Sunday, July 20, 2014

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.


Inevitably, Things Change

They really do. I come back to look at my posts once in a while, but for some reason it's been a few years since I wrote any more. Naturally, there are extensions to each of these tales - much has inevitably happened in the lives of all of these women. It's funny how as much as I feel I am a 'foreigner in the family', the more important part of that phrase to me is 'in the family'. Their kindnesses envelope me each time I visit. I'm thankful to know each of them and for them to know me.

I suddenly feel a need to update these sketches...regardless of whether anyone out there reads or takes times to think about each one of these women...these lives are important to me. My father recently found my own grandmother's diary from 1945. She was a young bride, waiting for her husband's return from World War Two. She loved him terribly and I love suddenly having her diary entries in my hands, discovering the young woman who would one day become my much loved grandmother. She passed away several years ago but I'll treasure the discovery of her words as a wartime bride for as long as I live.

I hope I can capture glimmers into the spirit of each of my Chinese relatives as I update what I know of their journeys. If you stop by, please leave me a word or two. It looks like there have been more than 13,000 views over the past four years which I find incredible, given that I have put no energy into promoting this site.

I'm sorry I've been away...but I'm hoping to be back! Blink Blink

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Still to come

I really enjoy composing these biographical sketches. I am glad I finally found the energy to embark on this journey and I hope my writing is providing insight into what it is like to be a rural Chinese woman...

I am writing about the women in my husband's family in a particular order. I started with Mama, the eldest, and I then went on to write in descending age order about my husband's sisters. Right now I am working on each of my husband's brother's wives, again in descending age order. After this, I will turn my attention to my many nieces who range in age from their late twenties to just a few months old. Again, I will write about them in descending age order.


Once this project is finished, I am planning to complete a series of short fiction stories based on China. Some I have started; others I still need to dream up! I am also starting to wonder whether I should portray each of the men in the family in the same way I am doing with the women.


Ciao!

Younger Brother's First Wife

Di Di, my husband’s younger brother, was always determined to break out of the cycle of rural poverty. To do this, he knew that he would need to venture boldly out of his village and into the provincial capital. It was there, while scrambling to make a name for himself, that the quietly charismatic young man found himself falling in love. Like him, the girl was from the countryside. She had grown up in a poor lakeside fishing village on the other side of the provincial capital but in her mid-teens she had made an audacious decision: she would set off for the capital in search of a better life. There was no go-between, a sign of how laojia’s traditional ways were beginning to change by the early 1990s. Di Di had, independently, found himself a girlfriend.

Before telling you any more about her, it's important to take a detour and describe the setting of this tale. Although Deng Xiaoping’s Opening and Reform policy was firmly in place and was allowing China’s economy to develop, my husband’s province, including its capital city, was still very much luohou de in the early 1990s. Being landlocked and deep within the interior, it lagged behind as one of China’s poorest provinces. Its transportation links were weak and it had very little to trade besides agricultural goods.

Chinese cities are always wealthier than the countryside, but wealthier is not to be confused with wealthy. Certainly, this provincial capital had little to boast about. The drab districts radiating off from its People’s Square were full of ugly buildings: concrete dormitory-style housing, crumbling grey factories, dingy restaurants and a scattering of seedy cheap hotels. Its railway station was an unwelcoming, chaotic place where the police utilized electric cattle-prodders to keep the crowds in line and under control. On the streets around the station were aggressive street peddlers and a growing number of pickpockets and beggars.

Back then, there were no malls in this city, so state-owned department stores monopolized. Though smaller, privately-owned stores existed, they were often operated by devious entrepreneurs who sold shoddy products for inflated prices. The few large billboards in the city were hand-painted, as were many shop signs, indicative of how out of touch the city was with the modern world. Certainly, there was no MacDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut though these fastfood chains were increasingly popular in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

The majority of city-dwellers there worked in state enterprises and lived modestly on small incomes, though naturally many were ambitiously inventing ways to become rich. In the early 1990s, few private cars were on its roads too; the ones which were in use were mainly for government officials. Since taxis were expensive and public buses overcrowded, a common mode of transport was bicycle, although there were also many wiry pedicab drivers with whom passengers could bargain for a fare.

Coming from England, I saw the provincial capital as incredibly underdeveloped. Its citizens seemed unsophisticated and uncouth. I could hardly bear their loud throat-clearing, their uninhibited public spitting, or their habit of allowing children to urinate freely in the street. However, to young people in the surrounding countryside, this city symbolized hope. They knew that cities were developing far faster than rural areas. They knew city dwellers enjoyed a higher standard of living than they did. Though urban apartments were normally small and simple by Western standards, the majority of residents at least had the luxury of using bottled gas for cooking and indoor toilets. Courageous young villagers such as Di Di’s first wife dreamed of somehow finding success within the city.

It was not easy for migrant workers to find work in this city. One disadvantage was their low level of education; most migrants were barely literate and numerate. Another disadvantage was their lack of experience and skills. A further disadvantage was that many jobs, even low-skilled ones which they could probably master, were out of reach because they did not have a city hukou – residency pass. Non-residents could not apply to, say, work at the train station or become a bus conductor. They could not find employment as a park gardener, a hospital porter or a garbage collector. Without guanxi to help them gain back-door access, many urban jobs were utterly out of reach.

In spite of these challenges, there were jobs to be found for waidiren, especially for pretty girls like the one Di Di would fall for. In particular, shops, restaurant and hotels were all looking for cheap labor though they would require long hours, give no days off, and pay a pittance. Many young people could bear such jobs for only a few weeks or months before returning home to their villages in exhaustion. Another challenge in the city was the risk of being cheated. Some entrepreneurs would require new employees to undertake a prolonged period of training without pay. Others would demand that their would-be employee pay a fee in order to have the chance to work for them. Other unscrupulous bosses would deliberately fail to pay wages.

Migrant workers were certainly vulnerable to abuse by their employers, but they were also easy prey for the growing number of gangs sprouting up in the underworld. Such criminals would befriend penniless migrants, hoping to lure them into participation in organized crime. It was only natural that some youngsters, whether naively or deliberately, might fall into the wrong hands.

I don’t know how Di Di and his first wife came across each other in their late teens. They dated for only a short time before deciding to marry. Like with so many laojia couples, they did not legally register their marriage; a wedding banquet sufficed to make it official and Di Di brought his bride to live in his parents’ village home. Shortly afterwards, he found guanxi and became a taxi driver in the city, a job which gave them a small, though steady income. A few months later, a baby girl was born.

All seemed well, but discontent was to bubble up from below the surface. One day, out of the blue, Di Di’s attractive young wife packed her things, picked up her toddler daughter, and left. Her departure caused a huge loss of face; breakups were rare and a woman leaving a man was rarer still. Di Di, guessing she would go back to the city, tracked her down, hoping to persuade her to return to him. She refused and told him to never contact her again. At the age of just twenty-one, he was devastated.

How was it, then, that this marriage did not last when they had chosen each other independently and had seemed to fall in love? I think the truth was that Di Di’s wife discovered that she did not want to return to village life. Its harsh reality was probably too difficult for her to readjust to. I suspect she wanted more than Di Di could offer and she lacked the patience to find out whether he could later make anything more of himself. I have always wondered if she was still in love with him when she left…

After leaving laojia, Di Di’s wife turned to illegal prostitution as the means by which to support herself and her daughter. It seems likely that this might have been her work previous to marriage. Certainly, she had little trouble knowing how to set herself up or where to look for customers. It was a trade which could offer her, in the material sense, a far higher standard of living than was the case in the village. It also offered her opportunities to meet wealthy or influential patrons. Several years ago, Di Di heard on the grapevine that his wife had remarried, this time to a successful older man in the city. He was, perhaps, one of her clients.

Today, the name of Di Di’s first wife is never mentioned in the family. She has become, quite simply, a ghostly shadow from the past.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Saozi (Eldest Brother's Wife)

Saozi, my husband’s elder brother’s wife, grew up in a tiny village ten miles away from his. I know nothing about her childhood, except that it must have been harsh as Chinese farmers were trapped in Mao’s system of village collectives, a system which continuously failed to produce enough food for country’s burgeoning population. Countless had perished during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961. Millions more would continue to experience food shortages throughout the 1960s and 70s. Saozi’s early years were spent in hunger because of Mao’s misguided vision, though at the time no one understood that their Great Chairman was the cause.

The Cultural Revolution ended after the death of Mao in 1976. In 1977, Saozi, though almost 10 years old, began to attend school. She learned to read, write and complete mathematics well. She even managed to progress to middle school, a rare achievement for any rural child, never mind a girl, in the early 198os. By the time she completed middle school, Saozi was in her late teens. Her parents decided it was time for her to stop school and find a husband.

A go-between introduced her to Da Ge – my brother-in-law. He was an impoverished farmer’s son with no income of his own, but her family accepted him as a suitable match for her. His village was not as remote as hers as it was closer to the railway and road links into the provincial capital. Additionally, his uncle – Baba’s eldest brother – was a prominent local rural leader; perhaps her family thought she would be marrying into a respectable clan, or at least one with a certain amount of political and economic guanxi - connections.

China’s Reform and Opening Policy was well underway by the time Saozi met Da Ge in the mid 1980s. Young people, especially men, were thinking less about Communist ideology and more about how to make money. There was also freedom to dream more about relationships, romance and love. Saozi was pretty and Da Ge was handsome – short but strong, with a crooked smile. He was also a smooth talker who believed that he would soon become successful. Although he had not completed primary school, Da Ge had learned to read. As a teenager he had grown to love contemporary fiction; having no money he would borrow flimsy paperbacks from others. He had even written his own novel about countryside life and sent off his manuscript, dreaming his talent would be discovered. Perhaps Saozi was impressed by his energy and idealism. Perhaps she trusted that he would find a way to provide for her and their future children. Perhaps she even fell in love.

Saozi married Da Ge a few months after their introduction and, after a farewell banquet at her parents’ home, moved into his ancestral village. She brought with her a traditional dowry: a wooden bathtub, a bamboo baby cradle and a chest containing some clothes, bedding and simple toiletries. Once there, she and Da Ge were given a room. It was barely furnished but it had a double bed and a wardrobe. Saozi spent the next few months fitting into her role as in the new family. Being hard-working, her attitude pleased Mama. Being amiable, her sisters-in-law accepted her. The transition went smoothly.

After her marriage Saozi, like many rural brides, seldom saw her family. There was no telephone she could use to call her parents and if she wanted to go home, the journey would take several hours. She would need to walk along a mud track for half an hour to reach the small town. There, she would wait for a bus, which may or may not arrive. If it did arrive, it may or may not be full. After the journey, in which the bus would stop frequently along the road, picking up as many passengers as were waiting (there were no bus stops), she would then have another long walk to her parents’ village, which was far from the main road. It must have felt as if she had moved to the other side of China.

After a few months of marriage, there comes a time when a son who continues to live in his parents’ home needs to fenjia. Once fenjia takes place, the son and his bride begin taking care of themselves independently. They are given some land and their own kitchen space by his parents. If fortunate, his parents may be able and willing to give some money, seeds, tools and other basic household equipment. Da Ge and Saozi knew fenjia would happen, but when it did, it was an unpleasant transition. Baba was unreasonably trenchant. The separation must be clear-cut and there was, he declared, to be no generosity. Mama was forbidden to help the young couple in any way and they were instructed to fend, completely, for themselves. Baba knew that Mama would subvert his command (which she did by giving oil, rice and other bits of food when she could). Many arguments ensued.

Soon after fenjia happened, Saozi found work at a nearby elementary school which was short of teachers. Though she was barely suitable, there was no one else to take on the role. The pay was paltry and the job demanding – she had to learn how to manage and motivate a large group of undisciplined students – yet her income was steady and helped supplement what little they could earn through farming.

Around the end of her first year of marriage, Saozi found herself pregnant. Without complication a boy arrived and the family celebrated. The baby seemed healthy, but by the time he was a toddler it was apparent that he was mentally handicapped. The family still speculates about the onset of his condition. They wonder whether he was born so, or whether his limited intelligence was caused by the cheap milk powder he was raised on for the first few months of life. They also wonder whether he might have been brain damaged by an incredibly high fever he experienced following some routine inoculations. They wonder if there was a fault with the batch of vaccine he received. Whatever the cause, it was going to be a struggle to raise this son.

Although the One Child Policy was well-known throughout China, it was not strictly enforced in laojia and so Saozi became pregnant again in the late 1980s. By this time she had given up teaching as her husband had learned how to complete simple repairs on televisions and other small electrical items. He had moved his young family away from the village, rented out his farm land, and set up a small repair shop in the nearby town. It was a struggle for him to earn a living, but he was optimistic that as more people owned household electrical goods, that he could build up his business.

Saozi’s second pregnancy progressed normally. There were no prenatal hospital checks in the countryside, but she felt fine and had a relatively normal labor and delivery. However, once the baby, another boy, arrived they made an awful discovery: he had been born with no anus. In horror, some superstitious Chinese families would abandon such a baby, believing it to be a demon who has arrived to bring nothing but bad luck. Others would even smother such an infant to death. Saozi and her husband thought quickly. They rushed the baby to the children’s hospital in the provincial capital and sought the help of a specialist. There, they were told that an operation could save their son’s life, but that it would be costly.

Da Ge and Saozi had no savings of their own with which to pay for the surgery to save their child’s life. Neither set of grandparents could afford to help so they raced against the clock, hoping desperately to borrow from other relatives. Only two relatives had enough money to save the baby – Baba’s eldest and youngest brothers. When asked, each one turned away, claiming he could not afford to help. The little boy cried in agony for almost a week, his tiny tummy bloated and blocked by waste. Mama remembers the way her tiny grandson looked up at her, his black eyes large, serious and desperate, before passing away in exhaustion.

Saozi and her husband must have been devastated by the loss of their little boy. They don’t talk of it because it was simply too tragic. I can’t imagine how the callous uncles who failed to save the little boy’s life could ever again face Saozi and Da Ge. I can't imagine the pain Saozi would feel when she encounted one of them.

By the time I met Saozi, several years had passed by since this unimaginable heartbreak. Somehow, she had picked up the pieces and gone on to have another two children: a healthy girl and boy. The family was still renting a cramped apartment in the little town and Da Ge was still struggling to earn a decent living through his small repair shop. Here and there, he had tried different ventures, but all had failed and he was getting a reputation as a man who didn’t repay his debts. Saozi, busy with the children, had never returned to teaching. She was tired and things were tough.

Though they had no reliable source of income, by the time I went to laojia to marry in 1997, Saozi and Da Ge were building a three-storey house in conjunction with youngest brother. Once the building was complete, Saozi and Da Ge would take the middle floor as their three-bedroom apartment and younger brother and his family would use the top floor. They would share the use of the flat roof and backyard and split the ground floor space into two units. Each brother hoped to use his downstairs space to operate a small business: a store, restaurant, repair shop...neither had decided, but since the town was expanding quickly as so many villagers moved into it, they were confident that they could find customers to serve whatever commodity they later committed to. In fact, younger brother paid for most of the building’s construction costs; the agreement was that Da Ge would pay him back at a later date.

I have no idea how Da Ge and Saozi planned to repay the money borrowed to construct this home. I remember giving Da Ge almost all my remaining money just before I left China, something custom dictated he should not have accepted as I was younger than him. It was around the time of my wedding, which also meant that they should have been giving to me. Though I had little to give, the fact that he took it indicated that they were desperate.

By the end of the 1990s Saozi and Da Ge moved into their own spacious apartment in town and Da Ge continued to look around for ways to make money. Like many laojia women, Saozi had switched from a farming partnership with her husband to complete economic reliance upon him. It was her husband, not Saozi, who looked around for new ideas and who scrambled (albeit unsuccessfully) to make business connections, hoping to hit the jackpot. Saozi, like so many laojia wives, merely waited in the shadows.

Time after time Da Ge’s ventures ended in failure and his reputation as an unworthy business partner grew. He owed several debts, but chose to ignore them. His failures must have irked Saozi, yet it seemed she had no choice but to rely upon him. Thankfully, by the beginning of the 2000s youngest brother was finding success in the demolition and construction business, and he generously began passing contracts to Da Ge. He helped Da Ge win a major contract to build a large private school’s campus as well as several smaller projects. Da Ge also obtained the right to run the local middle school’s cafeteria. Finally, he was starting to make significant profits. Life seemed set to improve for the family.

They say that with wealth comes arrogance. Around the time that Da Ge began making money, Saozi discovered that he was cheating on her. I don’t know how many affairs he has had, or whether they were the result of arrogance, but one relationship has been ongoing for several years. Saozi’s desperate pleas (and Mama’s) for him to end it fell on deaf ears. Da Ge, it would seem, had fallen in love. Today, his mistress lives in an apartment Da Ge bought for her a few years ago. Da Ge visits her often.

Laojia women frequently worry about their husbands’ loyalties. They know it’s a man’s world. Men own the cars, smoke the cigarettes and drink the wine. They make the connections, sign the deals and stay out late. Without a doubt, they wear the trousers. Financially dependent women are particularly vulnerable and insecure, especially when their husbands begin to make enough money to support a double life. Da Ge was not the first man in laojia to find a mistress. He certainly will not be the last.

Da Ge’s infidelity devastated Saozi and led her to feel a whole range of emotions: self-pity, frustration, anger, embarrassment (it’s no secret, even the children know), disgust, hatred… Like Mama with Baba, she felt powerless and almost broke down. In she had lived in the West, she might feel entitled to throw him out, but in laojia, women don't seem share this mentality as there is still a deep-rooted Confucian belief that women have fewer rights than men. She had never heard of alimony settlements or child support payments, both of which empower women to divorce unworthy husbands. What she might have thought about was: Where can I go? How can I support the children without him? How can I stop him?

The truth was that Saozi could not prevent Da Ge from hurting her in this way. The despair she felt overpowered and aged her, but she eventually reached a point of acceptance. Knowing that Da Ge wanted her to remain as his wife (and perhaps also wanting to remain as his wife), Saozi would learn to tolerate his infidelity on the condition that he give her financial security. Saozi told Da Ge that he must give her his profits thus far.

Da Ge consented. I suppose his guilty conscience pricked at him for no matter which way he looked at the situation, no matter how he tried to justify himself, he was at fault. He had turned into an adulterer. He was his own father, the father he had, back as a child, hated for hurting his mother in exactly this way. When he handed over his bankbook, his wife began to look the other way. I wonder whether Saozi felt satisfaction or triumph. It had been a clever move, but I imagine any sense of victory was tempered with bitterness at the fact that she was still sharing him with another woman.

For the past few years, Saozi has continued to live with Da Ge. I don’t know what their relationship is like behind closed doors, but in public they maintain the appearance of being together. A few years ago they opened a small restaurant in the space below their apartment and have spent a considerable amount of time in each other’s company as a result. By establishing the restaurant, they could ensure a steady income (important, in case the school cafeteria contract ever came to an end), but I imagine that for Saozi, managing the restaurant was also a way of keeping her husband busy, as well as a means of distraction.

Another response to her unhappy marriage, I think, was for Saozi to turn to gambling. For hours at a time, when not managing the restaurant, Saozi has busied herself at the majiang table. She’s won some money, but more often than not, she’s lost. Perhaps playing began as her way to numb the pain and her sense of helplessness. Maybe it even began as her way to punish him. Now, it seems that although it may have helped her to survive, Saozi is well and truly addicted.

These days, Saozi does not spend very much time with Da Ge, although they still live together. This is because two years ago, Saozi seized the chance to rent the shop on the grounds of a local middle school. During term time she sells stationery, snacks, drinks and knickknacks to students, earning a couple of thousand yuan a month. Of course, the fact that her children are no longer little gives her an opportunity to run such a business, but I also wonder if her decision was made in order to spend less time with Da Ge. Whatever the case, Saozi now has an independent income of her own and I imagine that having her own financial freedom must give her a higher sense of self-worth.

I often wonder how Saozi feels about living with a man who has let her down so enormously. Has she done it for herself because, in spite of his betrayal, she still wants and feels something for him? Has she stayed with him for the sake of the children, although each of them knows that their father is unfaithful? Has she even stayed to meet his emotional needs?

Sometimes, I wonder if Saozi has stayed with Da Ge simply because she just doesn’t dare to imagine life without him. Perhaps she sees herself tragically as po xie - a wornout shoe. Relationships can be incredibly complex and it is not for me to judge either Saozi or Da Ge, but I can’t help wondering whether, in the not-too-distant future, Saozi might decide that she does not need to live any longer with a husband like Da Ge.

If she does ever reach this conclusion, I don’t think the feminist in me would be able to resist a smile.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mei Mei (Youngest Sister-in-Law)

By the time Meimei was born in 1977, Mao Zedong was dead and Deng Xiaoping was unexpectedly rising to power. As she grew up his phrase, “To get rich is glorious” was on everyone’s lips. Was the country really heading in a new direction? It actually was - and the shift was monumental. In the countryside, collective farms would be disbanded, communal kitchens would close, and fields would be divided upon amongst the villagers. Farmers, although heavily taxed, would be allowed to sell their crops independently and, if they could find the means, could even engage in other business enterprises. An immense sigh of relief spread across China.

As a result of the political shift, each family had to learn economic self-reliance. Meimei’s family started to grow its own rice, produce and press its own oil and plant its own vegetable plots. It dug its own water well and bought a water buffalo. They became, to all extents and purposes, subsistence farmers, but the possibility was there that they might, at some point in the future, even make some money.

Because of the timing of her birth and the fact that she was the youngest, childhood was easier for Meimei than it had been for her siblings. Although this daughter also witnessed the sorrowful state of her parents’ marriage, from a physical standpoint Meimei suffered much less than had her elder siblings: sufficient food, adequate clothing, and, as a young child, fewer chores. Though her childhood diet was basic - predominantly rice, pickled turnip, peanuts and sweet potatoes – Meimei was fortunate never to experience famine or severe shortages.

At the time Meimei was born, the family lived in a cramped, dilapidated mud-brick home which they had built in the mid 1960s. They had decorated the main roof beam of their simple home with a carved dragon to symbolize prosperity, but it had been condemned as politically incorrect during the Cultural Revolution and the family had been forced to saw it off. Conditions were terrible in this house; it had an uneven mud floor, a leaking roof, doors which didn't fit their frames and no plumbing. In summer it was like an oven and in winter they would light a bonfire in the main room to keep warm. The home had no chimney, so they would open the front and back doors for ventilation. At night, the younger children slept with their parents and the elder ones shared another bedroom. The few pieces of furniture the family owned had been crafted by a local carpenter. Nothing came from a department store.

When Meimei was around six years old, the family decided to improve their living conditions. They built a red-brick house behind their old one, at the very back of the village. Though they had no savings, they were able to buy bricks on credit from a nearby kiln. The wood for the roof rafters and doors came from trees cut down in Mama’s friend’s mountain village and, as with the bricks, they paid for the timber over time. The new home was big enough that their sons could later live there with their families, if necessary. It had no plumbing or heating, but it did have electric lighting, though the power supply to the village was extremely unreliable. This was the house in which Meimei would live until she married.

As the final sibling in the family, Meimei was able to attend school for a time. In the early 1980s a village schoolroom had been built for grade one and two students combined. It was a basic brick structure with a cement floor and bare walls. Rough wooden desks and single-plank student benches had been made by a local carpenter. Like all rural schools in southern China, there was no heating for the harsh winter, nor were there ceiling fans for the extreme summer heat. The school had bars at its two small windows, but there was no money to afford glass panes. On bitter winter days, Meimei’s fingers and toes would turn numb as she sat at her desk. On hot days in May or June the temperature would soar above 30 degrees centigrade. In the airless classroom, classmates would wilt from exhaustion.

For much of the year, the weather made it hard for the young children to concentrate, but the biggest challenge they faced was simply adapting to the structure of school life. For their first seven years, they had roamed the village freely. Although they had all had family chores, life had been free from mental discipline. They had read no books and had no games other than the ones they invented using sticks, stones and mud. Their only experience was their insular village (until the mid 1980s few villagers ever ventured into the provincial capital which was only ten miles away. No one in the village owned a car and only one or two families had saved enough money to buy television sets).

Attending school was a major shift for the naïve village children. Suddenly, they had to sit still. They had to pay attention. In class they had to learn pinyin, memorize hanzi, and complete arithmetic exercises. They were also expected to do homework. Parents, because of their own illiteracy, could seldom help their children with school work. And there were still chores; just because children went to school didn’t mean they didn’t still have responsibilities (one little girl even had to take her baby sister to school since there was no one else to take care of her. There, the baby would sleep in a wooden basin).

Villagers generally had low academic expectations of their children; most merely hoped that their children might acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills. If their children gained enough understanding that they could avoid being cheated, their parents were satisfied. Most villagers felt baffled by the complexity of school. Many adults in the village could not even write their own names, and they genuinely could not imagine that their simple children might learn enough to make it all the way through primary, middle and high school, let alone reach university.

And yet, although the odds were stacked against them, the best chance of escaping rural poverty was for children to succeed in school. This was because of China’s inflexible residency system known as hukou which limited (and still does) where a person might live. For the majority of Chinese, a person’s hometown is destined to be their lifelong hukou address. The ways to change one’s hukou are becoming easier today, but in the 1980s it was virtually impossible. If you were born into a village home, you were classified on your hukou document as pinnong, a poor peasant. Under Chairman Mao this classification was a source of pride and safety, but by the 1980s pinnong faced severe prejudice. They were marginalized and few town or city-dwellers, even poor factory workers, would consider marrying a villager. Unless they could change their status by getting a university degree, pinnong were likely to remain pinnong for life.

Meimei’s village had one teacher who taught both Chinese and mathematics. He was a young and enthusiastic minban jiaoshi who had himself only received middle school education. He was also a polio victim so he had a disfigured leg and a very pronounced limp. Village children would sometimes call him names, but he brushed their cruelty aside and tried hard to teach them. He also served as the village barber.

Like many children in the village, Meimei failed grade one. She repeated the year and after passing grade two she moved to study at a larger primary school in a village closer to the nearest town. To get there, Meimei had to walk a mile and a half. Her journey started along the mud track which connected her village to the outside world. She would then cut between rice paddies before crossing a set of train tracks. Meimei would return home for lunch, so she would need to repeat the journey in the afternoon. It was a lot of miles for a little girl.

The school served several villages a well as nearby state factories. For the first time in her life, Meimei came into contact with children who didn’t come from impoverished and illiterate farming backgrounds. These state factory workers lived in small homes provided on site at their factories. They were poor, but their housing was adequate, incomes were steady and they had state benefits such as pensions to look forward to. Their children had often attended kindergarten and usually had a stronger foundation than village children. They were also better dressed and fed; to the envy of village children who had eaten nothing but thin rice congee and pickled vegetables for breakfast, these children would often come to school eating steaming mantou buns or drinking hot soya milk. Many village children felt self-conscious in front of such children. Meimei was no exception.

During her few years in school, Meimei was an underconfident student but she learned to read and to do basic arithmetic. She learned some modern Chinese history, too, through a communist lens. There were no geography, science, art or PE lessons, though each morning the children were required to complete daily exercise drills in the yard. Sometimes they learned to sing revolutionary songs. The school had no stationery supplies besides the cheap white chalk which snapped each time a teacher used a stick (class monitors were appointed to pick up all broken pieces of chalk in order to conserve it). The school certainly didn’t have a telephone, not to mention a photocopier, fax machine or computer. There was no library and the parents had to buy their children’s textbooks as well as exercise books, pencils and erasers.

Meimei’s class in the new school had around 50 students packed into it so she never grew close to any of her teachers. Some teachers were kind; others were fierce, but what they had in common was that they were all quite uneducated; after the Cultural Revolution many people who had only a middle school level of education became teachers in the countryside. With so many students to handle in one room, teachers would reply upon one method: rote learning. Students’ skills were tested frequently and their scores were always publicly announced. Understandably, as time passed by, many students would come to find school monotonous, and, if they were doing poorly, humiliating. If children did not complete their homework, teachers would lock them in the classroom with other offenders during lunchtime, deprived of the chance to go home to eat. Meimei remembers this happening to her.

Meimei had to repeat additional grade levels because her marks were low and when she did pass a grade level, her marks were ordinary at best. After four or five years Meimei lost hope and dropped out. There was nothing shameful or unusual about this: girls in the laojia weren’t expected to finish. However, her slow progress was not the only reason for her to abandon her education. By the age of eleven or twelve she was beginning to feel pressure from her parents. To them, finding the money for her tuition and materials had always been a struggle. It was now even more challenging because her middle brother had begun boarding at a nearby high school and was preparing to sit the national university examinations. He had become the focus of the family’s hope. Once again, a sister’s loss became her brother’s gain.

Sending their children to school was always a financial strain for parents in the laojia, but that was not their only difficulty. The main problem was that while children studied, parents had no one to help with the myriad of labor-intensive farm chores. Sadly, having their children drop out of school was simply irresistible to many parents since it eased their own physical hardship considerably. Knowing that her brother’s fees were increasing and that her aging parents needed her to help with farm chores, Meimei felt compelled to drop out of primary school.

As a teenager Meimei helped her parents with many arduous and tedious farm chores, but her main duty was to take care of the family’s enormous buffalo, an insatiable creature which needed constant grazing and watering. Meimei’s elder brother, the youngest of the three boys, had held this role for a few years, but as he approached his late teens he wanted more freedom. In southern China, rice farmers depend upon water buffaloes. They are vital for ploughing rice paddies and vegetable fields. They are also needed during rice harvests to help thresh the dried rice stalks. Farming’s reliance upon water buffaloes has a serious impact upon the lives of children in southern China. It’s hard to believe, but the water buffalo is a significant reason why tens of thousands of rural children, often girls, do not attend school.

Until she married at 19, Meimei would care for the family’s animal. Thousands of hours were spent wandering with it. However, once evening came, Meimei often had time to herself. She would keep her mother company or spend time with friends listening to music on small battery-operated radios. She would also read newspapers and, if she could get hold of them, romantic Taiwanese novels. These hobbies, while being enjoyable in and of themselves, also allowed Meimei to avoid being home to witness her parents’ tumultuous relationship.

It was winter of 1995 when I first met Meimei. She was a plump, boyish looking teenager with short hair, bundled up in several layers of dull clothing. Five siblings had married and her middle brother, my boyfriend, was in university almost two thousand miles away, so she lived alone with her aging parents. She had friends to keep her company around her age in the village, but it was time for them all to start finding husbands.

Winter is the easiest season in laojia, but it is still far from relaxing. Voracious pigs still need food and the water buffaloes still need exercise and grazing. Clothes must be washed, meals must be prepared and the outside latrine, from time to time, must be emptied onto the fields. Paddy fields also need draining and sowing with clover to make them more fertile in the springtime. Crops like rapeseed must be sown and winter vegetables grown. Ponds are also drained in order to harvest fish which have been growing fatter all summer long. Winter is the time to sun-dry pork, turnips and xuelihong as well as the fish. It is also a time to head towards the forests to chop down and dry out wood to use as cooking fuel. Women will also turn their attention to knitting sweaters and long underwear. They also make bamboo baskets, brushes and other handicrafts. As Chinese New Year approaches, it then becomes important to fix up and clean the home. Meimei, like her friends, would help with these tasks.

Meimei was busy helping her mother prepare Chinese New Year banquets when I first visited laojia. We couldn’t communicate directly, but I felt her kindness almost immediately. I had no idea how to wash clothes by hand. I tried, but my weak wrists just couldn’t wring them out. I wanted my boyfriend to help me wash my clothes as I was ashamed to let his family see my inadequacy, but his little sister wouldn’t let him. Every morning, often before I even got up, Meimei would wash our clothes in a wooden basin outside. The well water was icy which meant completing the task was very painful. I remember seeing her red raw hands. Meimei’s thoughtfulness that year touched me. Whenever I said xiexie, she would smile sweetly and say, “mei shi ba”.

I remember the second winter that I visited for Chinese New Year. Although it was normally very cold, there was a warm snap which lasted two or three days. During those days, Meimei would sit together with us on a pile of hay beside the house. In the sunshine, we would all read. Meimei and her brother also enjoyed chatting and I would try to understand. When we took walks, Meimei would join us if she had time. I also remember that one evening we bonded while making jiaozi together. Families in this part of China did not have the tradition of making dumplings, but, knowing I enjoyed them, Mama decided we would make them. Meimei and I stood side by side in the dimly lit living room; I cut and rolled the dough while she stuffed and wrapped the dumplings. Being able to do this together without needing too much linguistic competence came as a real pleasure to me.

By this visit, I had also become curious about Chinese pop music, something which Meimei loved. Once, we took a bus into the provincial capital and she helped me choose a couple of popular cassettes to buy. That evening we ventured hesitantly into an overpriced nightclub with two cousins who lived in the city. I remember we were all wearing thick sweaters because the nightclub lacked heating and was hideously cold. It was the first time for Meimei to ever go out to dance in the city.

Meimei got married just before I did. At the age of 19 she was introduced to a quiet boy from a village near the town. He had attended high school, but had left early to become a migrant worker, working as a security guard in a neighboring province. When he returned home after a year, he undertook some basic training as a cook instead. At the time Meimei met him, he was working in a nearby factory which produced popsicles. His parents were rice farmers but they had built a brick kiln and were also selling bricks. The family had more money than Meimei’s, but they were still relatively poor.

Meimei and the young man quickly became engaged and began to spend time together. Within a few months, Meimei realized that she was pregnant. No one seemed upset; the discovery simply meant that her wedding preparations began. Soon after finding out, the marriage took place. After a wedding banquet, Meimei’s parents sent her to his village with a television, refrigerator, sofa, a gas stove and tank, and a new mattress. Her dowry was far greater than her sisters’ had been, because by the time she married more consumer goods were available and even in rural areas, husbands’ families were beginning to expect more from the girls’ families. Like most farmers, Meimei’s parents could not afford all these goods, but they had to follow the custom. The only way to do so was to borrow money from relatives. Meimei’s eldest and youngest brothers also contributed.

Meimei’s route to marriage was a far cry from her mother’s experience. Mama met Baba just a handful of times before her marriage, and had certainly spent no time alone with him. However, it seems to me that by the 1990s, pre-maritial pregnancy was becoming common in the laojia. I have often wondered about this phenomenon. The topic of sex was certainly taboo, but countryside children understood the basics of reproduction from watching animals. However, teenagers were not taught how to prevent pregnancy (today it is easier for teenagers in the laojia to find out; they simply need to go to the town’s cheap Internet café and surf the web). In addition, even if she had known about condoms or contraceptive pills, Meimei and her fiance had no access to them and little money with which to buy them. I think a main reason for her pregnancy, though, was that sex was not regarded as a sin. Though ancestral worship and belief in Buddha existed, villagers were not dogmatic. I think another significant reason was that uneducated, unskilled girls did not expect to have careers. They saw their destiny as motherhood and pregnancy sooner was as good as later. I also suspect that adults turned a blind eye to what unmarried couples did because they wanted to be sure they would become grandparents. In sum, premarital pregnancy was not seen as ruining young lives.

Whatever the case, Meimei’s stomach swelled and she soon found herself adjusting to marriage. She and her young husband lived in a newly painted room at her parents-in-laws’ home and she spend the next few months waiting for the baby to arrive. When labor started, it lasted an entire night. Unlike some of her elder siblings who had been unable to afford hospital births, Meimei had enough money to go the local clinic to deliver her baby, though no pain medication was available. Her husband, mother-in-law and own mother waited outside the simple delivery room until the baby, a boy, was born.

Meimei’s soon settled in to a life of frequent nursing and interrupted sleep. According to custom, she did not take her baby out until he had passed his 30-day manyue. During this time, Meimei herself was not allowed go out in the breeze or eat cold things, since these activities were thought to harm her body’s recovery. She was also not allowed to visit other people’s homes, either. Her mother and sisters would come to visit her when they had time, to dispense advice and to keep her company. Her mother-in-law also helped.

Under Mao Zedong the Chinese people had been encouraged to reproduce. Millions of Chinese had lost their lives during the Anti-Japanese war and civil war. Mao firmly believed that there was safety in numbers and under his leadership, the population swelled. However, since his death the Chinese government had been gravely concerned about the size of its population. In the late 1970s, its response to the problem was the inception of a The One Child Policy. The policy has some regional and ethnic variations, but it requires all Han Chinese women who give birth to a son to, within six months of delivery, be fitted with an IUD. By the time Meimei became a mother, the local government was becoming stricter about population control. Meimei dutifully reported to the local clinic and had her device inserted. She had her son and was satisfied.

Since the start of the One Child Policy, employees of state enterprises, factories, schools or hospitals who broke the rules would face instant dismissal. The same was true for all government officials. In the cities, large fines would be issued (and still are) to all offending couples, though the amount differed from place to place. It took longer, however, for the government to enforce the policy more systematically amongst farmers. Nevertheless, by the 1990s they, too, were being fined, if caught, for breaking the policy. Such draconian measures seem unimaginable to many in the western world, but these were not the worst consequences for breaking the policy. In Meimei’s province, local birth control officers could be brutal. If they discovered a rural couple in breach of the law, they might punish them by physically destroying their home. The husband might even be beaten, but, even worse, officers might force the woman, no matter how late in her pregnancy, into an abortion.

It was to her great astonishment that Meimei found herself pregnant again when her son was just one-year-old. By that time she was living in a two-storey house in the town. She and her husband had borrowed money from his parents and relatives to build it, but were struggling to pay them back as her husband had no steady income, but was now selling pork in the local market. Her first thought upon realizing she was pregnant was to have an abortion, something which many women in China openly choose to have when faced with unexpected pregnancy. Her first-born son had been hospitalized several times with various ailments and Meimei constantly worried about his health. She was also exhausted. However, with her family’s support, Meimei grew used to the idea of another child and she decided that she would keep the baby. In fact, Mama told her that an abortion would be far more painful than childbirth and that terrified Meimei.

In order to protect her unborn child from detection by birth control officers, Meimei undertook no prenatal checks at the local clinic, though she found a doctor willing to come to the home to privately check on the progress of pregnancy. When the pregnancy started to show, she went into hiding. She didn’t need to go far; she simply stayed indoors and out of sight. Of course, neighbors understood the reason for her sudden disappearance, but, united in silent protest against the One Child Policy, no one informed the authorities. This time, Meimei gave birth at home because her husband wasn’t around to take her to the hospital when labor started. Thankfully, it was a quick process, and a second son was born. Although she was punished, the fine was, thankfully, quite moderate: she needed to pay one thousand yuan, the equivalent of about three months’ of her husband's earnings.

We left China when Meimei was pregnant with her first child and by the time we returned, she had already had her second son. When I saw her again, gone was the chubby teenager; she was now a busy mother racing around after two very active little boys. She was also, by the time we returned, living in the newly built house on the town’s new street. Her home was simply furnished. She had no washing machine or refrigerator, no telephone or microwave, no heating or air-conditioning, but it was a step up from the village room she had moved into with the parents-in-law. She had electricity, a television, tap water, and an indoor toilet. Her husband was selling pork in the local market where he could earn just enough to cover their daily expenses.

Meimei was more attractive in her twenties than she had been as a teenager. She had grown her hair long and lost weight, too. She was still soft-spoken but more confident. She was also demonstrative; she would frequently link arms with her friends, sisters and mother as a way to show affection and she smiled often. It was also clear that she loved her little boys and she conscientiously took care of them. Many women in laojia rely upon scolding, criticism, threats and physical punishments to train their children, but these were not Meimei's preferred methods. I was happy to see that she seemed content, relaxed and mature. I was also grateful that when we met again, she tried hard to put me at ease by treating me like a sister, not a foreigner.

It is not easy for me to visit laojia. During my early visits, I enjoyed staying in the old village home which sat quietly at the back of the ancestral village. Behind the house was a small hill from which I could watch the sun set over an impressive mountain range. Few villagers ever passed by, and it was a beautiful, tranquil spot. The white-tile town they had moved to live is a complete contrast. It is beside the railway line so goods are constantly being delivered to the station on overloaded old blue trucks. The ugly street where the family lives now is noisy, dusty and dirty. Chickens pick though piles of garbage and scavenging dogs wander up and down searching for food scraps. As much as I tell myself to prepare for its chaos, it is always hard for me to spend time there.

Eldest brother, youngest brother, third sister and Meimei all own houses along that street. Mama and Baba also live there, each housed by one of their sons. On that street, each family has an independent home, but the family has a habit of congregating outside eldest brother’s home. Kids run around freely while adults sit on the sidewalk on low bamboo chairs or single-plank benches conversing, drinking tea and eating guazi in winter or watermelon in summer. Passing neighbors stop for chats, and Baba’s chain-smoking friends frequently come over for lunch and to drink baijiu together. These men are known disparagingly by the family as his useless jiurou pengyou – his wine-and-meat friends.

Rural families don’t like to waste money on electricity, so for much of the year, it is also pragmatic to spend time outdoors. In winter it is often warmer in the sun than inside their unheated homes and in summer it can be cooler outdoors in the shade than indoors. Yet even if it were more comfortable to be indoors, I don’t think it would occur to my husband’s family to shut themselves away in their individual homes. They like the hustle and bustle of the street. They enjoy each other’s company. They don’t seem to want to be apart. It’s very common for the cousins to sleep overnight at each others’ homes; they are more like siblings than cousins.

As a westerner, I struggle with this way of living. When I visit I feel a lack of privacy. Sitting out on the street with them for hours on end, I am constantly noticed, discussed, worried over. Passersby stare, the dialect is hard to understand, and I feel like a complete outsider. As much as I try not to notice, there are also many things about the local culture which disgust me: the incessant spitting, the hideous toilets, the garbage-strewn street, the slaughtering of chickens or gutting of frogs in the yard, the overly-loud television, the smoking, the constant raucous gambling at the majiang table.

Meimei, being observant, has often sensed that I feel out of my depth there. When I visited, Meimei would try to use Mandarin Chinese so that we could communicate. When we didn’t understand each other, she would smile reassuringly. Many times, she has shown affection by peeling tangerines or offering me slices of watermelon. She would also show sensitivity by linking my arm while we sat together, something none of the other sisters would ever feel bold enough to do. She would sometimes even squish in beside me on Baba’s old rocking chair. I have always appreciated her informality and her genuine efforts to make me feel at ease when I visit.

With two growing children to clothe, feed and send to school, Meimei and her husband struggled to make ends meet. Eventually, she and her husband decided that they should try to build their own pig farm. They borrowed a large amount of money and set about constructing it on her husband’s land. It was a huge investment, but if they could successfully raise pigs they could make much money than her husband could selling pork in the market. The price of pork had increased in recent years and, since her husband came from a pig-raising family, they were optimistic they could succeed. However, after investing the last of their borrowed money on a stock of piglets, disease struck. Within just a few short weeks the whole stock perished. Their entire investment was lost. With the pressure of the existing debt weighing upon them, they were in complete dismay, terrified to borrow any more money to try again. Sadly, Meimei and her husband abandoned their pig farm, hoping to rent it out to others, but there was no interest. Today, it still stands empty. Pig-breeding is a very risky business.

Further misfortune struck them soon after this bitter disappointment. Meimei became ill and, after hospital tests, discovered that she was suffering from gall stones. There was no option, the doctors said, but to remove her gall bladder. It was a very costly operation – seven thousand yuan - and they needed, once again, to borrow money from relatives.

A year or so after her operation, Meimei and her husband grew even deeper in debt. This was because his parents, wanting their sons to retain land rights in the ancestral village, had given each of their three sons a nominal sum and asked them to each build a new village home. Meimei and her husband were in no position to afford such a project and they certainly did not want to return to live in the village, but they knew that it was a sensible idea. Land was being used up quickly in the villages. Although all land in China belongs to the government, which can sell it at any time for commercial projects, villagers gain land rights if they build properties. If the government later wants to demonish these homes, the government will compensate the villagers, often with a sum larger than it had taken the villagers to build their homes. Her husband’s village was close to the radial road into the provincial capital as well as near the provincial airport. Factories were already sprouting up around it, as had a private Taiwanese-owned boarding school. It was very likely that its land would become sought after in the not-too-distant future. Knowing these things, Meimei and her husband, though saddled with debt, invested in the construction of a large home in the village.

By 2006, Meimei and her husband had constructed only the concrete shell of a large new home. It had no windows, doors, fixtures or fittings. They had also thought of no way to repay their debts, which were now more than forty thousand yuan. Meimei worried about their finances and eventually made a decision: she wanted to come to the city where we lived to find work as a nanny for a foreign family. Er Jiejie had begun working for a North American family we knew well and was earning two thousand yuan a month, far more than local families would pay for childcare. Meimei called and asked us to help find her a job with foreigners, too. Before we could even ask around, she called again to say that she had changed her mind because she would miss her children too much. We could understand. What mother would want to leave her young children behind? I had two boys of my own by that time and my heart ached at the thought of ever leaving them. However, within a few weeks Meimei was back on the telephone. They wanted to repay their debts and Meimei was resolute: she wanted to find work and asked for our help.

Two thousand yuan a month may not sound like very much, but it was significantly more than she could earn anywhere else. It was definitely more than she could earn if she took a migrant worker job in a factory or restaurant doing twelve-hour shifts seven days a week. It was more than double what her husband earned selling pork in the market. It was more than a rural teacher’s salary. It was even more than many bright and talented university graduates earn in the big cities.

At the time that she called, my husband and I were both working full-time as teachers. We also had a six-month old and a toddler so we had hired two nanny-housekeepers. We were worried about finding Meimei a job with people she didn’t know and were also cautious to recommend her to colleagues or friends in case they were not satisfied with her and it created tension between us. After thinking things through, we came to the conclusion that we could find a new family for one of our existing and experienced helpers and let Meimei help us. With us, Meimei could see how she adjusted to being away from home and we could do our best to ensure she was fine.

Before we shared our idea with Meimei, we felt very uneasy. I didn’t feel good about being the one to take her away from her little boys, but I also knew that if she came, she would feel far more at ease with us than with strangers. I knew that I could easily get along with her and that I liked her very much. I must also admit that I knew I would feel a real sense of fangxin if she were to come and help take care of our baby, for I knew she was exceptionally mild-mannered, patient and, unlike so many villagers, visibly affectionate.

When we proposed that Meimei work for us rather than another family, she immediately accepted. We assured her that we would understand if she found she missed her family too much and wanted to go home. I imagine she felt enormous relief to hear our offer, since, understanding no English, it would have been very challenging for her to try to communicate with most foreign families. I am sure she must have also realized how stressful it might be to work for strangers, too, doing a job she had never done before. Within a week or so of our suggestion, just after Chinese New Year ended, she packed her bags and, for the first time in her life, boarded an overnight train alone. Like millions of other impoverished young mothers across China who venture out to dagong, she cried as she left her family behind.

When she arrived, I think we all felt a sense of maodun – contradiction. We knew she would ache with sorrow whenever she thought of her children who were just eight and ten years old. She would naturally miss her husband, as well as her sisters, her mother and friends. She would feel homesick and, from my own early days in China, I knew how acute homesickness could be. I knew she would miss the familiar countryside, the spicy local food, and the sound of her own dialect. I knew she would dislike the city’s heavy pollution. And I knew that English would baffle her and that she would need time to adjust to the rhythm and rhyme of our bi-cultural home.

Fortunately, Mama was staying with us when Meimei arrived which meant that they kept each other company for the first few weeks of settling in. Mama had stayed with us several times and she knew me well; she explained many things and helped Meimei to understand more about me. For me, Meimei’s presence in our home was wonderful. I trusted her in a way I never could my previous helper and I could quickly feel that she was genuinely bonding with my sons. While I would not have felt comfortable to have any of the other sisters help me, this was not the case with Meimei because she was gentle, affectionate and warm. She fitted in with us effortlessly and I breathed easily knowing that she was caring for our baby while I went to work.

However, settling was not easy for Meimei. In the first few weeks with us, Meimei lost weight, a clear sign that she was homesick. She couldn’t get used to our food and she missed her family tremendously. They also missed her and she would find it hard to talk with her sons on the telephone. On Saturdays, we would take her out to parks and other favorite places so that she didn’t spend too much time alone. Like Mama, she would hate to spend our money on taxis or in restaurants, but we would insist, hoping to show her we cared and appreciated her.

From the start I felt guilty knowing that she was away from her own children in order to help us with our sons. What right did I have to take her away from them? I worried what immediate effect this would have upon her relationship with them, what long-term damage it might inflict. Another guilt I felt was when I discovered that she was determined to first pay off her debt to us. We had told her countless times that we wanted to forget about the money we had given to her when she built her pig farm and when she had later fallen ill. We had no financial worries and did not consider her indebted to us. However, Meimei refused to accept several months of pay until she knew she had completely returned our money. She was adamant; I think that her determination shows incredible, incredible integrity.

We rented a small apartment for Meimei near to our place. Er Jiejie had lived there while she was working as a nanny for our friends, and after she left, it became Meimei’s. It was a very basic bedsit with a tiny kitchen, bathroom and a room just big enough to squeeze in a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, a shelf and a television. As it was beside a university, many of the neighbors were young students, sharing similarly small rooms above a row of cheap restaurants and shops. This living arrangement was my preference, but I think it came to suit us all, though it may have felt strange to Meimei at first. I wanted time alone with my children in the evenings and I also wanted to give Meimei space and uninterrupted sleep, too.

In fact, Meimei came to spend most of her time with us. After eating dinner together she knew we didn’t mind if she wanted to leave, but she would often stay later. From the start, being around her was wonderfully easy and I grew to understand that it was because Meimei is not at all egotistical. She is informal and enjoys talking, but she balances this well with listening. She is also open and honest, which makes conversations easy. Over time, we learned to communicate well together, even though my Mandarin had serious shortcomings. She would often help me out by guessing at what I was trying to say when, in mid-sentence, I would lack the precise vocabulary. She never laughed at my linguistic errors or inaccurate pronunciation either, and her patience allowed us to develop a deep connection.

One thing we shared was a self-deprecating sense of humor. To Meimei’s consternation, the longer she stayed with us, the more weight she put on. She and I joked all the time about the weight we’d like to lose. We would try jogging along the river together, but our efforts never seemed to last. We would try eating less, but neither of us had enough willpower to take dieting seriously. We even took a few belly dancing lessons, but to no avail. I have lost count of the number of times we sat on the sofa after eating too much for dinner, lamenting the fact that we couldn’t lose weight. Somehow, we got into the habit of showing each other our flabby bellies, both exclaiming in Mandarin, “See, look at mine, it’s the worst!” Whenever we did that, my sons would push our wobbly tummies and we would both laugh so hard in dismay! But I would also feel so satisfied that any boundaries we used to have were gone; we had become, quite effortlessly, two sisters who loved each other enough to be able to laugh together at our misfortunate tummies.

Although we did not know how she would settle in to life in one of China’s largest cities, Meimei stayed with us for two and a half years. In that time, we never felt tension; we loved her calm and sunny nature and her gentle manner with our children. She followed my parenting style and I never felt that I needed to ask her to change her methods with my boys. She was also wonderfully playful, more so than me. She had a sweet singing voice and I also loved the fact that she read to my children, something the other nanny was unable to do.

After she had been with us for a year, Meimei become our sole helper and our primary support at home. She would arrive at 7 am every week day and would look after our youngest all day long. She would also pick up the elder boy from preschool each afternoon (I would take him there). In addition to taking care of our children, Meimei willingly took on most of our shopping, cleaning and cooking since we were so busy working. We came to depend upon her enormously and though she may have felt exhausted, she never once complained to us.

Over the time that Meimei stayed, I grew to regard her as our sons’ erma - second mother. She became central to their lives and they quickly loved, trusted and respected their gugu. My youngest son, in particular, developed a precious bond with her, one I was extremely grateful to witness. To Westerners, raised in nuclear families, the thought of a second-mother figure might sound unusual. Seeing their sons develop so much affection for and connection to another woman might make some mothers feel demoted and jealous, but I never saw Meimei as a rival. I believed in allowing my sons to love their gugu as much as they possibly could, even though she might not be a central figure in their lives forever.

Although it pains me to admit this, as Meimei’s bond with our children deepened, her relationship with her own boys did suffer. They were old enough to understand that their family needed her income, but it was hard for them to accept that their mother would be away for weeks at a time (we were teachers so every time we had school vacation, we would immediately arrange for Meimei to return home). She took them gifts each time she returned, yet she could feel them getting too used to her not being around. With each visit, she felt them growing distant and worried about their habits. Their father had to get up at 4 am to buy the pork to sell in the market, so he would leave them money to buy breakfast en route to school. However, Meimei heard that they had begun wasting this money to play addictive games at a cheap Internet café. Even more worrying to her was the news that her boys were failing school. They had never done well, but while she was away they began doing even more poorly. Without her there, the boys got into the habit of staying out and not doing homework, often going home only to eat supper and sleep. She knew they were becoming wild.

Sadly, many boys in laojia fit this unruly profile, but Meimei knew that her boys were affected by the fact that she wasn’t there to supervise, discipline or encourage them. It was very upsetting for her to know how badly they were performing at school or for her to hear that they wouldn’t listen to her mild-mannered husband’s instructions. It was even more painful for her to feel the weakening of her children’s emotional ties to her. They didn’t reject her as their mother; they were simply growing independent of her. She, like so many young female migrant workers in China who leave their children behind in the laojia, must have agonized about whether it was worth staying away in order to earn the additional income. I often told her that we would understand if she decided to go home, but as time went by, the decision became more and more complex. I think she feared that restoring the bond with her sons would be difficult, perhaps impossible, and she had also grown extremely attached to our children.

The thought of giving up her income was also very hard as Meimei knew that if she went back home her family would, once again, be struggling to make ends meet on her husband's unreliable earnings. In the time that she worked for us, they had actually not been able to save much at all. After working with us for almost a year, Meimei became ill again, this time with endometriosis. Once again, she needed to go to the city hospital for a surgical procedure which cost several thousand yuan. Then, after repaying various debts, the money she earned with us went simply to making ends meet for her family. Her growing boys needed new clothes, school fees and equipment needed to be paid for, food was becoming more expensive, and her boys also wanted treats like roller blades from her. Last year, when her husband foolishly gambled two months of her pay away, Meimei was so upset that she refused to talk to him on the telephone. He left his sons with their grandparents in order to seek her forgiveness, which, because she is beautiful, she gave. He is a very lucky man.

Unexpectedly, we left China last summer after my husband was offered a teaching post overseas. We made our decision hastily after his offer came, but one deciding factor was that if we left China, Meimei would be able to return home to try to restore her relationship with her boys. As painful as it was to imagine not having Meimei in our lives, as much as I felt an overwhelming sense of shebude, we believed it was what needed to happen. I will never forget the day that we parted. Her bags were all packed and she stood by the door. We hugged each other tightly. Our tears fell and I felt as if my heart would break.


Back in laojia, Meimei no longer has any chance of earning an income and her husband, though he continues to sell pork in the market, makes less money each month as the price of meat has decreased steadily in recent months. Soon after returning home, Meimei and her husband borrowed the enormous sum of 70,000 yuan to build yet another new village house. They raised this money by borrowing from Meimei’s third sister and youngest brother, as well as by taking out a bank loan. Although it makes little sense on the surface, this is a gamble which will probably pay off as there is a great deal of talk that the government will soon buy up land in her husband’s ancestral village. Without another house there, albeit an undecorated, unfurnished and unoccupied maopifang, Meimei and her husband would miss out on the chance to receive substantial government compensation. This compensation is really their only hope.

Since we parted this summer I have missed Meimei tremendously. However, more good has come of our departure than I ever imagined possible. I don’t know whether adjusting back to laojia has been easy or hard for Meimei; I imagine her return was filled with maodun, but Meimei doesn’t say and I don’t ask her over the phone. She does say that she regularly dreams of us, especially of the boys. I also don’t know how her monthly finances are either; she also avoids sharing too much about that with us, but I am sure things are tight. What I do know is that, unexpectedly and incredibly, she has become a mother again! A few months after returning home, she received a phone call from the local clinic to say that a woman – the wife of a state factory employee - had given birth to an unwanted daughter. The hospital worker asked whether Meimei and her husband would take the baby, since Meimei had previously told an acquaintance working there that she would like to adopt a daughter, if ever a girl was unwanted.

Meimei and her husband did not hesitate when the news came of the baby. Within a few hours, they arrived at the clinic and embraced the baby girl as their own. There was no paperwork, no signature, nothing required. Meimei simply took the tiny bundle into her arms and welcomed a daughter into her family. The next few days were spent in a joyous blur as they set about buying milk powder, bottles, clothes and bedding for the baby.

Few Chinese families adopt daughters, yet Meimei is supported by her extended family. Mama thinks the daughter will accompany Meimei in her old age in the way that her two sons will not. Meimei’s two sons are excited to have a tiny sister. And Meimei’s husband is proud to be a new daddy again. The addition of a baby certainly puts pressure on Meimei’s already tight finances, but Meimei doesn’t seem concerned. She simply appreciates serendipity sending her the chance to receive a beautiful baby daughter. In time, probably when the little girl is old enough to attend school, Meimei will figure out how to make this procedure legal.


Meimei came from a dysfunctional, deeply unhappy family in which affection was rarely expressed, yet she shows no bitterness. Instead, I see a pure and restful soul who is not afraid to offer and demonstrate love to those around her. I have learned a great deal from her over the years about thoughtfulness, generosity, selflessness and humility. Meimei may never become gloriously rich, but this does not appear to overly concern her. Instead, she seems to finds contentment in whatever situation she finds herself in. With all of my heart, I love this woman who once again lives a quiet life deep in China's countryside.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A note on farming

A few days ago I realised that I had neglected to describe farming in the laojia. I would like to try to summarize southern China's agricultural practices in order to illustrate the extent of the hardship farmers face.

For thousands of years farming in southern China has barely changed. In the laojia there are two labor-intensive rice harvests per year which call in early spring for irrigation ditches to be repaired and dug and fields to be ploughed. Soil is prepared and turned for planting by huge water buffaloes which pull weighty triangular iron ploughs. Ploughing requires a farmer to stand directly behind the buffalo in order to guide it through the process. Firmly holding the plough handle with the right hand, the left hand holds the buffalo’s guide rope (which is threaded through the buffalo’s nose) as well as a long whip to direct the buffalo. One has to be well trained and strong to complete this arduous task. Most women find this chore too strenuous, so it is usually the men who complete this process.

Rice seedlings are grown in a nursery bed so that once paddies are ploughed and irrigated, the seedlings can be scattered by hand across the field. Once the young rice plants grow around 20 centimeters, they are carefully pulled up, gathered into bundles and then dispersed evenly by hand one by one into neat rows. To replant the rice shoots, a farmer has no alternative but to bend over in shin-deep, leech-infested water for hours at a time. It is nothing short of torture, but it doesn't end there. Later, to weed the paddies, farmers must crawl slowly on their hands and knees between their rows of growing rice. Strapped to their backs are woven bamboo baskets into which they toss the weeds. In addition to weeding, in order to ensure a good yield, the farmers will also need to return to the fields to carefully spread handfuls of urea, a powdery chemical fertilizer. Nothing can be left to chance.

It is also no mean feat for the villagers to grow vegetables. There are normally only simple handheld tools. It is rare to see a tractor and impossible to see any kind of harvesting machine. Watering and weeding are endless tasks all year round, since the climate is mild enough for the land to be constantly in use. Watermelons and peanuts are harvested in summer and it is then the turn of sweet potatoes and sesame crops in autumn. Rapeseed grows throughout the winter and is harvested in spring. Each family also keeps a small garden full of a range of vegetables for its own consumption: chilli peppers, eggplants, onions, garlic shoots, capsicums, Chinese chives, kale...All the crop harvesting is done manually. Although things are changing, farmers main source of fertilizer is animal and human waste. Children are sent to gather buffalo, pig and dog excrement from around the village and families empty out the waste from their pit toilets onto their fields, seemingly unaware of its dangers. Today farmers also use dangerous chemical pesticides which they spray by hand from plastic containers which they strap to their backs.

Crops are hauled away from the fields in enormous bundles. Farmers used – and still do - a crude bamboo biandan upon which they could hook and balance their loads at both ends. Such a pole cuts heavily into each sweating and stammering farmer’s shoulder. When I watch a villager carry one, it seems as if their legs will surely buckle under the weight. Such poles are also used for hauling water from the village wells. If ever I see a biandan lying around a village, I think of the cruel horror it inflicts upon its user at harvest time.

Although some village families now cook using bottled gas, many still rely upon kindling. Children are normally sent to collect it from nearby woods and it is not always easy to find. Families also use crop stalks as fuel, too, although these are mainly dried and used as hay for the voracious buffaloes to eat during the winter months.

There are just the main tasks required of the villagers; there are many, many others. The life of a farmer in my husband's laojia is, without doubt, one of the worst fates I can think of.