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.


  1. Your writing reminds me of my husband's relatives out in the countryside. They too have suffered malnutrition during the cultural revolution, and now live in -- relatively -- better conditions.

    Keep up the writing! =)

  2. i just want to say, as coming from a chinese family myself, the males are regarded as dominant species, and the females are considered less than nothing next to the males. the males in my family are very passive /aggressive and can behave violently towards females... these cultural attitudes are still alive and well along with the modern attitudes...the younger chinese generation has adopted.

  3. I am enjoying this series so much! I just read one of these articles every few days and then savor it for a few days before I come back for the next one. I love reading about the women in your family and also about what things were like in China when they were younger. My husband is from Beijing and his family's story is very different - your series is reminding me of the differences between the cities and the country side in China.