Sunday, July 27, 2014

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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment