter on that chilly day in November 2009.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Update on San Jie Jie (Third Sister-in-Law)

Though she still lives in the same street, hings have changed a lot in the past four years for San Jie Jie.  For one, her home has changed.  Like so many others, the urge to build a bigger, more modern home has resulted in a large, three-floor extension behind the simple but adequately-sized two storey home.  As a result, the family now has plenty of room, more than it really needs, including a far more modern kitchen and bathrooms with hot running water.

How have they been able to afford this additional space?  Since losing his job as a migrant worker, San Jie Jie's husband fell into something of a depression.  Neither of them wanted him to go away again, and so San Jie Jie's wealthy younger brother, feeling for them, offered his brother-in-law a job as his construction company's purchasing manager.  This came as a huge relief and provided them with a regular, adequate income as well as a chance to live together again in the hometown with their children.

Quickly, though, each of their children has married.  Not long after their eldest daughter completed her nursing degree, she found a boyfriend and fell in love.  A few months later, she found out she was pregnant and a wedding was quickly arranged.  She never did end up working as a nurse.  Two years later, it was the turn of San Jie Jie's son to get married; his girlfriend, too, found herself expecting and so another wedding took place.  This year, their youngest daughter, now twenty-two, got married on Labour Day.  I saw her a couple of weeks before the wedding and joked that she must be pregnant. Both San Jie Jie and her quiet daughter smiled.  'Mei you,' came the reply, but a couple of weeks after the wedding, I heard the news:  she, too, is expecting.  Her son's wife, is also once again also pregnant. By Spring Festival the baby will have arrived.

San Jie Jie is now kept busy and happy with grandchildren.  I don't think she expected that within three years, she would have five grandchildren, all of whom live within a stone's throw of her home.  In fact, her son and his family live on a floor of the new extension and rely heavily upon San Jie Jie and her husband for childcare and support.  Her daughters are also nearby.

I can't help wondering how many more grandchildren will come along in the next few years.  Sons are definitely desired.  Their eldest daughter's first child was a girl and so she tried again.  If San Jie Jie's younger daughter gives birth to a daughter, no doubt she will also try again until she finally also has a son.  It's funny, I always think, how even the women have such longing for sons, how they can somehow, even in this day and age, think that they need to have boys.  It is evident to me that they love their beautiful little girls and yet, without a boy, families do feel a lack of success, a lack of completion... 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Update on Er Jie Jie (Second Sister-in-Law)

Although Er Jiejie and her husband made a lot of money, taking on a business was an extraordinary pressure.  Mentally and physically, it was incredibly hard work to run their own marble factory.   It was also dangerous both in terms of the machinery, noise and toxicity but they could not let that worry them - for owning the factory meant that they were able to send their son to a top UK university to gain a Masters in International Law.

Once he'd graduated and found employment, there was far less economic pressure.  Their daughter was by this time married and their son-in-law seemed able to provide for her.   They began to toy with the idea of selling the business but it was hard to give up the wealth it had brought.  It took a terrible car accident two years ago to help them make a decision. Er Jiejie's husband almost died in the crash.  Severe head injuries led him to lie in a coma for days and it took several months for him to return to good health and spirits.  While he recovered they sold the factory.  With some of the profits, they opted to build a modest new home, this time in the small town where Mama, Baba, Dage, San Jiejie and their own daughter live.

These days Er Jiejie spends her days helping her daughter to take care of her two young sons.  The family gain immense pleasure from this for the eldest grandson, now five years old, is an exceptionally bright, entertaining boy and the baby is even-tempered and sweet, too.  They now live within walking distance of each other and Er Jiejie seems ever willing to help with her two highly energetic grandsons.

She's waiting now for her son to also marry.  He is twenty-six and has a girlfriend, a young, overseas educated engineer with whom he lives in Shanghai.  Er Jiejie frequently whispers to him to get married as soon as he can.  She encourages him to have a baby, too, offering to raise the child in the hometown for the first few years because she knows her son and his wife would still need to build up their careers.  I find her perspective incredible for two reasons - first that she would volunteer for such a responsibility but mostly because she doesn't consider the long-term emotional effect being a thousand kilometers away from his parents could have on a child.

Still, what it shows is that to Er Jiejie, and probably many others of her time and place, the nuclear family is still very much an alien concept.   It's a very different world, no matter how quickly it is changing...

Update on Da Jie Jie (Eldest Sister-in-Law)

I've just re-read what I wrote four years ago about my eldest sister-in-law.  It gave my heart a few twinges recalling memories that had faded from my mind.  I have to also admit that I thought it was a nicely written sketch.

I've had more chances to see Da Jiejie these past few years.  There is still formality between us, incomprehension on both sides, but also a comfortable familiarity.  When we travel back to the hometown we always stop by her home to sit for a while on the veranda on low bamboo chairs.  We'll eat melon seeds (okay, I'll pretend to because although I love the taste I have still, after all these years, never gotten the hang of cracking each shell with my teeth, extracting the seed and spitting the exterior onto the ground), drink hot green tea out of paper cups and, if the season is right, peel pomelos or mandarin oranges picked from her trees. She'll reach for my hand when it's time to leave, patting it with her rough, calloused hands while telling me to duoduo baozhong - take care.

Da Jiejie has a new home now, built directly behind her 1980s two-storey brick build. I liked the old home quite a lot, for it was of a good size for her family of four and set back from the village street.  Like most others in the area, it was symmetrically designed with a double-door entrance and a three-inch wooden doorstep over which guests naturally stepped.  It's bad luck in China to step on that piece of wood.  The main room featured, typically, a large round dining table in the centre as well as a wooden altar at the back, above which hung Chairman Mao's portrait. There were no sofas or armchairs for no matter what the weather, when free-time was to be found, locals took a nap or squatted outdoors on bamboo chairs.  A lack of air conditioning meant that in summer the shaded porch was preferable to the sweltering temperatures indoors and, vice versa, a lack of indoor heating meant it was inevitably warmer outside in the weak sunshine than indoors.  Leisure and comfort are relatively new concepts and whenever I visit, I marvel at the fact that even today, few family members invest in comfortable indoor chairs.

I've diverged.  A room led off from each side of the main room - one a grain storage area and the other the son's bedroom.   What I liked about this house was that, unusually, concrete steps attached to one of its outside walls which led to a hallway and two bedrooms above. I liked to stand in the space outside these bedrooms, lean on the balcony and look out towards the mountains or down at their quiet yard in which brown chickens pecked at the earth and the old pomelo tree stood.

That home is considered old-fashioned now.  Like scores of other villagers over the past few years, Da Jiejie and her husband have built an enormous new structure - a deliberate insurance to show the land is theirs as well as something of a status symbol.  They borrowed a great deal in order to build an imposing four-storey concrete building and, although they have not got the funds to decorate most of it, feel proud of its potential.  Although, like many other gargantuan houses in the vicinity it lacks character and is minimally furnished, it is a definite improvement.  For one thing, Da Jiejie now has her first indoor bathroom with running water.  Equipped with a chrome shower head, a ceramic squat toilet and a sink, it's decorated simply, but is a huge step up from the awful pit they used to use outdoors.

Da Jiejie is busy these days.  She continues to grow vegetables, peanuts and fruits for her own family's consumption which takes a lot of time, especially in the warmer months.   She's also a grandmother now.  Her daughter had two sons in quick succession which makes her extremely proud.  As her husband's village is slightly off the beaten track and he drives for a living, Da Jiejie's daughter often stays with her own parents when he's away, bringing her two toddlers along on her moped.   Da Jiejie is still waiting anxiously for her son, already over thirty, to find a girl to marry.  She worries that he'll never find a bride, that he'll never have a son.   He's always in her prayers, just as her daughter was a few years ago.

Da Jiejie has continued to be a devout Buddhist.  In the past few years she has visited several important temples in the area.  As a result of the construction of the new home, she's moved her small shrine into one of the upstairs bedrooms of the old house.  Now, she has a large room in which to burn offerings and to pray.  She's bought a beautiful wooden Buddha for her shrine and never lets the incense stop burning.  She took me up there last year to show me a trail of smoke on one of the walls.  She is certain it is the spirit of a guardian dragon that followed her home from one of her temple visits.  When she pointed insistently at it and shared the story, I admit that I pretended to see what she did in order to please her.

Who knows, I thought, seeing nothing...maybe she's right.  I'd like her to be.  The longer I live, the less sure I am about such things. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Update on Mama

July 2014

Mama is now in her mid seventies and, in addition to her seven children and twenty-plus grandchildren, she is now a great grandmother several times over.  Although not always in good health - her kidneys often trouble her - Mama continues to spend most of her days living independently in her own small house behind elder brother's home in the town.  She has a few chickens and still likes to tend her small vegetable plot.  Every day she gets up at dawn, if not before, and likes to sleep soon after the sun sets. From dawn until dusk, there is a steady stream of visitors to her home which is within easy walking distance for all but two of her seven children.

These days, if she's not there it is likely that she may once again be found in the village.  A couple of years ago my husband and his two brothers decided to demolish the unused red-brick house built in the mid eighties in order to build three modern homes on that same plot of family land.  The house had stood empty for more than ten years and with village land being reclaimed by the government or sold to developers, they knew that their rights to the ancestral village might just disappear if they did nothing.  The idea was at first just to put up a basic new structure, nothing but a concrete shell, but slowly but surely the brothers' yearning grew to have roots there once again.  Along with the brothers, we now have our very own impressive home standing tall in the village, waiting to greet us whenever we make time to visit.

However, although the red-brick house was replaced, we repaired the tiny, single-storey adobe home in which Mama had given birth to all of her children in the 1960s and 70s.  It symbolises a special part of the family's history and I think Mama especially loves to see it still squatting opposite the gates of the large new homes with its new roof and freshly varnished wooden beams.   Although the new homes have modern kitchens, Mama seems to prefer pumping water from the well outside the old home.  The family also tend to cook in the dark kitchen of the old home, opting for the taste of food cooked in the giant iron wok over the wood burning stove.  These days, it's not usually Mama who cooks.  It's a sister-in-law or two, though Mama is never far away if a large dinner is being prepared - washing, chopping, refueling the fire - always busy and helpful.

Younger brother now frequently stays in his new village home at weekends and we've also visited a few times over the past few months.  Whenever we return, Mama moves in with us, pleased to spend time in the village and eager to take care of us. When we leave, she sometimes likes to stay on for a few days although the family, concerned for her safety, don't like for her to sleep out there alone.  She waves off their concerns but has to settle for the company of one or two burly grandsons who take over as 'bodyguards' if she stays out there.  This year, for the first time in over fifteen years, there are pumpkins, watermelons and chili pepper plants growing in our village yard, planted by Mama in the spring. 

Though so few faces from the past remain in the vicinity, Mama is clearly glad to have the chance to spend time there again.  The last time we were there three tiny, white-haired ladies tottered into our home.  Mama told me they'd known each other for more than half a century.  All three were now widowed, each living alone in dilapidated old homes scattered around the neglected village, their children all elsewhere.  It was obvious that Mama treasured their friendship and I thought: in spite of the many sorrows Baba brought into her life when they lived in the village, it had also been a place of deep friendships. 

Last year about twenty family members - including most of my husband's siblings - found time to take a three-day trip to a famous mountain.  Though Mama and Baba still avoid talking to each other, they both agreed to come along.  It was the first time for us all to journey somewhere together like this.  It felt significant, no, it felt incredible to be hurtling along the highway together in a minibus, listening to but barely comprehending the banter between them.  Back when I first met the family, Mama and Baba were still rice farmers and no one in the family had two yuan to rub together, who ever would have imagined we could ever enjoy such a trip?

Mama is sprightly but she found that mountain climb difficult and so we arranged, in spite of her protests, for her to be carried up the steepest part in a bamboo sedan chair.  I snapped a photograph of Mama looking so beautiful and happy, shading her eyes from the sun while two strong strangers - one in front and the other behind - made it possible for her to reach the peak with us.

Mama has continued to be a devout Buddhist.  I have never heard her explain her beliefs but I've watched her light her incense every evening.  I also know she avoids eating certain foods - beef, snails, shellfish - because in that part of China a Buddhist should refrain from such tastes.  Over the years, our youngest son, observing her devotion at temples, has somehow learned to follow her lead, kneeling quietly and bowing reverently at temple altar tables even when Mama is not there. 

It makes me happy to know that by building the new homes in the village, Mama is able to enjoy time out there again.  I imagine how for so many years Mama, as a mother, was so needed, so vital... giving all that she could day after day to each of her children.

Spending time with Mama brings nothing but joy into my heart and she is dearly, dearly loved.  Perhaps even by Baba. Sadly, I don't think anyone will ever hear him acknowledge this, though we all wish he could.