Monday, March 15, 2010

Saozi (Eldest Brother's Wife)

Saozi, my husband’s elder brother’s wife, grew up in a tiny village ten miles away from his. I know nothing about her childhood, except that it must have been harsh as Chinese farmers were trapped in Mao’s system of village collectives, a system which continuously failed to produce enough food for country’s burgeoning population. Countless had perished during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961. Millions more would continue to experience food shortages throughout the 1960s and 70s. Saozi’s early years were spent in hunger because of Mao’s misguided vision, though at the time no one understood that their Great Chairman was the cause.

The Cultural Revolution ended after the death of Mao in 1976. In 1977, Saozi, though almost 10 years old, began to attend school. She learned to read, write and complete mathematics well. She even managed to progress to middle school, a rare achievement for any rural child, never mind a girl, in the early 198os. By the time she completed middle school, Saozi was in her late teens. Her parents decided it was time for her to stop school and find a husband.

A go-between introduced her to Da Ge – my brother-in-law. He was an impoverished farmer’s son with no income of his own, but her family accepted him as a suitable match for her. His village was not as remote as hers as it was closer to the railway and road links into the provincial capital. Additionally, his uncle – Baba’s eldest brother – was a prominent local rural leader; perhaps her family thought she would be marrying into a respectable clan, or at least one with a certain amount of political and economic guanxi - connections.

China’s Reform and Opening Policy was well underway by the time Saozi met Da Ge in the mid 1980s. Young people, especially men, were thinking less about Communist ideology and more about how to make money. There was also freedom to dream more about relationships, romance and love. Saozi was pretty and Da Ge was handsome – short but strong, with a crooked smile. He was also a smooth talker who believed that he would soon become successful. Although he had not completed primary school, Da Ge had learned to read. As a teenager he had grown to love contemporary fiction; having no money he would borrow flimsy paperbacks from others. He had even written his own novel about countryside life and sent off his manuscript, dreaming his talent would be discovered. Perhaps Saozi was impressed by his energy and idealism. Perhaps she trusted that he would find a way to provide for her and their future children. Perhaps she even fell in love.

Saozi married Da Ge a few months after their introduction and, after a farewell banquet at her parents’ home, moved into his ancestral village. She brought with her a traditional dowry: a wooden bathtub, a bamboo baby cradle and a chest containing some clothes, bedding and simple toiletries. Once there, she and Da Ge were given a room. It was barely furnished but it had a double bed and a wardrobe. Saozi spent the next few months fitting into her role as in the new family. Being hard-working, her attitude pleased Mama. Being amiable, her sisters-in-law accepted her. The transition went smoothly.

After her marriage Saozi, like many rural brides, seldom saw her family. There was no telephone she could use to call her parents and if she wanted to go home, the journey would take several hours. She would need to walk along a mud track for half an hour to reach the small town. There, she would wait for a bus, which may or may not arrive. If it did arrive, it may or may not be full. After the journey, in which the bus would stop frequently along the road, picking up as many passengers as were waiting (there were no bus stops), she would then have another long walk to her parents’ village, which was far from the main road. It must have felt as if she had moved to the other side of China.

After a few months of marriage, there comes a time when a son who continues to live in his parents’ home needs to fenjia. Once fenjia takes place, the son and his bride begin taking care of themselves independently. They are given some land and their own kitchen space by his parents. If fortunate, his parents may be able and willing to give some money, seeds, tools and other basic household equipment. Da Ge and Saozi knew fenjia would happen, but when it did, it was an unpleasant transition. Baba was unreasonably trenchant. The separation must be clear-cut and there was, he declared, to be no generosity. Mama was forbidden to help the young couple in any way and they were instructed to fend, completely, for themselves. Baba knew that Mama would subvert his command (which she did by giving oil, rice and other bits of food when she could). Many arguments ensued.

Soon after fenjia happened, Saozi found work at a nearby elementary school which was short of teachers. Though she was barely suitable, there was no one else to take on the role. The pay was paltry and the job demanding – she had to learn how to manage and motivate a large group of undisciplined students – yet her income was steady and helped supplement what little they could earn through farming.

Around the end of her first year of marriage, Saozi found herself pregnant. Without complication a boy arrived and the family celebrated. The baby seemed healthy, but by the time he was a toddler it was apparent that he was mentally handicapped. The family still speculates about the onset of his condition. They wonder whether he was born so, or whether his limited intelligence was caused by the cheap milk powder he was raised on for the first few months of life. They also wonder whether he might have been brain damaged by an incredibly high fever he experienced following some routine inoculations. They wonder if there was a fault with the batch of vaccine he received. Whatever the cause, it was going to be a struggle to raise this son.

Although the One Child Policy was well-known throughout China, it was not strictly enforced in laojia and so Saozi became pregnant again in the late 1980s. By this time she had given up teaching as her husband had learned how to complete simple repairs on televisions and other small electrical items. He had moved his young family away from the village, rented out his farm land, and set up a small repair shop in the nearby town. It was a struggle for him to earn a living, but he was optimistic that as more people owned household electrical goods, that he could build up his business.

Saozi’s second pregnancy progressed normally. There were no prenatal hospital checks in the countryside, but she felt fine and had a relatively normal labor and delivery. However, once the baby, another boy, arrived they made an awful discovery: he had been born with no anus. In horror, some superstitious Chinese families would abandon such a baby, believing it to be a demon who has arrived to bring nothing but bad luck. Others would even smother such an infant to death. Saozi and her husband thought quickly. They rushed the baby to the children’s hospital in the provincial capital and sought the help of a specialist. There, they were told that an operation could save their son’s life, but that it would be costly.

Da Ge and Saozi had no savings of their own with which to pay for the surgery to save their child’s life. Neither set of grandparents could afford to help so they raced against the clock, hoping desperately to borrow from other relatives. Only two relatives had enough money to save the baby – Baba’s eldest and youngest brothers. When asked, each one turned away, claiming he could not afford to help. The little boy cried in agony for almost a week, his tiny tummy bloated and blocked by waste. Mama remembers the way her tiny grandson looked up at her, his black eyes large, serious and desperate, before passing away in exhaustion.

Saozi and her husband must have been devastated by the loss of their little boy. They don’t talk of it because it was simply too tragic. I can’t imagine how the callous uncles who failed to save the little boy’s life could ever again face Saozi and Da Ge. I can't imagine the pain Saozi would feel when she encounted one of them.

By the time I met Saozi, several years had passed by since this unimaginable heartbreak. Somehow, she had picked up the pieces and gone on to have another two children: a healthy girl and boy. The family was still renting a cramped apartment in the little town and Da Ge was still struggling to earn a decent living through his small repair shop. Here and there, he had tried different ventures, but all had failed and he was getting a reputation as a man who didn’t repay his debts. Saozi, busy with the children, had never returned to teaching. She was tired and things were tough.

Though they had no reliable source of income, by the time I went to laojia to marry in 1997, Saozi and Da Ge were building a three-storey house in conjunction with youngest brother. Once the building was complete, Saozi and Da Ge would take the middle floor as their three-bedroom apartment and younger brother and his family would use the top floor. They would share the use of the flat roof and backyard and split the ground floor space into two units. Each brother hoped to use his downstairs space to operate a small business: a store, restaurant, repair shop...neither had decided, but since the town was expanding quickly as so many villagers moved into it, they were confident that they could find customers to serve whatever commodity they later committed to. In fact, younger brother paid for most of the building’s construction costs; the agreement was that Da Ge would pay him back at a later date.

I have no idea how Da Ge and Saozi planned to repay the money borrowed to construct this home. I remember giving Da Ge almost all my remaining money just before I left China, something custom dictated he should not have accepted as I was younger than him. It was around the time of my wedding, which also meant that they should have been giving to me. Though I had little to give, the fact that he took it indicated that they were desperate.

By the end of the 1990s Saozi and Da Ge moved into their own spacious apartment in town and Da Ge continued to look around for ways to make money. Like many laojia women, Saozi had switched from a farming partnership with her husband to complete economic reliance upon him. It was her husband, not Saozi, who looked around for new ideas and who scrambled (albeit unsuccessfully) to make business connections, hoping to hit the jackpot. Saozi, like so many laojia wives, merely waited in the shadows.

Time after time Da Ge’s ventures ended in failure and his reputation as an unworthy business partner grew. He owed several debts, but chose to ignore them. His failures must have irked Saozi, yet it seemed she had no choice but to rely upon him. Thankfully, by the beginning of the 2000s youngest brother was finding success in the demolition and construction business, and he generously began passing contracts to Da Ge. He helped Da Ge win a major contract to build a large private school’s campus as well as several smaller projects. Da Ge also obtained the right to run the local middle school’s cafeteria. Finally, he was starting to make significant profits. Life seemed set to improve for the family.

They say that with wealth comes arrogance. Around the time that Da Ge began making money, Saozi discovered that he was cheating on her. I don’t know how many affairs he has had, or whether they were the result of arrogance, but one relationship has been ongoing for several years. Saozi’s desperate pleas (and Mama’s) for him to end it fell on deaf ears. Da Ge, it would seem, had fallen in love. Today, his mistress lives in an apartment Da Ge bought for her a few years ago. Da Ge visits her often.

Laojia women frequently worry about their husbands’ loyalties. They know it’s a man’s world. Men own the cars, smoke the cigarettes and drink the wine. They make the connections, sign the deals and stay out late. Without a doubt, they wear the trousers. Financially dependent women are particularly vulnerable and insecure, especially when their husbands begin to make enough money to support a double life. Da Ge was not the first man in laojia to find a mistress. He certainly will not be the last.

Da Ge’s infidelity devastated Saozi and led her to feel a whole range of emotions: self-pity, frustration, anger, embarrassment (it’s no secret, even the children know), disgust, hatred… Like Mama with Baba, she felt powerless and almost broke down. In she had lived in the West, she might feel entitled to throw him out, but in laojia, women don't seem share this mentality as there is still a deep-rooted Confucian belief that women have fewer rights than men. She had never heard of alimony settlements or child support payments, both of which empower women to divorce unworthy husbands. What she might have thought about was: Where can I go? How can I support the children without him? How can I stop him?

The truth was that Saozi could not prevent Da Ge from hurting her in this way. The despair she felt overpowered and aged her, but she eventually reached a point of acceptance. Knowing that Da Ge wanted her to remain as his wife (and perhaps also wanting to remain as his wife), Saozi would learn to tolerate his infidelity on the condition that he give her financial security. Saozi told Da Ge that he must give her his profits thus far.

Da Ge consented. I suppose his guilty conscience pricked at him for no matter which way he looked at the situation, no matter how he tried to justify himself, he was at fault. He had turned into an adulterer. He was his own father, the father he had, back as a child, hated for hurting his mother in exactly this way. When he handed over his bankbook, his wife began to look the other way. I wonder whether Saozi felt satisfaction or triumph. It had been a clever move, but I imagine any sense of victory was tempered with bitterness at the fact that she was still sharing him with another woman.

For the past few years, Saozi has continued to live with Da Ge. I don’t know what their relationship is like behind closed doors, but in public they maintain the appearance of being together. A few years ago they opened a small restaurant in the space below their apartment and have spent a considerable amount of time in each other’s company as a result. By establishing the restaurant, they could ensure a steady income (important, in case the school cafeteria contract ever came to an end), but I imagine that for Saozi, managing the restaurant was also a way of keeping her husband busy, as well as a means of distraction.

Another response to her unhappy marriage, I think, was for Saozi to turn to gambling. For hours at a time, when not managing the restaurant, Saozi has busied herself at the majiang table. She’s won some money, but more often than not, she’s lost. Perhaps playing began as her way to numb the pain and her sense of helplessness. Maybe it even began as her way to punish him. Now, it seems that although it may have helped her to survive, Saozi is well and truly addicted.

These days, Saozi does not spend very much time with Da Ge, although they still live together. This is because two years ago, Saozi seized the chance to rent the shop on the grounds of a local middle school. During term time she sells stationery, snacks, drinks and knickknacks to students, earning a couple of thousand yuan a month. Of course, the fact that her children are no longer little gives her an opportunity to run such a business, but I also wonder if her decision was made in order to spend less time with Da Ge. Whatever the case, Saozi now has an independent income of her own and I imagine that having her own financial freedom must give her a higher sense of self-worth.

I often wonder how Saozi feels about living with a man who has let her down so enormously. Has she done it for herself because, in spite of his betrayal, she still wants and feels something for him? Has she stayed with him for the sake of the children, although each of them knows that their father is unfaithful? Has she even stayed to meet his emotional needs?

Sometimes, I wonder if Saozi has stayed with Da Ge simply because she just doesn’t dare to imagine life without him. Perhaps she sees herself tragically as po xie - a wornout shoe. Relationships can be incredibly complex and it is not for me to judge either Saozi or Da Ge, but I can’t help wondering whether, in the not-too-distant future, Saozi might decide that she does not need to live any longer with a husband like Da Ge.

If she does ever reach this conclusion, I don’t think the feminist in me would be able to resist a smile.


  1. Hi Blink Blink,

    I just pop in to see if you have written something new and you did.

    I hope that I don't sound judgemental but I think your SaoZi stayed with your BIL because of duty. She is probably thinking that she did nothing wrong so therefore she shouldn't be the one to leave. Running her own business shows everyone that she is independent.

    I am beginning to think that you know more about the Chinese people than myself. LOL. Re: Fenjia, I really should ask my parents what Overseas Chinese of my generation do nowadays. It seems complicating moving in with the parents to live separate lives under the same roof.

  2. Yes, perhaps Saozi felt that he had a duty to provide for her and why should she leave? Thanks for your thoughts. I am always intrigued by her, but I am not close enough to her to ask her about it.

  3. The loss of the little boy with atresia of his anus is so sad. I work with a group called Chinakidz who provide hospice care for very sick kids in Changsha - kids with a life expectancy of 6 months or less. One of our kids had this same condition - she's fine now - healthy after surgery. But her parents had already abandoned her out of desperation. The kids we care for now are orphans, but we are expanding to provide community hospice care. We want to offer parents help to reduce abandonment and deaths of precious children.