Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Younger Brother's First Wife

Di Di, my husband’s younger brother, was always determined to break out of the cycle of rural poverty. To do this, he knew that he would need to venture boldly out of his village and into the provincial capital. It was there, while scrambling to make a name for himself, that the quietly charismatic young man found himself falling in love. Like him, the girl was from the countryside. She had grown up in a poor lakeside fishing village on the other side of the provincial capital but in her mid-teens she had made an audacious decision: she would set off for the capital in search of a better life. There was no go-between, a sign of how laojia’s traditional ways were beginning to change by the early 1990s. Di Di had, independently, found himself a girlfriend.

Before telling you any more about her, it's important to take a detour and describe the setting of this tale. Although Deng Xiaoping’s Opening and Reform policy was firmly in place and was allowing China’s economy to develop, my husband’s province, including its capital city, was still very much luohou de in the early 1990s. Being landlocked and deep within the interior, it lagged behind as one of China’s poorest provinces. Its transportation links were weak and it had very little to trade besides agricultural goods.

Chinese cities are always wealthier than the countryside, but wealthier is not to be confused with wealthy. Certainly, this provincial capital had little to boast about. The drab districts radiating off from its People’s Square were full of ugly buildings: concrete dormitory-style housing, crumbling grey factories, dingy restaurants and a scattering of seedy cheap hotels. Its railway station was an unwelcoming, chaotic place where the police utilized electric cattle-prodders to keep the crowds in line and under control. On the streets around the station were aggressive street peddlers and a growing number of pickpockets and beggars.

Back then, there were no malls in this city, so state-owned department stores monopolized. Though smaller, privately-owned stores existed, they were often operated by devious entrepreneurs who sold shoddy products for inflated prices. The few large billboards in the city were hand-painted, as were many shop signs, indicative of how out of touch the city was with the modern world. Certainly, there was no MacDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut though these fastfood chains were increasingly popular in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

The majority of city-dwellers there worked in state enterprises and lived modestly on small incomes, though naturally many were ambitiously inventing ways to become rich. In the early 1990s, few private cars were on its roads too; the ones which were in use were mainly for government officials. Since taxis were expensive and public buses overcrowded, a common mode of transport was bicycle, although there were also many wiry pedicab drivers with whom passengers could bargain for a fare.

Coming from England, I saw the provincial capital as incredibly underdeveloped. Its citizens seemed unsophisticated and uncouth. I could hardly bear their loud throat-clearing, their uninhibited public spitting, or their habit of allowing children to urinate freely in the street. However, to young people in the surrounding countryside, this city symbolized hope. They knew that cities were developing far faster than rural areas. They knew city dwellers enjoyed a higher standard of living than they did. Though urban apartments were normally small and simple by Western standards, the majority of residents at least had the luxury of using bottled gas for cooking and indoor toilets. Courageous young villagers such as Di Di’s first wife dreamed of somehow finding success within the city.

It was not easy for migrant workers to find work in this city. One disadvantage was their low level of education; most migrants were barely literate and numerate. Another disadvantage was their lack of experience and skills. A further disadvantage was that many jobs, even low-skilled ones which they could probably master, were out of reach because they did not have a city hukou – residency pass. Non-residents could not apply to, say, work at the train station or become a bus conductor. They could not find employment as a park gardener, a hospital porter or a garbage collector. Without guanxi to help them gain back-door access, many urban jobs were utterly out of reach.

In spite of these challenges, there were jobs to be found for waidiren, especially for pretty girls like the one Di Di would fall for. In particular, shops, restaurant and hotels were all looking for cheap labor though they would require long hours, give no days off, and pay a pittance. Many young people could bear such jobs for only a few weeks or months before returning home to their villages in exhaustion. Another challenge in the city was the risk of being cheated. Some entrepreneurs would require new employees to undertake a prolonged period of training without pay. Others would demand that their would-be employee pay a fee in order to have the chance to work for them. Other unscrupulous bosses would deliberately fail to pay wages.

Migrant workers were certainly vulnerable to abuse by their employers, but they were also easy prey for the growing number of gangs sprouting up in the underworld. Such criminals would befriend penniless migrants, hoping to lure them into participation in organized crime. It was only natural that some youngsters, whether naively or deliberately, might fall into the wrong hands.

I don’t know how Di Di and his first wife came across each other in their late teens. They dated for only a short time before deciding to marry. Like with so many laojia couples, they did not legally register their marriage; a wedding banquet sufficed to make it official and Di Di brought his bride to live in his parents’ village home. Shortly afterwards, he found guanxi and became a taxi driver in the city, a job which gave them a small, though steady income. A few months later, a baby girl was born.

All seemed well, but discontent was to bubble up from below the surface. One day, out of the blue, Di Di’s attractive young wife packed her things, picked up her toddler daughter, and left. Her departure caused a huge loss of face; breakups were rare and a woman leaving a man was rarer still. Di Di, guessing she would go back to the city, tracked her down, hoping to persuade her to return to him. She refused and told him to never contact her again. At the age of just twenty-one, he was devastated.

How was it, then, that this marriage did not last when they had chosen each other independently and had seemed to fall in love? I think the truth was that Di Di’s wife discovered that she did not want to return to village life. Its harsh reality was probably too difficult for her to readjust to. I suspect she wanted more than Di Di could offer and she lacked the patience to find out whether he could later make anything more of himself. I have always wondered if she was still in love with him when she left…

After leaving laojia, Di Di’s wife turned to illegal prostitution as the means by which to support herself and her daughter. It seems likely that this might have been her work previous to marriage. Certainly, she had little trouble knowing how to set herself up or where to look for customers. It was a trade which could offer her, in the material sense, a far higher standard of living than was the case in the village. It also offered her opportunities to meet wealthy or influential patrons. Several years ago, Di Di heard on the grapevine that his wife had remarried, this time to a successful older man in the city. He was, perhaps, one of her clients.

Today, the name of Di Di’s first wife is never mentioned in the family. She has become, quite simply, a ghostly shadow from the past.


  1. these are the unscrupulous acts of modern day youths in china? materialism rules the present age of time. There seems to be alot of chinese women searching for a foreign husband(old or ugly but rich) desperately to get out of poverty.

  2. Thanks for another great portrait Blink Blink. It is heartbreaking and fascinating at the same time what sorts of skeletons are in the closets of many families here. I think there is a very no-nonsense sort of honesty to the portrayal. These aren't sob stories of the horrors of China, nor are they uplifting against all odds sorts of tales, they're just real portraits of real lives with no judgement. I am really enjoying your blog.

    C, this story took place in the early 90s, close to 20 years ago, so I wouldn't say that "the unscrupulous acts of modern day youths in China" is exactly accurate. But yes, farmers flock to the cities in search of work even today. The number of women and men who are trying to make it at various low-paying service industry or manual labor type jobs in the cities -- big cities and small cities --vastly outnumber the number of women who look for a foreign husband to get them out of poverty. The women for whom a foreign husband is even an option are already much better off than your typical migrant worker.

  3. Just found you through Jen Ambrose. What a fantastic story. Thanks for sharing. I'll definitely be back.