Sunday, July 27, 2014

Update on Er Jie Jie (Second Sister-in-Law)

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 modest 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 is twenty-six and 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...

Update on Da Jie Jie (Eldest Sister-in-Law)

I've just re-read what I wrote four years ago about my eldest sister-in-law.  It gave my heart a few twinges recalling memories that had faded from my mind.  I have to also admit that I thought it was a nicely written sketch.

I've had more chances to see Da Jiejie these past few years.  There is still formality between us, incomprehension on both sides, but also a comfortable familiarity.  When we travel back to the hometown we always stop by her home to sit for a while on the veranda on low bamboo chairs.  We'll eat melon seeds (okay, I'll pretend to because although I love the taste I have still, after all these years, never gotten the hang of cracking each shell with my teeth, extracting the seed and spitting the exterior onto the ground), drink hot green tea out of paper cups and, if the season is right, peel pomelos or mandarin oranges picked from her trees. She'll reach for my hand when it's time to leave, patting it with her rough, calloused hands while telling me to duoduo baozhong - take care.

Da Jiejie has a new home now, built directly behind her 1980s two-storey brick build. I liked the old home quite a lot, for it was of a good size for her family of four and set back from the village street.  Like most others in the area, it was symmetrically designed with a double-door entrance and a three-inch wooden doorstep over which guests naturally stepped.  It's bad luck in China to step on that piece of wood.  The main room featured, typically, a large round dining table in the centre as well as a wooden altar at the back, above which hung Chairman Mao's portrait. There were no sofas or armchairs for no matter what the weather, when free-time was to be found, locals took a nap or squatted outdoors on bamboo chairs.  A lack of air conditioning meant that in summer the shaded porch was preferable to the sweltering temperatures indoors and, vice versa, a lack of indoor heating meant it was inevitably warmer outside in the weak sunshine than indoors.  Leisure and comfort are relatively new concepts and whenever I visit, I marvel at the fact that even today, few family members invest in comfortable indoor chairs.

I've diverged.  A room led off from each side of the main room - one a grain storage area and the other the son's bedroom.   What I liked about this house was that, unusually, concrete steps attached to one of its outside walls which led to a hallway and two bedrooms above. I liked to stand in the space outside these bedrooms, lean on the balcony and look out towards the mountains or down at their quiet yard in which brown chickens pecked at the earth and the old pomelo tree stood.

That home is considered old-fashioned now.  Like scores of other villagers over the past few years, Da Jiejie and her husband have built an enormous new structure - a deliberate insurance to show the land is theirs as well as something of a status symbol.  They borrowed a great deal in order to build an imposing four-storey concrete building and, although they have not got the funds to decorate most of it, feel proud of its potential.  Although, like many other gargantuan houses in the vicinity it lacks character and is minimally furnished, it is a definite improvement.  For one thing, Da Jiejie now has her first indoor bathroom with running water.  Equipped with a chrome shower head, a ceramic squat toilet and a sink, it's decorated simply, but is a huge step up from the awful pit they used to use outdoors.

Da Jiejie is busy these days.  She continues to grow vegetables, peanuts and fruits for her own family's consumption which takes a lot of time, especially in the warmer months.   She's also a grandmother now.  Her daughter had two sons in quick succession which makes her extremely proud.  As her husband's village is slightly off the beaten track and he drives for a living, Da Jiejie's daughter often stays with her own parents when he's away, bringing her two toddlers along on her moped.   Da Jiejie is still waiting anxiously for her son, already over thirty, to find a girl to marry.  She worries that he'll never find a bride, that he'll never have a son.   He's always in her prayers, just as her daughter was a few years ago.

Da Jiejie has continued to be a devout Buddhist.  In the past few years she has visited several important temples in the area.  As a result of the construction of the new home, she's moved her small shrine into one of the upstairs bedrooms of the old house.  Now, she has a large room in which to burn offerings and to pray.  She's bought a beautiful wooden Buddha for her shrine and never lets the incense stop burning.  She took me up there last year to show me a trail of smoke on one of the walls.  She is certain it is the spirit of a guardian dragon that followed her home from one of her temple visits.  When she pointed insistently at it and shared the story, I admit that I pretended to see what she did in order to please her.

Who knows, I thought, seeing nothing...maybe she's right.  I'd like her to be.  The longer I live, the less sure I am about such things. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Update on Mama

July 2014

Mama is now in her mid seventies and, in addition to her seven children and twenty-plus grandchildren, she is now a great grandmother several times over.  Although not always in good health - her kidneys often trouble her - Mama continues to spend most of her days living independently in her own small house behind elder brother's home in the town.  She has a few chickens and still likes to tend her small vegetable plot.  Every day she gets up at dawn, if not before, and likes to sleep soon after the sun sets. From dawn until dusk, there is a steady stream of visitors to her home which is within easy walking distance for all but two of her seven children.

These days, if she's not there it is likely that she may once again be found in the village.  A couple of years ago my husband and his two brothers decided to demolish the unused red-brick house built in the mid eighties in order to build three modern homes on that same plot of family land.  The house had stood empty for more than ten years and with village land being reclaimed by the government or sold to developers, they knew that their rights to the ancestral village might just disappear if they did nothing.  The idea was at first just to put up a basic new structure, nothing but a concrete shell, but slowly but surely the brothers' yearning grew to have roots there once again.  Along with the brothers, we now have our very own impressive home standing tall in the village, waiting to greet us whenever we make time to visit.

However, although the red-brick house was replaced, we repaired the tiny, single-storey adobe home in which Mama had given birth to all of her children in the 1960s and 70s.  It symbolises a special part of the family's history and I think Mama especially loves to see it still squatting opposite the gates of the large new homes with its new roof and freshly varnished wooden beams.   Although the new homes have modern kitchens, Mama seems to prefer pumping water from the well outside the old home.  The family also tend to cook in the dark kitchen of the old home, opting for the taste of food cooked in the giant iron wok over the wood burning stove.  These days, it's not usually Mama who cooks.  It's a sister-in-law or two, though Mama is never far away if a large dinner is being prepared - washing, chopping, refueling the fire - always busy and helpful.

Younger brother now frequently stays in his new village home at weekends and we've also visited a few times over the past few months.  Whenever we return, Mama moves in with us, pleased to spend time in the village and eager to take care of us. When we leave, she sometimes likes to stay on for a few days although the family, concerned for her safety, don't like for her to sleep out there alone.  She waves off their concerns but has to settle for the company of one or two burly grandsons who take over as 'bodyguards' if she stays out there.  This year, for the first time in over fifteen years, there are pumpkins, watermelons and chili pepper plants growing in our village yard, planted by Mama in the spring. 

Though so few faces from the past remain in the vicinity, Mama is clearly glad to have the chance to spend time there again.  The last time we were there three tiny, white-haired ladies tottered into our home.  Mama told me they'd known each other for more than half a century.  All three were now widowed, each living alone in dilapidated old homes scattered around the neglected village, their children all elsewhere.  It was obvious that Mama treasured their friendship and I thought: in spite of the many sorrows Baba brought into her life when they lived in the village, it had also been a place of deep friendships. 

Last year about twenty family members - including most of my husband's siblings - found time to take a three-day trip to a famous mountain.  Though Mama and Baba still avoid talking to each other, they both agreed to come along.  It was the first time for us all to journey somewhere together like this.  It felt significant, no, it felt incredible to be hurtling along the highway together in a minibus, listening to but barely comprehending the banter between them.  Back when I first met the family, Mama and Baba were still rice farmers and no one in the family had two yuan to rub together, who ever would have imagined we could ever enjoy such a trip?

Mama is sprightly but she found that mountain climb difficult and so we arranged, in spite of her protests, for her to be carried up the steepest part in a bamboo sedan chair.  I snapped a photograph of Mama looking so beautiful and happy, shading her eyes from the sun while two strong strangers - one in front and the other behind - made it possible for her to reach the peak with us.

Mama has continued to be a devout Buddhist.  I have never heard her explain her beliefs but I've watched her light her incense every evening.  I also know she avoids eating certain foods - beef, snails, shellfish - because in that part of China a Buddhist should refrain from such tastes.  Over the years, our youngest son, observing her devotion at temples, has somehow learned to follow her lead, kneeling quietly and bowing reverently at temple altar tables even when Mama is not there. 

It makes me happy to know that by building the new homes in the village, Mama is able to enjoy time out there again.  I imagine how for so many years Mama, as a mother, was so needed, so vital... giving all that she could day after day to each of her children.

Spending time with Mama brings nothing but joy into my heart and she is dearly, dearly loved.  Perhaps even by Baba. Sadly, I don't think anyone will ever hear him acknowledge this, though we all wish he could.

Inevitably, Things Change

They really do. I come back to look at my posts once in a while, but for some reason it's been a few years since I wrote any more. Naturally, there are extensions to each of these tales - much has inevitably happened in the lives of all of these women. It's funny how as much as I feel I am a 'foreigner in the family', the more important part of that phrase to me is 'in the family'. Their kindnesses envelope me each time I visit. I'm thankful to know each of them and for them to know me.

I suddenly feel a need to update these sketches...regardless of whether anyone out there reads or takes times to think about each one of these women...these lives are important to me. My father recently found my own grandmother's diary from 1945. She was a young bride, waiting for her husband's return from World War Two. She loved him terribly and I love suddenly having her diary entries in my hands, discovering the young woman who would one day become my much loved grandmother. She passed away several years ago but I'll treasure the discovery of her words as a wartime bride for as long as I live.

I hope I can capture glimmers into the spirit of each of my Chinese relatives as I update what I know of their journeys. If you stop by, please leave me a word or two. It looks like there have been more than 13,000 views over the past four years which I find incredible, given that I have put no energy into promoting this site.

I'm sorry I've been away...but I'm hoping to be back! Blink Blink