Thursday, October 16, 2014

Update on Saozi (Eldest Brother-in-Law's Wife)

Things haven't gone the way I'd hoped for Saozi.  I imagined a showdown, a confrontation, a dramatic standing up against emotional abuse once her own children reached adulthood. These days, divorce is far more acceptable than ever before in China, even beyond city boundaries: Saozi could have chosen this route, but hasn't. Instead, she remains with an unfaithful husband whose other woman lives but a short ride from her.

Why has Saozi stayed with Da Ge?  I've always wondered...

She's approaching fifty, has a pivotal role within the extended family, even has a daughter-in-law and two granddaughters who live with her now in the house paid for by her husband's earnings from fifteen years ago.  In everyone's minds it's his house.  If she were to divorce, it would be expected that she would leave.  Where could she go without a significant income of her own?  Alone?  Impossible.  To her brother?  Embarrassing.  Her elderly parents? Humiliating.  To another man?

I wonder if that thought has ever crossed her mind, the notion that she could find another man to provide for her.  But how?  She's tied to the street she lives on, connected intimately not just with her own children's and grand children's lives, but with her mother-in-law who lives five steps away, a sister-in-law across the street and three other sister-in-laws' families who live within a mile's radius? How would she find a lover, even if she wanted to? She rarely leaves the street.  No matter how disappointing the marriage is, could it be that even if she were to miraculously find another man, remaining is preferable to cutting free and losing her other relationships?

And what about finances?  Money's very hard to earn, especially if you're an illiterate rural woman.  Saozi tried running a small school supplies shop a few years ago, but found it hard to make it worthwhile.  Her children don't have the capacity to support her - her eldest son has an uneducated wife and two toddlers of his own.  He's of very limited intelligence but manages to bring home a meagre, steady salary by working at a nearby electronics factory.  Saozi's younger two still live at home, her daughter without a job and her middle son employed as a driver by his wealthy uncle.  Though Da Ge's income is unsteady, whenever money runs low he turns to his wealthy younger brother to pass a construction contract his way meaning that from time to time he earns great amounts.  Would Da Ge provide for Saozi if she cut the ties?  I doubt it.

I wonder, too, if the desire not to accept the status quo is strategic.  If Saozi were to move aside, Da Ge could finally bring his mistress into the family.  He'd win; she'd lose. Or does love play a role, too?  Does she have an incredible capacity for selflessness?

At this point, I'll share that over the past few years, the plot thickened around her. Four years ago a baby boy was born.  Da Ge, doting on his newly born son, decided to come public with the news. Mama of course berated him, but the aftershocks calmed and eventually the dust managed to settle.  After all, baby boys are precious, no matter what the circumstances of their birth.

For a short time, the baby lived with his mother in the apartment Da Ge had provided all these years. Soon though, Da Ge began bringing the baby home for visits and in time his desire was clear: Da Ge wanted to raise his son within the extended family.  Within a year or so, the boy had permanently joined the family.  For a while De Ge would regularly take the boy to visit his mother, but the bond with his biological mother diminished.  These days the visits are infrequent.

Over time, Saozi became the boy's primary caregiver.  We're not close enough to talk about it, so I can only imagine that it was with dismay that she heard the news that a baby was born, that it was with mortification that she first witnessed the boy come into her home, that it was with resignation that she realised the child would soon enough be living with them, dependent upon her not only for daily necessities, but for emotional warmth and support.

I've seen, over the past few years, how she's accepted the child.  She feeds him morsels of meat out of her own rice bowl, wipes his runny nose in the cold, pats him down and dusts him off when he falls in the street.  He's spoiled, everyone says, by his doting father, so he's a tough nut to crack.  There's rebellion inside him. The few times I've spent time with him, I've seen him take other children's things, tantrum, lie... he's certainly not the easiest child to like.

And cannot be easy on Saozi.  Is it yet another case of mei banfa, another hands-in-the-air, what-am-I-to-do scenario for a stoical woman I know in China?


  1. I found myself in a similar situation once and in my case, all of your thoughts above are spot on. They're all reasons that I didn't leave for many years. I think that in China women tend to prioritize their role in the family and their role in society higher than their own need for personal fulfillment, or their own need to be loved and respected. No one has ever said this to me, but I think that Chinese women think I'm selfish for leaving my husband and putting my whole family through a very painful divorce just because I was unhappy. (Everyone else in my family was either unaware of what was going on, or happy with the way things were.) Why do I think that even though no one has said it? That's a great question. I still think it... :)

  2. What you write resonates, Melanie. After I wrote this blog I thought about how Saozi still has two unmarried children at home. Once they marry and move away, she could choose to live with one of them. Mama made this same choice twenty years ago: as soon as her final child married she moved into a room in Di Di's home and never spoke to Baba again. A few years ago we took an impromptu extended family photograph and Mama was asked to stand beside Baba. She took that photograph with tears streaming; no one had realised her pain was still so visceral. Perhaps Saozi will follow in Mama's footsteps once she has the chance. And by the way, I suspect that there is an elderly woman in rural China who would would not think you were selfish.