Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Grandma Came to Chengdu

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in my high school years. She moved in with us because her health was failing and no one could keep an eye on her in the daytime. My parents had better health coverage for her (covered both kids and grandparents in China back then), working for the oil company.  Capital Chengdu had better hospital and better doctorsMy oldest cousin has graduated from high school and went to the farm to learn everything from the farmers.
     I told her that I would take care of her before and after school. She said that she came to live with us because she missed me. Her health was up and down. When she was in good health, I was surprised that she could sing. When I asked her what she was singing, she would stop and said I would not understand. She also read a few words in the newspaper. She told me that her childhood was so wonderful, much better than mine because she did not have any chores or homework.
     My grandmother was the youngest and only daughter in the family. She had nine older brothers. She was from a wealthy landowner family. As a girl, she stayed home to learn all the necessary things that girls learned, such as needlework. Meanwhile, her brothers went to school to study. She enjoyed going to see the opera everyday. She felt that life was easy for her because she didn’t have any duties. She was loved by her family and was free to do whatever she wanted. I asked her why did she didn’t go to school with her brothers. I said that I would. I would disguise myself as a boy to go to school like the girl (Zhou Ying-Tai) in the “Butterfly Lovers” (梁山伯与祝英台) who disguised herself to go to school and a woman (Mu-Lan 花木蘭) who disguised herself as a man to fight in wars as a “woman warrior.” She laughed and said those were just stories.

Butterfly Lovers” (梁山伯与祝英台)
     When it came time for her marriage (she was about 15 years old), her parents had to prepare almost everything. At that time, women were so low in value. To marry a man, women had to contribute a dowry—many things such as furniture and bedding in order to become equal in value to the man. Of course, it was also important for both the man’s and woman’s families to be of equal class. She was the youngest of ten children and the only girl from her family. My grandmother’s parents searched and chose the man to be my grandmother’s husband. The man’s parents agreed and sent some gifts and the bridal wedding crown and gowns, and set a date for them to be married. The two were not allowed to see each other until after the marriage. When the date arrived, the groom’s party of one dozen men, came to the bride’s house with carriages and musicians to take the bride in a carriage. The bride’s face was covered to make sure that she didn’t see what was going on and where she was going. Along with her carriage were other carriages with furniture or other valued goods, and musicians playing music like a parade. Listening to my grandmother tell her story with a pride, I felt like I was watching a boring old movie all over. I just couldn’t let my grandmother continue, “that’s not fair, why did you have to be carried to his house with so many things? I would put him in a carriage and have him taken to my house. How can you marry someone without knowing the person?” She said, “you are never getting married like that.” I said, “I will never get married if all that is necessary.” She said, “Then people will laugh at you all your life. You would be the woman no one wants.”
     My grandmother said her life changed completely after she was married. She became a mother with children to care for, plus my grandfather who was bedridden. One custom changed since her childhood. Thanks to Empress Cixi,  her girls didn’t have to wrap their feet anymore and they all could go to school. She sent all of her children to school. They were all doing well at school. One cousin though got a perfect grade one semester. He was so excited and jumped up and down with his brothers and sisters. He fell and broke one of the bones in his back; the injury became infected, and then he died. My grandmother had five children then including the oldest boy, two girls in the middle, and my youngest uncle, the next boy died from pneumonia. My youngest uncle was around five at the time so my grandmother decided to give her baby’s breast milk to my youngest uncle. She nursed my uncle till she got pregnant again with my youngest aunt.
     At that time, my grandfather owned a salt well company with two other men. Their business was good until my grandfather’s health went downhill. He got severe arthritis from work. Finally, he was paralyzed when he was 30 years old. One day, the other two men ran off with all of the company’s money. My grandfather had to sell the business. When the man of the house falls, you could imagine what happened to my grandmother with wrapped little feet. (I never questioned this story until I turned 50 years old).
     One of my grandpa’s brothers backed out of supporting my oldest uncle to go to college, even though he had very high scores on the college entry exam. My oldest uncle went to work for a salt company; he could have been working for his own family’s company if ours was still around. Now, he was working for someone else. He started as a house servant first, then earned trust from the owner. Eventually he was headmaster and an accountant for the salt company. He worked very hard and took every penny home.
     Everyone in the family tried their best. My mother and aunts helped my grandmother cook and wash clothes before and after school. They did not have any lunch while studying in school. My grandmother wove to make her own clothes and the school boy and girl scout uniforms for her children. She dyed them green with natural herbs found on the hill not far from our home. Their life was a struggle but was going fine.
     My grandfather’s oldest brother also contributed money for food for a period of time. But my grandmother swallowed a lot of sorrow from her sisters-in-laws. They looked down on her and her children because they didn’t have anything fancy, and sometimes they ignored her and her family as part of the clan.

     Maybe because of my grandfather’s ill fortune, we did not suffer after the communists took over China. Our family became closer and everyone stuck together, helping each other and always thinking of others first. When I was ten years old or so after we moved back to Chengdu with my mom, my aunt Ju-Ming was also in Chengdu working for the Geological Institute. It took us about one hour to walk to her home and then an hour for the return trip home. Whenever we had something good to eat such as a chicken, my mom cut the chicken in half and put it in a basket with a few other goods from around the house. Then my brother and I carried the basket and walked to my aunt’s house to give it to her family. We usually stayed for dinner and then walked back home. Her husband would ride his bike to deliver whatever goodies they had. My mom always saved her best things for her sister instead of using them herself. For example, my father bought a pair of fur winter boots for my mom when he was on a business trip in northern China. My mom gave them to my aunt; my aunt gave them back to my mom; my mom gave them back to her again, and the boots just sat there for a few years without anyone wearing them; finally, my aunt wore them.
    My grandmother had very different views with me about landlords and private owners. I was told in school that they were all bad blood-suckers. She said her brothers were landlords and hired a lot of people to work on the farm. She used to help in the kitchen cooking for the farmers in the field when she wanted to talk to them. She said her hands hurt when she had just cleaned piles and piles of vegetables that were prepared for the farmers’ lunch. The farmers got fair pay and raised their families just like everyone else. They were not suffering like I was told in school; they were grateful to be able to work. The communists came along and took everything away from them, turned private land into public land, and they put her brothers on public display and treated them like animals. Another brother of hers was a local doctor who was famous for setting broken bones back into place. People walked miles and miles away to see him, sometimes with money, sometimes without. He helped them all. She also learned how to set broken bones, but only for her family members since she was a woman. I told her that her family was an exception. Our school field trip took us to one of the biggest landlord Liu Wen Cai (刘文彩)’s family courtyards. It displayed his torture chambers and how the landlord treated people and it was very bad. My grandmother could not believe it and I thought my grandmother did not have education to read the news. Now I know she was right; it was a man-made story for China’s land reform.  Any ruler would have to do the same since China had to start from Ground Zero, the ones who had ended up paying.