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...

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