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 fiancé 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!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Blink Blink

    It is true that some Asians are very curious about Westerners. I myself is forver curious about Westerners who opt to live in Asia. When I was little, I also used to hear others talking about Westerners smelling like cows because they eat too much dairy products but I didn't smell anything unusual.

    It is tricky for me to get around those personal questions. I am not very good at beating around the bush. Sometimes I try to change the topic of conversation but just when I thought I was successful with my attempt, the same questions are asked again like I didn't hear them the first time.

    I think that some people are becoming aware that it is not polite to ask certain stuff but instead of directly asking my other half, a few of this people are bypassing him and directing the questions to me instead. They probably thought that it is OK with me.