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-from Grandma’s China, by Wei Jing
The only other person Wang knew in the big city of Shenyang was Grandma’s husband, Fan, who held a steady job with the railway system. Wang had found her lifeboat. She went to Fan begging for assistance, telling him how “vulnerable and scared” she had become since her husband left. Sympathetic to her story at the beginning, also because they had been friends from school, Fan helped her move out of the army captain’s rented quarters and found her a house to live. He also paid for some rent and gave her money for daily necessities.
Although Wang knew from the beginning that Fan and Grandma had been married for two years by then, the handsome young man in his early 20s was too attractive and too good an opportunity for her to pass up. She started to dress up when he came to visit. She lived on his handouts and told him she wasn’t strong enough to look for work, and she was just the kind of delicate little flower a man might want to protect.
Once she pretended to fall sick and bedridden, so that when he came she was in bed in revealing pajamas. One thing led to another. At the time, when Fan returned home on weekends he was faced with boring house chores and two screaming young children, whereas at Wang’s he was worshiped as the knight who saved the world. Slowly, Fan started to spend less and less time at home, and more and more time at Wang’s place.
Grandma had no clue what was going on. While Fan commuted between the two cities of Tonghua and Shenyang, also the two women, Grandma was a full-time devoted mother for her daughters. She supported the idea of helping Wang, thinking that since she herself was in a more secure position in life with a husband and two children, it was her moral obligation to help those less fortunate, especially a childhood friend.
But as time went by, not only did Fan spend less time at home, the money he sent to pay bills also started to decline and, in the end was not enough to pay the rent. In that year, the economic situation worsened all over China – the value of government-issued bank notes dropped by 80% in many cities. As a result, Grandma easily accepted Fan’s explanation that he had to work longer hours to keep his job and salaries were tight for everyone. She agreed with his suggestion to move to a smaller town to cut costs.
Soon, Grandma packed up, took her daughters with her and moved to a town where her uncle and some of Fan’s relatives lived. As soon as they settled in, a friend in town told her that Fan was rumored to have married another wife in Shenyang, and people thought that was why Grandma had to move further away from the city, to “make room” for the second wife. Grandma furiously refuted the idea, telling this person that the move was caused purely by financial reasons.
But the rumor was disturbing. She couldn’t remain a quiet and trusting housewife living hundreds of miles away from her husband anymore. There was no access to telephones in those days, and mails took too long amid the civil war. The fastest way to find out, Grandma determined, was to face Fan herself.
She soon made arrangements to leave her younger daughter, not yet one year old, with her uncle’s family, then took the older daughter, my mother, who was about 18-months-old, on a trip to Shenyang to confront her husband. This was during the time that Communist forces were mounting a major military offensive against KMT forces for control of Shenyang and neighboring cities. Traveling against the tide of civilians fleeing from the cities, Grandma nevertheless knew she didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a safer time if she wanted to save her marriage.
The mother and daughter found Fan in his office on a late morning. Appearing quite startled to see them, Fan quickly resumed his cool demeanor. He flatly denied the rumor and assured Grandma she had no need to worry, that she was much prettier and a better wife and person overall. He then took the two to lunch, gave them some money to stay at a small guesthouse close to the office, and told them he would be back after work.
He didn’t come back. Not that evening. Not that night. Not the next day. Not the next week, month or year. Grandma would not see him again until five years later.
That night, after waiting for him the whole evening and well into the night, Grandma knew he would not come back anymore. Too devastated from the heartbreak and too tired from a long day’s travel, she gave up the idea of looking for him in the night and waited for the day to break.
The next morning, Grandma asked a friend in the city to take care of her daughter so that she could go to Wang’s place herself. She knew the address from when the couple had decided to help Wang out of her plight. Today it had become the trap where Grandma’s entire world was shattered.
She was hoping Fan would be there, but he was not. Wang, the other woman, was, however. Grandma grabbed her and hit her as hard as she could, calling her “trash” for stealing a friend’s husband and the father of two young girls. The language, the dirtiest in Grandma’s vocabulary, had been learned from the worst foul-mouthed guys she knew. The slaps on Wang’s face were delivered with white-hot rage. Wang was no match, physically or morally. She ran out of that house as fast as she had the opportunity. Grandma smashed everything breakable in the room, just as her heart had been broken into a thousand pieces.
Distressed, exhausted and broke, Grandma learned the hard way that she was not going to resolve this herself, and that her husband was not going to return to her just because she was right or because she wanted him. To make matters worse, as the Chinese say, “happiness never arrives in pairs, but disasters never travel alone.” Grandma’s younger daughter caught a fever among all the troubles that were going on, when Grandma was occupied by her crusade and had to leave her daughters with her uncle’s family. The uncle had to work, and his wife had died not too long earlier, so the sick baby was left in the care of the uncle’s three daughters, all younger than Grandma when she married. They didn’t notice that something was wrong with the baby until it was too late. The baby girl died in the harsh winter, a few months short of her first birthday.
Grandma had by now become numb and disillusioned. My mother later suspected that she might not have gone on living had she not had another daughter she had to raise. Grandma’s uncle had been watching with pain from the sidelines since he couldn’t influence her. Now he finally persuaded her to take the case to Fan’s father, the store owner, instead of fighting it alone.
He took Grandma to Senior Fan hoping that, as a parent, the elder Fan could provide some justice. The results were minimal. Having two wives himself, Senior Fan didn’t see the big fuss over the his son’s behavior. Moreover, the in-laws in traditional families, especially fathers-in-law, loathed daughters-in-law who bore only girls and had no boys. They were producing “useless” burdens rather than future help. The family name could not be passed on to the next generation either. Senior Fan used this as a rationale for believing that the younger Fan indeed needed another wife. He could care less what Grandma was going through.
Seeing no hope, Grandma asked for a divorce. Although divorce was still a taboo in most communities in China at the time, Grandma wanted to leave the Fans with this stigma. She also wanted to stop grieving, put everything behind her and move on. After all, she was only 22 years old. Even at the divorce request, Fan was too cowardly to face his estranged wife himself. He didn’t show up at the court where Grandma filed and completed the divorce proceedings. His father signed the papers for him.
Decades later, my mother told me that Grandma would endlessly ask herself whether she had done the right thing, whether her blow up and the constant harassing of Fan actually pushed him further away. Should she have been more attentive, more understanding, more “Feminine” towards him in order to save the marriage? She kept wondering, if she had tolerated Fan as most other women at the time would have done, would the outcome have been better? Would she have been able to avoid her younger daughter’s death?