Thursday, August 14, 2014

Update on Mei Mei (Youngest Sister-in-Law)

I love Mei Mei.  She's the sister-in-law who best knows me, with whom I never fail to feel loved.  She's a beautiful soul - gentle and wise - ever willing to patiently select words I can understand, given my limited Chinese vocabulary.  Ever sweet, ever thoughtful, ever kind.

Mei Mei's adopted daughter has turned out to be incredibly spunky, quick minded and independent.  I know Mei Mei sees her daughter's potential and realises she's especially bright.  It's always beautiful to see them together - to hear the articulate, animated little girl engaged in conversation with her Mama, surprisingly in Mandarin rather than the dialect,  since this is what is valued today.  When we visit, Mei Mei sometimes rides her electric bicycle to our new house in the ancestral village.  Her husband's village is about 15 minutes ride, and quite often, her daughter will be balancing confidently with her hands on the handlebars, perched on the seat in front of Mei Mei.  I'd be terrified, but for them it is absolutely normal to transport a little one like this.  Often, I've seen families of four or five all riding along a road on one small moped.

Right now, both of Mei Mei's teenage sons have, to her disappointment, stopped attending school.  They stay home much of the time - sleeping irregular hours and watching copious amounts of television, but they both also like to venture out to Internet cafes to play games.  The eldest boy might be found hanging out with other idle friends, but the younger son, an introverted fourteen-year-old, seems happiest in his own company. They are both too young to legally work in factories though the sixteen-year-old has dreams of following a friend to Shanghai as an unskilled migrant worker.  Mei Mei at this point refuses to let him go, knowing he is inexperienced and worrying that he could easily find himself in difficulties.  For now, it's mei ban fa, but surely the boys will soon enough need to find ways to support themselves.

Mei Mei is, naturally, concerned about finances.  For the past few years, she has toyed with the idea of working in a local plastics factory but as her daughter's been so young, it has not been a viable option.  However, now that her little girl is in kindergarten, she thinks about it more and more. It would involve a twelve-hour shift six days a week, something Mei Mei tells me she would not be afraid of at all.  It would certainly help as her husband continues to struggle to make a living selling pork each morning in the marketplace.  They rely heavily upon their own fields and chickens for food. But it is not wise, and Mei Mei deep within knows it.  There's no safety control and she's heard that the chemicals could make her really sick. That they have already harmed other workers' health forever.

Worried about Mei Mei being tempted, a couple of years ago we bought a village house from Mei Mei. It was the house she and her husband had begun to build and wanted to complete when she asked to come to work for us in 2007.  It's useless to us, really, but we knew that finances were overstretched and Mei Mei, unwilling to accept a gift, insisted that we take the house which still stood as an empty concrete block almost ten years after its initial construction. She had never managed to decorate it, living instead no longer on the main street of the town, but in a third home they had erected adjacent to her parents-in-law, another three-storey house of which she has managed to decorate the ground floor only. She used the money we gave to pay off some long-term debts and the rest I suppose went towards other daily expenses.  We kept the transaction secret so that no jealousy would develop amongst other siblings (though deep inside, I know the favouritism's there).  Not even Mama knows.

A few months ago, knowing that money continued to be tight, we started sending a small amount to Mei Mei each month.  In return, she goes over to our newly-built place in laojia once in a while, checks there are no problems, gives the place a clean.  We're fangxin le this way,  knowing that she doesn't need to put herself in harm's way by working in a factory and knowing she can still have time to spend with her daughter after school.  It's no solution to their financial challenges, but it's what we can do.  What we want to do, for I'll eternally feel grateful that when I had no option but to work, she moved over a thousand kilometers to look after my children for me.

I sometimes wonder what the future has in store for Mei Mei.  I suspect her eldest son will find some way to learn a meager living, will find a girlfriend for himself and will, like so many others around him, marry young and start a family of his own.  I expect the younger son will become a quiet loner, unable to connect to others and therefore reliant upon his aging parents.  As for their little girl, I believe she has incredible potential.  I imagine that she will forge her way through childhood, make it against the odds to university, leave the countryside behind, and then, in a Chinese daughter's filial way, ensure that Mei Mei is never left wanting.  And Mei Mei will be ever thankful that she did not hesitate, in spite of her economic difficulties, to open her arms and her heart to another person's daughter on that chilly day in November 2009.

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