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.

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.


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.