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.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

San Jiejie (Third Sister-in-Law)

San Jiejie - third sister-in-law - is now in her mid forties. She’s short but heavy for a Chinese woman. She worries constantly about her size and finds it difficult to buy clothes which fit, but she hasn’t always been overweight. On my wedding day in 1997, she wore a sheer summer dress which showed off her curves and trim waist. I remember wishing that I could have her perfect figure.

She’s not the only one in the family to have expanded in the last fifteen years or so. It seems like almost every woman in the family has put on weight. A main reason for this phenomenon is their shift to a sedentary life. Gone are the arduous days of planting, weeding, cultivating and harvesting by hand. Today, no member of the immediate family relies exclusively upon the land. They all live in or close to the new town which grew up by the busy road to the provincial capital. They rent most of their allocated paddy fields to poorer farmers who have moved into the ancestral villages from more remote mountain villages.

As a result of their relocation to the small town, the women in my family no longer need to rise before dawn in order to get as much of the farming done as they can before the heat overpowers. They do not need to gather kindling for cooking, draw water from the wells, wash clothes by hand, or raise pigs and chickens. Nor do they need to prepare meals for large families, since each has only two or three children. They are no longer worn out.

Today, the women, though still primarily responsible for household chores, have far less to do in life than they did when they were farming in the villages. In town, San Jiejie now lives in a two-storey cement house she borrowed money from relatives to build ten years ago. She has paid off the debt and now, although the home is still basically furnished and remained undecorated, it has a washing machine, bottled gas for cooking, and running water, all of which save her a great deal of time. The market is just a two-minute walk away, though she does still keep a small vegetable plot behind her house. Her three children have grown into independent teens that need little supervision.

Another reason for the collective weight gain amongst the women in my family is that incomes have risen as China has shifted towards a capitalist economic model. Like the majority of women she knows, San Jiejie relies upon her husband to be the breadwinner. Few women in the town have an independent income, though a handful do run small shops along the dusty street or rent stalls in the rundown marketplace. While the men have scrambled to find jobs as truck drivers, factory workers, mechanics, delivery men and construction workers, middle-aged women in the hometown seem to have lacked imagination or ambition. As a result, they are usually financially dependent upon their husbands.

While the men don’t always succeed, the families living in the town tend to have more money today than they did in the past. As a result, they eat better. Or rather, they eat more meat. Their diet has shifted dramatically in the past decade or so. As children, San Jiejie and her siblings ate mostly rice. They survived on a monotonous diet of rice congee, pickled vegetables and sweet potatoes. Meat was a luxury which appeared at Chinese New Year, but was scarce throughout the year. This diet continued throughout the 1980s, but began to change in the 1990s as families began to find ways besides farming to earn a living. Today, although most of my relatives are, by western standards, still living in poverty, meals contain a range of vegetables as well as significant amounts of meat: pork, chicken, beef, duck, goose, even turtle. They also eat plenty of fish, snails, and paddy field eels. Malnutrition is gone, replaced by a high protein diet. Combined with a sedentary lifestyle the result, naturally, is weight gain.

As a child, I am sure that San Jiejie never imagined that she would ever become overweight. Life was harsh and from an early age she worked hard to help her mother. Her main chore as a little girl was taking care of younger siblings. San Jiejie was just three years older than my husband, yet she spent the majority of her time as a child tending to him and later his younger brother. She would piggyback her younger siblings around the village, ensuring that they didn’t come to any harm. She would also help to feed and wash them. One day she played a joke on my husband; she scooped up a spoonful of mud from the yard and told him to eat it. He was extremely hungry, and opened his mouth to taste it. When he did so, she exploded in laughter and he immediately realized his foolish mistake.

San Jiejie was not the only sibling to work hard. Mama was preoccupied by the rice paddies, peanut fields or vegetable plots, so San Jiejie’s elder brother was charged with grazing their endlessly hungry water buffalo while San Jiejie’s elder sisters helped with the washing, cooking and raising of the pigs and chickens. As San Jiejie grew up, her father had little time for his family, preferring to drink and gamble when he wasn’t farming. When he was home, he was prone to violent arguments with his wife. Towards the children, he was stingy and selfish. At the dinner table, though he knew they were undernourished, he would hit their heads with his chopsticks if it seemed they were eating too fast or too much.

After her two elder sisters married, San Jiejie took on many of their chores, too. Then, when my husband became old enough to attend school, San Jiejie was allowed to study with him. Although she found it easy to learn, she felt awkward being ten years old in a class of seven-year-olds. Sadly, San Jiejie stayed in school for only two years. When her youngest brother became old enough to attend school, her parents withdrew her. It was expensive to send three children to school and another baby – the youngest sister – had been born. Being a girl, San Jiejie’s education was a lower priority to her parents than her brothers’. Before she knew it, San Jiejie was once again helping with the farm and housework, as well as tending to another younger sibling.

San Jiejie has always known she was discriminated against by her parents, but she expresses no anger. She holds no grudge and accepts that sons are normally regarded as more valuable than daughters. Nuer shi po chu qu de shui is a widely-known metaphor which means that daughters are the water which gets poured away. In China, sons continue the family line while girls, when they marry, become members of their husband’s family. Sons, not daughters, have the duty to support aging parents. This is the way it has been for thousands of years and although communism has done much to raise the status of girls and women, traditional thinking and practices are not easy to shift, particularly in the rural areas. So, when Mama and Baba chose to send their sons to school, it was because they knew that they would be reliant upon them in their old age. They needed at least one of their sons to succeed in life. And, sadly, since her elder sisters were now married, San Jiejie’s parents naturally chose her to help them right there and then to survive.

Childhood passed by for San Jiejie and by her late teens, she was married. A go-between introduced her to a well-built boy from a neighboring village. He had little education, but she liked his easy-going nature and handsome face. He knew that she was responsible and sensible. After she married, she missed her mother, but I imagine she was relieved to be away from her father’s drunken outbursts and terrible temper. When she had time, she would return to visit her family.

For several years, San Jiejie lived in extreme poverty in her husband’s ancestral village, which was smaller and more remote than her own. Her mud-brick home was basic. It had electricity but, like all the homes in the village, no running water or heating. If she needed provisions from the market, she had to walk far along uneven dirt paths. Her days were spent collecting kindling for firewood, washing her family’s clothes in a village pond, cooking and farming. They grew rice, watermelons, peanuts and sweet potatoes which they sold to support their growing family. They also tried to raise chickens, though the birds often got sick and died.

Three children came along in the first few years of their marriage: a girl, a boy, then another girl. The first two children were legitimate under the government’s birth control policy. In the 1980s, farmers could have a second child if the first was a girl. San Jiejie was fitted with the compulsory IUD after her son was born, but two years later found out she was once again pregnant. By law, she should have undertaken an abortion, but she wanted a third child and considered her unexpected pregnancy to have been fate. When her child was born, San Jiejie and her husband were punished with a fine.

When the children were young, San Jiejie’s husband found work at a newly established state dairy farm not far from the village. There, he earned a few hundred yuan a month and was trained to take care of the cows and learned how to inseminate. The skills he gained have since proved invaluable. About ten years ago, because of his specialized knowledge and abilities, he took his first job as a migrant worker veterinarian. The pay offered in other provinces was higher than in their hometown’s dairy and he needed to earn more to support his growing children. Ever since, he has primarily worked away from home, normally returning only for a few days a year at Chinese New Year. Though he earns more away from home, the family still struggles to make ends meet.

His departure as a migrant worker has been very difficult for San Jiejie. Although she is pragmatic, she is also misses him greatly when he is away. San Jiejie is also often suspicious, wondering if he, like many migrant workers, is having affairs. Sometimes she challenges his fidelity and emotional arguments ensue. Perhaps she is paranoid, but I suppose it must be very hard for any woman not to wonder about her handsome husband when he is far away from home for months on end.

Ways of raising children differ from family to family and from culture to culture. I’ve always been fascinated by the child-raising methods I have witnessed in my husband’s lao jia. Da shi qing, ma shi ai is a Chinese saying which translates as follows: hitting is a sign of affection and scolding is a sign of love. San Jiejie seems like an ardent follower of this traditional philosophy and her parenting style has always troubled me. To me, she is overly strict and highly critical of her children. She is hot tempered and sharp towards them. If I tell her that her daughters are beautiful, she’ll retort that they are ugly. If I say they are clever, she’ll reply that they are stupid. In order to be modest, plenty of Chinese parents put down their children if you compliment them, but San Jiejie seems to do it all too readily and vehemently. When her children were smaller, she was also likely to use physical punishments for even quite insignificant misdemeanors. I always sensed that her children were wary of her, but I think she behaved in this way because she wanted them to be obedient and stay out of trouble. I remember when her son once fell out of a tree and was rushed to the local clinic. When she arrived, San Jiejie collapsed against the wall, wailing at the sight of his broken bone sticking out of his flesh, convinced that he would become a permanently disabled burden. It didn’t occur to her to hold the frightened boy tight to comfort him.

Sometimes, San Jiejie has left the three children behind at home in order to go stay with her husband in other provinces. Sometimes she has found work at the same place, often as a kitchen helper. In the early days, the children were not even teens. When she left, San Jiejie would rely upon her eldest daughter to take care of the younger two. Mama, who lives across the street, would also try to supervise. Often, while San Jiejie has been away with her husband, her children have been miserable or have gotten into trouble, perhaps in order to bring their mother home. If San Jiejie heard about difficulties from Mama, she would normally rush back. Her past decade has been one of torn loyalties. She has wanted to raise her children, but she has also wanted to be with her husband. It’s been a no-win situation.

As a migrant worker, San Jiejie’s husband has not always been treated fairly. More than once, he has accepted a position and worked long hours in extremely poor conditions, only to have his salary delayed for several months before realizing that the dairy boss has no intention of ever paying him for his efforts. Two years ago, the dairy owner he worked for failed to pay him for several months. This is a common situation for migrant workers and the police in China often refuse to help. San Jiejie’s husband decided to leave and join another dairy in a province not so far away from home. San Jiejie, however, refused to give up on the outstanding pay. Before her husband left the dairy, she went to join him. Day after day she remained in the squalid room that her husband had lived in beside the overcrowded and overwhelmingly pungent cowshed until the boss finally agreed to pay her husband’s remaining salary. I admire San Jiejie’s determination and courage as many illiterate countryside women would have given up. Most would have been too intimidated to take on a rich dairy owner face-to-face.

As a result of her several extended visits to be with her husband, San Jiejie has managed to learn Mandarin. It’s still heavily accented with their local dialect, but she can now communicate with people from all over China. To me, this is a remarkable achievement. She’s also learned more about society, even though some of the lessons have been painful. San Jiejie is very wary of the outside world, but she’s also determined to stand up for herself as much as she can whenever she enters it and for that, I admire her.

When San Jiejie is not away from home with her husband, she can often be found sitting on a small bamboo chair outside her house, passing the time of day. She’ll be with friends or relatives, eating guazi. Or she’ll be enthralled by romantic Qing dynasty dramas on television, at which she cries openly when tragedy occurs. She doesn’t need to venture far from home if she gets bored. Her youngest sister’s house is adjacent to hers and Mama lives less than a minute’s walk away. Just across the street is her elder brother’s home where relatives and neighbors play cards or majiang almost every day. Sometimes, she’ll be drawn into one of the games and will and take a seat at the gambling table, though she tends to resist for much of the time.

Last summer, San Jiejie’s husband unexpectedly lost his job and returned home. They suddenly had no income and their financial struggles intensified. While he tries to find another dairy to go to, San Jiejie has bought a refrigerator. She now sells drinks and ice creams outside her house because they need whatever money they can get to support their eldest daughter who is completing a nursing degree in the provincial capital. The nursing degree has been a huge expense for San Jiejie and her husband, but they want their daughter to have skills so that she can become self-reliant. Meanwhile, San Jiejie’s son is in high school. His grades are average, but he is about take the college entrance examinations. If he passes, San Jiejie and her husband will need to support him through his degree. If he fails, she will try to find a technical college to send him to so that he will not become another of the millions of unskilled young men in China. Whichever way things go, San Jiejie knows she will need money to support her son for several more years. As for her youngest daughter, she dropped out of school last year, much to San Jiejie’s dismay. Last I heard, she was working for a couple of hundred yuan a month in a small clothes shop. She still lives at home, and is likely to do so until she marries.

San Jiejie is the daughter who Baba wanted to abandon at birth. To him, this girl was just another mouth to feed. In spite of knowing this, and the fact that he treated Mama deplorably, San Jiejie has always been very filial towards her father. She often invites him over to eat at her place and makes time for him. Today, if asked, Baba would say that out of all his daughters, San Jiejie is the one who has treated him the most generously.

I’d say he’s extremely fortunate that Mama fought for San Jiejie to remain in the family.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Er Jiejie (Second Sister-in-Law)

Even in middle age, Er Jiejie - second sister-in-law - is beautiful. She recently became a grandmother, yet her skin is flawless, her small teeth neat and white, and her long hair beautifully thick and dark. Her brown almond eyes move slowly and sometimes seductively. Her voice is quiet and her movements feminine. She is modest, seemingly unaware of her own beauty. She dresses in a simple and attractive way, yet she never wears makeup or carries a handbag. When photographed, she is nervous, unable to smile naturally. To me, her unease in front of the camera is endearing.

Er Jiejie experienced the hardships of village life, along with her siblings. Like many children at that time, she suffered from repeated tape worm infestations, but no effective medication was available. She also suffered from malnutrition, a shortage of clothes during the severely cold winter months, and a lack of attention from her parents. As an introverted child, she lacked confidence to attend school. Like her elder sister, she witnessed her father’s inexplicable cruelty towards her mother. She would easily cry.

Like all her sisters, Er Jiejie was introduced by a go-between to her husband. It was the early 1980s. He came from a neighboring village and was the eldest of five siblings. He’d taken the national university entrance examinations, scoring almost perfectly in the incredibly complex math sections. Without doubt, he was a bright young man. His stumbling block was English. In his rural school, there was no English teacher. He attempted to learn by himself, but mastering English proved impossible. After two miserable failures, he resigned himself to the fact that he wouldn’t make it to university. His family had then turned to a go-between who approached Mama and Baba for a match.

Er Jiejie and her husband were attracted to each other from the beginning. Though she had no education, he liked her sweet, gentle nature and must also have been impressed by her understated beauty. She, in return, admired his intelligence and calm, even temper. Within a few months, they married and she felt satisfied, happily moving to live in his neighboring village not far from her own.

Er Jiejie has always relied upon her husband to make sound judgements. He leads, she follows. She's not a decisive or quick-minded person, but, like her husband, Er Jiejie has always been hard working. After her marriage, she and her husband had no choice but to farm. By this time, collective farms had been disbanded by the government and farmers were eking out whatever living they could choosing whichever crops they thought might bring them the most return. Er Jiejie and her husband planted a wide range of vegetables which they sold every morning in the local town’s market. However, as China opened up its economy under its new leader, Deng Xiaoping, they looked for ways to improve their situation in life. For a time, they worked in a nearby restaurant and this gave them a chance to meet a wider circle of people and to learn more about the world. Later, they bought a snooker table and charged people to use it at their village house.

In the late 1980s Er Jiejie gave birth to two children: a girl, then a boy. At that time rural families were allowed to have a second child if their eldest born was a girl. Not long after the children were born, Er Jiejie’s husband found work in a nearby marble factory. It wasn’t long before the owner recognized his abilities and promoted him to the position of manager. With this title came enormous responsibility. He was required to work exhaustingly long hours as he was charged with finding new business, organizing all the orders and overseeing all the accounts. Though the pay was a pittance, it was physically far easier than farming, and future opportunities seemed good.

What this meant for Er Jiejie was that the task of caring for the children, the rice paddies, and the vegetable plots fell upon her shoulders. Her husband worked long hours and for several years, after the factory relocated, he could only come home to see her occasionally. However, she did not waver. Loving her children and wanting them to have what she never had in life – a chance at education – she worked tirelessly with the planting, the cultivating and the harvesting. At the same time, she ensured that her children attended school and, although she could not read and write, she encouraged both children to complete all their homework diligently.

Er Jiejie’s daughter was not very academic. After completing middle school her parents did not believe she would make it to university, so they scraped money together to send her to the city to a private elementary teacher training course. On the other hand, their son excelled in middle school and it was clear that he had the potential to attend one of China’s top universities. This would be unlikely to happen if they sent him to the local high school, where the quality of teaching was low, especially in subjects like English.

To help her son succeed, Er Jiejie and her son moved from the countryside to a county town not far from the provincial capital. There, they rented a dismal two-bedroomed apartment and he attended a better high school. For three years, Er Jiejie lived there without familiar friends and family for support. It was a lonely time as her husband could only visit occasionally and her son spent most of his time at school. When he did return, he would need to spend hours reviewing his textbooks or completing his homework. Er Jiejie had plenty of time to spend worrying about her son. Every morning she would rise early to cook him a nutritious breakfast. At noon, she would have lunch ready for him, and after school his dinner would be waiting. To ensure that he did not get distracted from his studies, they had no television. She missed the countryside life, but tried not to complain; she was prepared to sacrifice in order for her son to attend university.

Although her husband had status as a marble factory manager, the reality was that his income was as low as a farmer's. While her son studied in town, Er Jiejie was unable to continue supplementing her husband’s salary by producing vegetables. In addition, buying food in town was more expensive than it had been in the countryside. Money became extremely short, but they were determined to give their son this chance.

Three years later, when Er Jiejie’s son passed the national university entrance examinations, she could return to the village and farm again, but finances were still a problem. Er Jiejie now had two children studying away from home. Her son was now a law student at one of China’s top universities. On top of tuition fees, there were additional dormitory fees, travel expenses, meal costs, and the need for her son to buy a computer.

Er Jiejie is quiet around her own family; she is even more reserved with strangers. She has never travelled and speaks little Mandarin. In spite of her underconfident nature, after seeing her son off to university, she bravely moved to one of China’s major cities and became a nanny for a North American family I knew well. Her only motivation was to help provide financially for her children’s education. She had never been away before and she missed her home, her husband, her extended family. Though Er Jiejie grew fond of the little girl she was caring for, she was anxious about her capabilities and constantly worried whether she might do something wrong. She felt out of her depth and homesick.

After a few months of Er Jiejie being away from home, her husband made a bold move. He decided, after more than ten years, to set up his own marble factory. Er Jiejie returned home to help. Today, they work hard side by side and have established a solid business. After years of sacrifice for the sake of their children, they are now able to live together again. They must feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

Last summer, I took a picture of them together. Er Jiejie was profoundly embarrassed when I joked that her husband should place his arm around her. She blushed deeply as I snapped the photograph. Yet to me, their devotion for each other is obvious. I believe it will remain forever.

Update July 2014

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 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 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...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Da Jiejie (Eldest Sister-in-Law)

Da Jiejie - my husband’s eldest sister - had only one question to ask about me when she found out that I was her brother’s girlfriend.

“Does she smell like a sheep? I’ve heard foreigners all smell like sheep.”

I don’t know why her brother decided to tell me what she’d said. He thought it was funny; I thought it was insulting, until I realized that it must have been because she knew that Westerners like to eat dairy produce while Chinese, traditionally, don’t. As to why she didn’t think it might be too personal of a topic, I don’t know. I suppose she simply seized the opportunity to get information which she’d otherwise have no way to access. What she was planning to do with the information, if her brother had admitted I did smell like a sheep (which, thankfully, he didn’t – because I don’t!), I dread to think.

Da Jiejie's question has remained a joke between my husband and me, but I think it reveals just how little was, and is, known about Westerners in China’s interior provinces. It also reveals true curiosity, something which I have grown to realize that Chinese people have a great deal of, and are often unafraid to show. Chinese friends and acquaintances often ask me questions which even my own parents wouldn’t dream of asking. I’d say the most common one, which no taxi driver can resist asking, is, “How much do you earn?” Other favorites seem to be, “How old are you?” or “How much did you pay for your apartment?”

To get back to Da Jiejie, I would say that out of all the siblings, she is most insecure. She is a heavy-set woman who often comes across as argumentative or defensive. She speaks in their dialect quickly and loudly, but her volume is not to be confused with confidence. When she talks, her eyes tend to dart around, as if she expects someone’s contradiction or put-down. If she happens to smile, it’s awkwardly, covering her mouth as if she feels she shouldn’t let herself enjoy such a moment. I see her as a lonely woman filled with self-doubt, a woman who fears she is not liked and who finds it hard to trust.

My husband says she suffered the most out of all the siblings, and that’s why she lacks self-esteem. It’s true. She grew up in the 1960s on the impoverished commune where, from a very early age, she suffered during famines and was also expected to work hard. Her father had no interest in his children, especially the girls, and spent the majority of his time disappointing her mother. Her mother’s days were spent laboring in the fields, inside the kitchen or at the pond washing clothes. Every year or so, another sibling was born and caring for them became her primary duty in life. Small girls taking care of their younger siblings was (and is) common in rural China. I have often seen six or seven year old girls carrying around babies on their backs or bouncing toddlers up and down on their laps, far away from adult supervision. Da Jiejie would not have been the only little girl in the village who spent her days keeping a string of younger siblings safe, warm and out of trouble. But this little girl was growing up in a home where her alcoholic father regularly beat his wife and where she knew that her existence mattered not one dot to him. She was growing up where love was scarce and violence plentiful. In this child’s heart, there must have been an overwhelming surplus of fear.

Schools throughout China were closed when my eldest sister-in-law was born, due to Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Though the Cultural Revolution was wreaking havoc throughout China, their small village did not experience much terror. Slogans were painted, a handful of city students arrived to work on the commune, and pictures of Chairman Mao hung on every family’s wall. The family tree, tracing the clan’s genealogy back to the Song Dynasty, was hidden, buried deep in a field for safe-keeping. Some antiques were destroyed, but in general the villagers possessed little which needed purging and no one was too interested, anyway. The main focus amongst villagers was food. In the 1960s there were severe shortages of even basics such as rice and cooking oil. Famine was their main fear, not Red Guards.

I wonder sometimes whether Da Jiejie would have been sent to school if the school had been open. I somehow doubt it. She was a girl and was needed at home. Her days revolved around her younger siblings, but as she grew she was also given a widening range of domestic chores such as gathering wood for fuel, washing clothes in the village pond and, later, work in the leech-infested paddy fields. Her father, in order to gain extra ration coupons from the commune, volunteered her to roam with and watch the village’s herd of water buffalo. She hated tending the herd, terrified when she was away from the safety of the village that a wolf might attack or lightning strike.

When the Cultural Revolution ended and schools finally reopened in the late 1970s, Da Jiejie was a teenager, and approaching an age when it seemed appropriate to find her a husband. By her 16th birthday, the family began making arrangements for her engagement. Having never been to school, she was completely illiterate, but the family did not want her to have an equally illiterate husband. Her grandmother’s sister, living in a nearby village, introduced her grandson, a short, dark-skinned young man who was literate enough that he hoped to attend teacher training college. They met and quickly became engaged. Love was not important.

Time here for a note on go-betweens. In the Western mind, the use of a go-between seems an antiquated and even repulsive method for finding a spouse. There’s nothing romantic or spontaneous about it. Yet in China, this pragmatic approach is still very much in use. While the number of official go-betweens has surely fallen and the number of young people independently finding love is no doubt rising, introductions are still commonplace in China, both in the cities and in the countryside. I’ve come to see that this method has its advantages. It takes a great deal of pressure off young people to find Mr. Right or Miss Perfect all by themselves; instead, they can rely upon recommendations from others without feeling any sense of embarrassment.

Engagements are often short in my husband’s hometown. From my observation, it seems that today this is because the girl often becomes pregnant. However, Da Jiejie's engagement lasted several years. Shortly after its announcement, her fiancĂ© was accepted at a Teacher Training College in a nearby town. China had a shortage of teachers after the Cultural Revolution and so the entrance requirement was much lower than it would be today. This was a real opportunity for him; although teachers’ salaries were meager, they were secure. It would also mean that he would not have to struggle to eke out an existence through farming.

I’m sure the family celebrated this fortunate news. Even though it delayed the marriage as he left to study in the town, it meant that her future, economically speaking, would not be as harsh as her childhood. However, I think it also caused imbalance. Perhaps he regretted having agreed to marry such an illiterate and, I imagine, uncouth girl. Perhaps he wished he could break off the engagement and find someone else. I sometimes wonder why he didn’t. Perhaps because his grandmother had been the go-between, he felt he could not turn back. Perhaps he worried that other girls would find him too short and dark. Whatever the reason, in the early 1980s, almost as soon as he graduated, they married.

After the wedding Da Jiejie went to live in her husband’s village, 3 kilometers away from her own. She continued to farm while her husband began to teach mathematics at a local primary school. Two children – a girl then a boy - were born. People say the marriage, even in the early days, was never happy. There have been periods when she has thought her husband has been unfaithful, and she holds a great deal of mistrust in her heart. For as long as I have known them, I have seen no closeness, no companionship, no evidence of affection. In general, Da Jiejie's husband treats her with cold indifference. A few years ago, when she suffered from extreme breast pain which she thought might be cancer, her husband remained silent, refusing to take her seriously and accompany her to the hospital. At one point my mother-in-law accused him of wanting her daughter to die. I suspect she may have been right.

I have to say that on one level I can understand this man. Though coming from a similarly impoverished background, he elevated himself though education and perhaps feels embarrassed of his wife. She is somewhat simple-minded and illogical. She’s uncouth and coarse. She is also, I’m sure, emotionally and mentally scarred by the ugly childhood dramas instigated by her father.

In recent years, Da Jiejie has become a devout Buddhist. She has created a temple room in her simple village home where she prays, burns incense, and leaves offering every day for Guanyin and other important figures. She observes all holy days and regularly visits a nearby temple, too, sometimes staying overnight. Her husband thinks she is fanatical, and resents the money she spends on worship. Other sisters call her superstitious, but she refuses to listen. Her devotion is strong. I wonder if her unwavering faith is a response to a lack of security in life. Whatever the cause, belief in their local version of Buddhism has given her both a sense of purpose and a sense of peace.

Da Jiejie has always displayed a strong sense of duty towards her family. When my husband became a middle school student, she let him live with her so that he wouldn’t need to walk 6 kilometers a day along the dirt tracks to and from his village. She cooked for him, washed his clothes by hand, and gave him a quiet space in which to study. Her help allowed him to focus upon his studies and he has always been grateful for her care. Da Jiejie has also remained kind to her father. To this day, though she witnessed her father’s relentless abuse she continues to be a generous daughter. Although she sympathizes deeply with her mother, she will not avoid or ignore her father. She still cooks for my father-in-law and always welcomes him into her home. To her, like all the children, it is a case of mei banfa. Baba is who he is, but he is still Baba. I often marvel at their acceptance of him.

Da Jiejie is a stocky woman who is now approaching fifty. Every time I visit, the thick white roots of her dyed black hair are visible and it is always badly permed or cut. Her clothes are cheap and dull, often pulled unpleasantly tight across her remarkably large, low-hanging breasts. On her feet, she normally wears simple black cotton shoes and she carries her money around in one of her thin nylon socks. She is not at all attractive, and probably never has been. But when I think about her right now, I realize that I love this woman who, through her sense of duty, helped make it possible for me to know her brother. And I’ll forgive her for her assumption that I must, somehow, smell like a sheep!

Mama's Life

Before Mama’s arrival in 1940, her mother had given birth to nine children. Her labors were always excruciating and long. The births took place in their small mud-brick countryside home during the days of China’s Anti-Japanese war. There was no medical support or assistance and by the time the babies were delivered, they were stillborn or simply too exhausted to survive.

Believing that they would never give birth to a baby of their own, Mama’s parents adopted one of the husband’s brother’s sons. This practice was common; a brother often gave one of his younger sons to a childless brother. Soon after this, the couple also adopted an unwanted baby girl. Their plan was for their adopted son to later marry the adopted daughter. Though it seems unnatural - even appalling - to us today, this was an acceptable feudal practice in China right up until the middle of the twentieth century. It was a way for the couple to ensure that they would be cared for in their old age.

Mama’s arrival a few years later took everyone by surprise. Her mother was past the age when women were considered fertile. When Mama was born, small but healthy, the couple was thrilled to have a child of their own.

Mama grew up with a sense that she was incredibly precious. She was also quite fragile, or, at least, treated as if she were. As a young girl, she suffered from a huge tape worm, but at that time, no one knew what it was. The doctors thought she suffered from too much heat in her body; no one had any medication to offer her so for years she lived with the chronic pain.

Normally, farmers’ children would help with the work as soon as they were able to. But this little girl was spared from chores by her parents. This seems understandable, given the grief her parents had suffered before she was born. Her mother doted upon her and though the family was poor, she felt loved.

However, sorrow was not far away. The Anti-Japanese war was spreading throughout the country. China was losing; Japanese soldiers would soon overrun their Southern province.

Mama has two strong memories of the Japanese occupation. The first is her own narrow escape from death. One afternoon, soldiers with bayonets approached her village. Most villagers fled, but Mama did not know of the danger because her house was a little way off from the village. Mama was in the kitchen with her mother who was lighting a fire for cooking when the soldiers entered. Finding them, the soldiers intended to set fire to the building and burn them alive. Mama’s desperate mother told the soldiers she had another daughter out in the village. Accompanied by a soldier, Mama and her mother were ordered to find her. Mama’s mother called a fictitious girl’s name, desperate that her own adopted child would not appear. After some time, the soldier grew tired of the search and sat down to wait. Mama and her mother ran for their lives. They knew the village shortcuts, its nooks and crannies, so they made their way to the village landlord’s impressive home. He and his family had already fled, so they found it deserted. For hours, they hid in his bedroom, terrified that they would be discovered. They survived as the soldiers, tired of searching, gave up and left.

Mama’s second memory is of a far more brutal experience. On another occasion, her father was laboring in the paddy field when Japanese soldiers returned. Whether out of boredom or due to orders from above, the soldiers captured and beat him before throwing his exhausted body into the village pond. After fishing him out, they burned him with incense sticks until he regained consciousness. Once conscious, they tortured him several more times: they’d question him, beat him, throw him in the pond, fish him out, revive him, ask another question…and so on, until he was absolutely exhausted. Somehow he managed to survive, but Mama thinks he never recovered from his ordeal.

After the defeat of the Japanese, power was returned to the guomindang, but the gongchandang, the Communists, sought it, too. Civil war broke out. All over China, people were nervous. Teachers, even in rural areas, knew that their traditional Confucian methodology was condemned by the gongchandang and, quite wisely, feared persecution if the gongchandang won. For Mama, civil war meant that she only attended primary school sporadically for a few short months.

When the gongchandang secured victory in 1949, Mama did not go back to school, but it did seem as if good luck had come to Mama’s family. Her father was appointed as the village leader for land reform and villagers felt jubilant because the days of landlord control were over. However, within just a very short time, tragedy happened. Mama’s father was dead. No one knows exactly what happened. After returning from a land reform meeting in a nearby village, he took a nap on a low bamboo bed. He suffered a massive stroke or a heart attack that afternoon.

More misfortune followed. A year later, her mother developed three tumors on her back. Medical help was unavailable so she soon passed away in excruciating pain.
Mama had become an orphan. She was 15 and both of her adopted siblings had married by then, though they hadn’t married each other. A few years back, her parents had decided that their adopted daughter should marry a cousin’s son. In return, the cousin’s son had agreed to help the aging couple with their farm. The girl’s feelings against the marriage ran deep. She attempted suicide, but in the end was forced to comply.

Although Mama was close to her sister, her sister now belonged to her own husband’s family and they were not willing to look after Mama. Mama’s sister was also heavily pregnant. Her adopted brother was struggling to make ends meet as a farmer and was also in no position to take her in. Instead, Mama went to live with her father’s eldest brother. She stayed there for a year, yet she knew that his wife deeply resented her.

At 16, Mama decided to leave. She joined a local amateur drama troupe. The men in the group earned their livings transporting goods during the day, but in the evenings the group rehearsed and sometimes performed. They took in Mama and although she was never good enough to perform, the group taught her to sing local operas and she helped behind the scenes. Mama appreciated their care immensely.

By the late 1950s, the troupe heard that work could be found at a newly created state fishery. The troupe members applied for jobs and Mama was assigned work as a cook. She considered herself very fortunate as this job guaranteed her a small but steady income, not to mention three meals a day. As time went by, the troupe rehearsed less and less. Some members married, others moved on, and friends at the fishery became Mama’s hope.

Not long after she began work at there, Mama met a man who was to become her brother-in-law. Baba’s eldest brother had joined the gongchandang and had been appointed as a Village Head. As such, he had the opportunity to visit the state fishery. There he came across Mama, whom he noticed because of her outgoing nature and her long, thick glossy braids. Mama, he decided, would be a good match for his younger brother, who was old enough to now be in need of a wife.

Just about all rural marriages in China were the result of introductions in the 1950s, and so it came to be that Mama, at the age of 18, was introduced to Baba. She was impressed that a Village Head sought her to be his brother’s wife and even though friends at the fishery warned her that the brother was rather simple minded, she did not dwell on it. Using a persuasive village woman as the go-between, Baba’s elder brother lured Mama into thinking that this would mean her husband would treat her well. He also promised that he could help find her a better position, possibly as a train conductor, if she agreed to the marriage. He also assured her that he would secure a better danwei for his younger brother, who was at that time a worker in a diesel engine factory in the city. The promises were never kept, but they were enough to convince Mama to agree to the marriage, which took place six months later.

Mama told me that Baba treated her well at first. He was well-known for his strength, so on their wedding day, he walked to her village with his wooden wheelbarrow, picked her up, placed her in it, and then pushed her all the way back to his home more than 10 kilometers away. Although they were not in love, indeed, they barely knew each other, such an effort seemed like a good omen. Mama believed she had made a good choice.

As China grew more and more impoverished in the early 1960s under Chairman Mao’s flawed economic policies, life became incredibly harsh. After becoming pregnant with her first child, Mama had given up her job at the fishery since her husband had work at the factory. She still hoped her brother-in-law would keep his promise to find her husband a better danwei, but his help failed to materialize. Then, to Mama’s dismay, her husband one day quit his job. It was just after the insanity of the Great Leap Forward. Baba's pay was a pittance, far less than even a poor farmer could earn, and he had had enough. This became their first major conflict as Mama felt he had thrown away their security. Suddenly, they were reliant upon eking out a living farming in Baba’s ancestral village. It was time for Mama to learn firsthand just how exhausting farming could be.

After returning to the village, Mama’s husband began to change. Perhaps the hardship was what changed him. Rice farming is back-breaking, labor-intensive work. Nothing can be left to chance. In addition, the family relied upon vegetable plots and tried to raise a few pigs. All of this was extremely time consuming and difficult. However, back in the village Baba would complete his communal chores, but left most of the remaining work to his wife. Mama would rise before dawn to fetch water, prepare breakfast and to wash clothes before the sun came up. She would also prepare the pigs’ food. Meanwhile, Baba began to drink more and would laze away in bed, often with a hangover. During the day, Mama faced endless chores. Besides her duties on the collective farm, she had to find time to take care of the needs of her growing family and complete her chores in the vegetable garden and with the pigs. Though she was often pregnant, Mama had no choice but to complete her chores; it was that, or allow her family to face even greater malnutrition than they already did.

Mama was exhausted and disappointed. This was not the life she had expected to lead when she had agreed to marry Baba. Conflicts became inevitable. Then, when Baba did find work at a nearby danwei which produced cooking oil, he refused to share his ration coupons with the family. He continued to smoke and drink heavily, ignoring the fact that his children’s bellies were swollen with hunger and their feet were bare. When Mama appealed to him to share his additional income or to help with the farming, he would explode in rage. Soon after joining the danwei, he also began to stay away from home and Mama suspected an affair. It would be the first of many.

Mama found her husband’s behavior hard to tolerate. She would criticize him for failing to care for the family and in return, the man she had married became more and more aggressive, unpredictable, and dangerous. A cycle of physical abuse began which was not to end until after the children had all left home. Towards his children, Baba was not often violent; simply selfish. They were frequently threatened and scolded, but were seldom beaten. For the most part, their father seemed to ignore their existence.

My husband clearly remembers his drunken father beating Mama during arguments over money or women, sometimes almost to death. His three elder sisters would huddle together and cry. He would clench his fists, wishing he were big enough to protect his mother from the terrible blows, big enough to fight his own father. Once, his valiant elder brother intervened, punching his father in the stomach during one of his brutal attacks on Mama. My husband swore to himself that when he grew up, he would not become like his father.

Several times, Mama petitioned the commune leaders for a divorce, only to be told she must stay with her abusive and adulterous husband for the sake of the children. She longed to leave with the children, but she had no parents to turn to and her adopted brother and sister had their own families to take care of. No one was in a position to take in Mama and her brood of children.

Feeling trapped, Mama grew depressed. She longed to escape, but knew that she could not abandon her children. As a child, she had seen her cousins suffer terribly the hands of a cruel stepmother. Unable to bear the thought of her children facing such a fate if she left, she endured the misery. At times, though, despair overpowered her. At one point, she threw herself into a nearby reservoir in an attempt to end her sorrow. She could not swim, but passing villagers rescued her. On another occasion, she experienced a severe bout of tuberculosis which coincided with another severe attack of tapeworm, this time in her liver. At the height of her illness, Mama’s husband decided to take a trip to a neighboring province to buy parts for his danwei’s oil press. He didn’t need to go; a coworker could have easily taken his place, but he preferred a trip to taking care of his wife. For several days after he abandoned her, Mama lay on her bed, refusing to take medication, hoping she could die in order to escape from her marriage.

In total, although her marriage became bitterly unhappy, Mama gave birth to seven children: four girls and three boys. Without access to contraception, Mama also found herself pregnant many times between these births. Like many exhausted rural women at that time, Mama chose painful abortions so that she would not have too many children to provide for. Not once did she go to hospital for an abortion; instead they were self-induced or, when that failed, performed by the village midwife who had no medical training or equipment.

Ultimately, Mama found strength to live for the sake of her children. She loved each one fiercely, both the boys and the girls. When a third daughter was born, Baba demanded that they give her away. A huge battle ensued. As tired as she was from the difficult labor, Mama refused, clutching the tiny girl close to her breast. Mama won that fight and the little girl remained a member of the family.

Mama fought other battles, too. After the Cultural Revolution ended, she urged her younger children to attend school. The elder three girls were needed at home to help with the farm work, but the others were all encouraged to attend. Sadly, only one – her middle son - completed primary school. Mama tried to force her eldest and youngest sons to attend, but they would repeatedly truant, preferring to run loose with other kids in the village. To punish her sons, she would beat them with a wooden stick, though to no avail.

My husband – the middle son - was fortunate to be born at the right time in China’s history. In the year that he reached school age, Mao died and the Cultural Revolution came to an end. He was also a curious child who wanted to learn, so Mama sent him to attend the reopened village school. At night, by oil lamp, he would read borrowed copies of China’s four classic stories, mesmerized in particular by The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

My husband was shortsighted, unable to see the chalkboard clearly, so he struggled in primary school. He needed to repeat a grade several times before they realized that that he needed a pair of glasses. When his mother understood his problem, she immediately arranged for him to get a pair of glasses, even though they could barely afford the expense on top of school fees.

By the time my husband graduated from primary school, he dreamed of one day going to university. However, his father had no confidence that a village boy could ever pass the difficult entrance examinations. There were too few universities and millions of students across China were trying to get into them each year. In Baba’s opinion, his son needed to give up school and start pulling his weight as a farmer. Mama, however, disagreed. Every summer, she borrowed money from her cousin to cover her son’s tuition fees, praying to Buddha that, against the odds, her son could succeed. Every year, her husband would curse her and accuse her of squandering money. He ridiculed her faith in Buddha, calling her backward and superstitious.

Their son failed his first attempt at the university entrance examinations. When this happened, Baba felt anger and shame. He also felt jubilant; he had been right all along. To him, his foolish wife had wasted so many years, so much money, and so many prayers on a lost cause. But Mama would not give up. Her son wanted to try again the next year. In order for him to transfer to a school in town where the quality of teaching was better, Mama borrowed even more money and prayed every day for his success.

Without Mama, my husband would never have become one of the few boys in his village to pass the national university entrance examinations. Without her, he would have never have had the chance to attend university and become a teacher. Without her, I would never have had the opportunity to meet her son. How can I not love this woman?

I remember the first time I met Mama. Her son, my boyfriend, took me to his village for Chinese New Year. I had only been in China for six months and still suffered from confusion and culture shock. I wasn’t ready for him to tell his family that we were involved, so he simply introduced me as his English teacher.

On the day we arrived, Mama was busy preparing the family’s New Year’s Day banquet. That evening, around twenty relatives gathered for an enormous meal. The men sat down to eat, while the women and children hovered in the background with their bowls, reaching between the men carefully with their chopsticks. I was invited to sit at the table with the men because I was a waiguoren.

During the week I stayed, I never once saw Mama take a break from household chores. Most of the time she could be found in or around the kitchen. She would be squatting down in the yard over a plastic red bowl, rinsing vegetables with ice-cold water which she had hauled from the well at dawn. Or furiously chopping meat on an old wooden board which had seen better days. Or feeding kindling into the fireplace to heat the immense iron wok. Or taking charge of the cooking, steam and smoke circling her, passing one after another spicy dish to her daughters to place upon the table.

The adobe kitchen was separate from the main house. It looked dank and claustrophobic. Its ceiling was low and there was little light, though it actually did not have a door, just a door frame. Mama and her daughters brushed past each other often, seemingly unaware of the tightness of the space. I was impressed and intimidated by their speed and their skill. Within a couple of hours, it seemed Mama and her daughters could produce dozens of dishes. I could tell that Mama was an expert.

Mama and I barely communicated on that first visit. It was not only because she was busy. My Chinese was so limited and Mama did not speak Mandarin. However, she constantly asked her son what she should prepare for me, the strange foreign vegetarian. She worried over what I could eat, as almost every dish she served contained meat.

That summer, I returned to the village, this time as her son’s girlfriend. Mama was still very busy, but in the evenings she would spend time with us. She asked her son many questions about me, but the one which has stayed with me forever was this one: Will she stay with you, son? She worried that I would not have the courage to marry him. I could feel her mistrust and the strength of her concern for her son. Even when we married, her fear for his happiness continued. Mama came to the train station to see us off when we set off for Beijing en route to our newly married life in England. She took off her only gold ring, pushed it onto his finger, and wept openly. To her, instead of gaining a daughter, she was, unthinkably, losing a son.

Around the time that my husband and I moved to England, his youngest sister married. That same year, his two brothers decided to build houses in the town and try their hands at small businesses. When these things happened, Mama no longer needed to farm as no one was depending upon her any more. She could also finally separate from Baba. I expect that the whole family breathed a sigh of relief. Baba went to live with his youngest son while Mama went to live with her eldest son. Deep down, she had no interest in life in the town and wished she could stay alone in the village. Her sons feared for her safety if she did, and insisted Mama move with them.

In fact, Mama and Baba would still live just meters from each other as the brothers’ houses were side by side. But Mama knew that this was it: in her mind, they were now divorced. From that day, Mama has never once initiated conversation with her husband. Though she sees him regularly, she chooses to ignore Baba. Once in a while, Baba will still have violent drunken outbursts. He will attack her verbally, sometimes even physically. Mama still lives in danger, but there is far less than before.

I think Mama’s last decade has been her happiest since childhood. The days of struggle and sorrow are behind her. Baba’s no longer a part of her life. Famines are over, she no longer needs to farm, and her offspring have all survived into adulthood. Her children are all settled, some are doing well, and she is surrounded by grandchildren, some of whom are already grown up. To her relief, none of her children rely upon the land for a living. Each year, although her frame is tiny, she puts on weight. We all know this is a good thing. Mama’s xinku days are over. She is finally qingsong.

Since leaving the village, Mama has had a lot of time to herself. Out of habit, she still wakes up early and has remained has remained industrious, often taking care of grandchildren or helping her daughters or son’s wives with their chores. She never takes a nap, but goes to bed early. Mama is also extremely frugal. She never ever plays majiang, dominoes or other gambling games. She hates to waste money on herself, although she will give generously to others. Like other countryside women her age, she smokes occasionally, but cannot eat guazi because many of her teeth are gone.

Mama has no hobby besides watching television. Fortunately for me, Mama’s television-watching has resulted in her learning to understand Mandarin. Simultaneously, I have also learned Mandarin and some of her dialect. Though our Mandarin is imperfect, Mama and I have learned to communicate.

Mama has lived with us on and off over the years. Ten years ago, she visited us in England for three months. She was 59, had never before left her hometown, and was unable to speak a word of English. She came only reassure herself that her son was safe and happy with me. Then, a few years ago, after we had moved back to China, Mama brought her grandson to live with us for half a year. The baby was her youngest son’s second son, but his existence, because of China’s one-child policy, was illegal. The family, fearful of the authorities, sent him with Grandma to live with us far from the hometown until they could figure out a solution. Over the past few years, since our children have been born, Mama has also spent several weeks a year with us, often in winter so that we can keep her warm and healthy. I know though, that although she loves us and appreciates our modern city life, there is nowhere she would rather be than back home in the countryside.

During Mama’s visit to England, she discovered that my grandmother lived alone in her own small home. Mama marveled at my grandmother’s privacy and freedom. Last year, my husband finally persuaded his brothers to build Mama a separate house behind theirs. She now has her own kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. She has a table, two armchairs, a bed and a large wooden closet in which to store her clothes and blankets. She’s hung curtains and put up family photographs on her whitewashed walls. She has air conditioning, a refrigerator and a television. She cooks on a gas stove. She lacks a washing machine, but she doesn’t want one.

Though she now lives by herself, Mama is seldom alone. I think she loves her stand-alone home where her children, grandchildren and other visitors knock and take off their shoes before coming in to spend time with her.

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 to several young children.  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.  She gets up at dawn, if not before, every single day and likes to sleep soon after the sun sets.

A couple of years ago my husband and his brothers decided to demolish the unused village home in order to build modern homes on that same plot of family land.  The old 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 structure, but slowly but surely, the brothers' yearning to have a home there once again grew and we now have a home in the village for whenever we have time to visit.

However, although we demolished the house which had been build in the early 1980s, we repaired the tiny, single-storey home in which Mama had given birth to all of her children in the 1960s and 70s.  It was a special part of the family's history and I think Mama especially loves to see it still standing opposite the gates of the large new homes.   Although the new homes have modern kitchens, Mama seems to prefer pumping water from the well outside the old home.  The family also prefer to cook in the 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 over there.  It's usually my sister-in-law, 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 been back a few times over the past few months.  Whenever we return, Mama moves in with us, happy 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, though the family, concerned for her safety, don't like for her to stay out there alone.  This year, for the first time in over fifteen years, there are pumpkins, watermelons and chili pepper plants growing in the village once again.  She is glad to be back in the village again even though so few faces from the past remain in the village.

The last time we were there three tiny, white-haired ladies tottered into our home to visit Mama.  Mama told me they'd known each other for more than half a century.  All three octogenarians were now widowed, each living alone in dilapidated old homes.  It was obvious that the friendship was treasured by Mama and I could feel her pleasure in once again have a reason to spend time back here.  In spite of the sorrows Baba brought her in the village, it was the place she had friends and, I imagine more importantly, the place where as a mother she was so needed, so vital. 

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 my husband, when Mama and Baba were still rice farmers and no one in the family had two yuan to rub together, who ever would have imagined the family could ever enjoy such a trip?

Mama found the 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 took 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.  

Spending time with Mama brings nothing but joy and she is dearly, dearly loved.  Perhaps even by Baba, though he'll probably never express it.