Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Beginning...

Fifteen years ago, when I was unable to even say ni hao, I met a boy who changed my life. I was twenty-one, freshly graduated from a UK university, and in China seeking escape and, possibly, adventure. He was an English major at the teacher training college where I had gone to teach for a year. I call him a boy because he was so uncomplicated. His hero was Mao Zedong, he loved his motherland, and he referred to his parents affectionately as ‘simple peasants’. He had been born into anguishing poverty during the middle of the Cultural Revolution, a time of chaotic tragedy. Fortunately, just as he reached school age Chairman Mao died, the Cultural Revolution ended, and schools began to reopen. From an early age, this boy loved to learn. Educated through a Communist lens, his vision was limited, but by the time I met him he was wanting more. He studied English language and literature diligently, asking endless questions about Shakespeare, theology, poetry, culture. By doing so, he caught my attention.

For my first Chinese New Year, five months after I arrived in China, we traveled together on my modest stipend and he fell in love with me. I didn’t know what I felt. After visiting Beijing and backpacking through Yunnan province, he took me by the hand to his tiny village in southern China where I met his family. During that first visit, they saw me only as a foreigner. I saw them as curious Chinese farmers. We could barely communicate, though they showed great kindness towards me. None of us imagined that I would marry this boy and become the foreigner in the family.

The entire family gathered at the parents’ home that cold Chinese New Year. They lived in a red brick house which had been built a few years earlier. Although austere, it was larger than I had imagined. The home had four bedrooms, designed so that each son could live in one with his wife and children. It contained a central room in which a tattered portrait of Chairman Mao looked down benevolently from the bare wall. Besides a basic wooden dining table, a few uncomfortable single-plank benches, and a cabinet for leftover food, there was little furniture. The only electrical appliance was the solitary light bulb which dangled from a wire. The floors were uneven concrete.

To the right of the house stood the pig pen and adjacent to that was a small, windowless kitchen in which a gigantic iron wok dominated. Behind the cooking range lay bundles of kindling. At the opposite end of the yard stood an adobe hut with a tiled roof. The stench it exuded left no doubt it was the toilet. Inside lay a great pit of ever-growing human waste which was emptied periodically for use as fertilizer in the fields. There was no running water in the village. The family relied upon a well.

His parents were farmers, producers of rice mainly, though they also grew other crops such as watermelons, peanuts, and sweet potatoes. They were illiterate, having had few opportunities for schooling during the upheaval of the Chinese civil war. Grandfather had been the son of a feudal landlord, but during the civil war of the 1930s he had gambled everything away. This misfortune turned out to be a blessing; after the Communists gained power in 1949 landlord families were persecuted and millions killed but their lives were spared. They were classified as poor peasants, along with the vast majority of the country’s population.

Over the course of that Chinese New Year the entire family came together several times. It was large, much larger than my own. Being one of four children, I’d always thought that I had a big family, but my visit put things into perspective. My husband is the fifth of seven children. Aside from his youngest sister, they were all married with children. Several of his siblings had two or three young children although the government’s one-child policy was by then in place. His father is also one of seven siblings, and so the number of aunts, uncles and cousins who also visited was baffling. Even today, after many visits, much of the extended family remains unfathomable to me.

By the 1990s, notions of leaving the farmland were reverberating through rural China. To the young and aspiring, regardless of whether they had attended school, farming seemed futile. China’s political perspective had shifted under Deng Xiaoping and economic opportunities in the countryside were opening up. It was an exciting, energizing time. As a result, ambitious men all over China rejected farming to try their hands at enterprise. My husband’s laojia was no exception; many villagers began to engage in small business ventures, some of which turned out to be extremely lucrative.

None of my husband’s immediate family still lives in the ancestral village with its muddy paths, well water and power cuts. As expected, each sister left after her wedding to join her husband’s village. My husband’s two brothers, along with my parents-in-law, moved during the late 1990s to a small town about 3 kilometers away. This town was situated along a radial road leading to the provincial capital some 20 kilometers away. Once in the town, people became more connected to the outside world. They built better homes, tiling the facades white and fitting large, tinted blue windows. Downstairs, space was left for opening future shops or restaurants while upstairs the families installed sinks and indoor toilets and enjoyed running water. Living rooms became dominated by noisy televisions sitting proudly on large, low consoles while refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners became sought after goods. Although basic by Western standards, the rural families were moving into the modern world.

Like many of the village homes today, the old red house stands abandoned. No son wanted his bride and children to there to live. Its double wooden door is padlocked, though nothing of worth remains inside. Their peach orchard, densely overgrown, bears fruit which the few remaining village children probably take. Over the years roof tiles have fallen. Rain leaks in, but it doesn’t matter. Besides the house, the water buffalo’s hut has fallen into disrepair. Recently, a fallen paotong branch smashed though the old kitchen roof onto the range where the immense iron wok used to sit. My husband often dreams that one day, he will renovate the village home, but we both know that it's unlikely.

Over the years, I have gone back and forth to laojia, stepping temporarily into their ever changing world. Much has changed, but what interests me most are the lives of the sixteen women to whom my marriage has connected me. The notes which follow are about these women – my mother-in-law, sisters-in-law and nieces (some of whom are yet to grow into women). I appreciate each one of them, though I know them to very differing degrees. They fill me with a range of emotions. I cannot understand so much about them, yet by composing this I try to understand them more. I also write about them to capture an essence of China that is invisible to the average Western tourist or business person. I write about them because they matter. If I make mistakes as I evaluate their lives, I ask for their forgiveness.

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