After translating the first half of migrant worker Fan Yusu (范雨素)’s viral biographical essay last week, CDT offers the rest of her essay in translation:
I am Fan Yusu (Part 2)
An Essay | by Fan Yusu
When I left that abusive and drunk man to take my two daughters back to Xiangyang, my mother didn’t act peculiar. Calm and collected, she just said to me, don’t worry. But my eldest brother acted as though the plague had struck, and told me to leave without delay, not to bring troubles.
According to the Xiangyun village tradition, adult daughters are like spilled milk, they can’t be retrieved. My mother didn’t have any power to help me. She did have political strength, but she wouldn’t dare to stand off with China’s 5,000-year-old Three Obediences and Four Virtues. My loving mother said to me, “My eldest didn’t go to school, but it is no worry. Everyday I’ll beg the heavens, I’ll pray for them to offer you a way out of this predicament.”
At that time, I realized I had no home. For our poor village family, life was not easy, and so of course our affection was weak. I absolutely didn’t hold a grudge against my eldest brother, but it was clear, I was just a passing traveler in the place where I was born and raised. Even more so, my two children were no more than rootless weeds floating in the water. My mother was the only one in the world who loved us.
I took my two children back to Beijing, and worked as a nanny caring for the children of others, with one day off a week. I’d leave my eldest daughter in a rented room to care for her little sister in Pi village outside of the east fifth ring road.
My luck was good, the family I nannied for was that of a newly-rich man on the Hurun Rich List. Two children of my male employer’s wife were already adults. I was watching over the infant of his mistress.
My employer’s mistress had a son and a daughter. The elder son was at the front of his class at an international school. The daughter was an infant of just three months old. My employer got his son a martial arts instructor who had graduated from Shaolin. They fixed off a 300 square foot studio space in their own office building and fitted it with plum dowels, sandbags, and parallel bars… Just solely for that little bastard to use. In addition to the martial arts instructor, they also found a bookworm who graduated from Renmin University to act as a live-in tutor, drive him to school and practice, guide him through his homework, and teach the six-year-old child computer programming.
I was only responsible for the three-month-old girl. The baby didn’t sleep well, always waking up in the depths of the night. After she’d wake I’d give her milk powder, then coax her back to sleep. At these times, I’d think of my two girls back in Pi village. At night, they had no mother there to lay them down to sleep. What if they had nightmares? What if they cry? Thinking and thinking, I shed silent tears. Good thing it was late at night, and nobody could see.
The mistress was 25 years younger than the male employer. Sometimes when I’d rise in the middle of the night to care for the infant, I’d run into the female employer, finely painted with makeup waiting on the couch for her boyfriend to come back. Her figure was more graceful than a model’s, and her face prettier than Fan Bingbing’s. But, she seemed just like an imperial concubine from a dynastic soap opera, she meticulously fawned over my male employer, seeking his praise without a shred of dignity. Maybe in her previous life she had her fill of hardship, now she won’t have to struggle for a thing.
Every time this would happen, I’d get confused, not knowing whether I was living in the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, or the Qing empire, or in socialist new China. But I have no supernatural powers, I haven’t traveled through time!
My eldest daughter made friends with two children of the same age who didn’t go to school. One was named Ding Jianping (丁建平), the other Li Jingni (李京妮). Ding Jianping was from Tianshui, Gansu, and she couldn’t go to school because her mother left her father, and her father was very angry. He also said that public schools wouldn’t let the children of migrant workers attend, they could only attend migrant schools where each semester many teachers are replaced, and the quality of education is poor. Also, if they don’t go, then it’s a bit of money saved.
Li Jingni also didn’t attend school because her father had a wife and child back in his hometown, he had also had Li Jingni by cheating on his wife. When Li Jingni’s mother learned that she’d been cheated, she got angry and left. And she didn’t want Li Jingni. The father was a kindhearted man, and didn’t abandon Li Jingni. He said, Li Jingni is a hukou-less illegal child, and all the migrant schools are unregistered black schools. All the students in those schools aren’t recognized by the Ministry of Education, and when they go back to their hometowns they can’t enter high school or test into college. Li Jingni was an illegal person, so there was no desire for her to go to an illegal school, where she’d be doubly illegal.
I thought, this is a failure of the Ministry of Education, who decided on this ruinous policy on the children of migrant workers? The newspapers said that the Ministry of Education did this in order to disallow schools from misreporting their student numbers and take undue funding. But why isn’t the ministry accused of misconduct, why does it insist on torturing migrant children?
Some mothers beseech the heavens, my two children grew up happy and healthy. Three big children together looked after one small child, very relaxed, the kids were all OK every day. The three children would sing to the young girl every day, “Our motherland is like a garden, a garden of flowers bright and gay.” Singing, dancing, and dancing with joy.
The place we live in Beijing, Pi village, is a very interesting place. All Chinese people know that the farmers in Beijing’s suburbs are millionaires, their real estate is immensely valuable. The new rich ostentatiously flaunt their wealth, showing off their dazzling cars, dazzling handbags, dazzling clothes and food. All of us in Pi village despised this flaunting. In Pi village we flaunt our dogs—the more dogs the better. One workmate I knew in Pi village, Guo Fu (郭福), was from Wuqiao, Hebei. He was in Pi village doing construction and living in a workers’ shack. One Pi villager would lead a pack of 12 dogs to the shed each day to patrol the shack and humiliate all the migrant workers who lived there. Guo Fu coldly wrote an article “Pi Village Dogs,” published in Beijing Literature magazine, expressing the point of view of migrant workers.
My landlord was Pi village’s former committee secretary, and was regarded as the village’s former president. The landlord was a politician, and he disdained raising an army of dogs, raising only two himself. One was a Scottish sheepdog, the other a Tibetan mastiff. He told me Scottish sheepdogs are the world’s smartest breed, and Tibetan mastiffs are the world’s bravest and fiercest. The smartest and the fiercest made up an alliance that, all under heaven, was unparalleled. My children, living in the residence of the former president of Pi village, enjoyed security that was unparalleled under heaven. Me and my children all thought our lives were blessed.
After my eldest daughter learned to read novels, I had to keep going to Panjiayuan market and other second-hand markets and waste stations to get more than 1000 jin in books. Why would I buy so many? Two reasons, one was that books are cheaper by the jin, the other is that books at waste stations were too new, with many still in their laminate. An unread book is the same as an unlived life, a sad sight to see.
Originally, I didn’t write essays. Today, sometimes I even use pen and paper for lengthy fiction, to write about my acquaintances’ previous lives. I attended only a little school and lack self confidence, writing these fills me with satisfaction. After thinking about the name, I decided to call it “Meeting Again After Long Separation.” The story isn’t very fanciful, it’s quite genuine. Art is rooted in life, and our present life is incredible beyond belief. All the people in the story can be traced to real life. I’ve often think that I could write this novel better to entertain myself.
The Pi village “Family of Workers” literature group started, and for a year I attended. During that year, I had the time to attend because my youngest daughter needed looking after, so I sought temporary work in the neighboring village of Yin’gezhuang as a teacher. The wages were low, anybody would qualify. They paid 1,600 yuan for one month. Later, after my youngest daughter was a little bigger, she could independently attend school, return home, and buy food, all by herself. I wouldn’t teach again, working in childcare I made more than 6,000 yuan in a month, but I could only return to my little daughter once a week, and couldn’t keep attending the “Family of Workers” group.
I always thought of myself as an apathetic and weak person. Whenever I read the paper, I leisurely did so, not bothering with the details. Looking at news from the last few decades you will find that before migrant workers went to the big cities to find temporary jobs, so before about 1990, women in rural China had the world’s highest suicide rate. What a terrible scene! Ever since we could work casual jobs, the papers say, rural women have stopped committing suicide. However, then came the “Motherless Villages.” The rural women don’t kill themselves, but they all flee their hometowns. In 2000 I read the report “Wild Mandarin Ducks Are Easiest to Shoot When Scattered,” which said that the marriages of migrant couples living separately were too fragile. Women who fled their marriages are among these women living apart from their husbands.
In this village within the city of Beijing, there were many motherless children of migrant workers. Maybe this was because when people split from groups, birds of a feather flock together. The two friends of my eldest daughter were both this kind of child. Their fate was basically the most tragic.
Following the television subtitles, my eldest daughter learned how to read, and could read newspapers and novels. Later, after my eldest didn’t need to look after her little sister, when she was 14, she began doing hard labor, on one hand suffering hardships, and on the other mastering many handicrafts. This year she is 20, and she’s already become a white collar worker with an annual salary of 90,000. Her peers Ding Jianping and Li Jingni, who had no relatives to pray for them, both became cogs in the world factory, Terracotta Warriors on the assembly line, living lives like puppets.
Anyone who breeds cats or dogs knows how to protect them. Just the same, people are also animals. A woman who has abandoned her child lives life like someone who has to carry their blood-dripping heart in clasped hands.
For many years I lived a life of temporary work, and I discovered that I don’t easily trust other people. Everyone I’ve had contact with has ended up just a nodding acquaintance. And sometimes, I’m afraid to even greet others. I checked some psychology books to try to find a cure, and learned that this is called “social anxiety,” and “civilization phobia.” If it progresses, it can lead to “clinical depression.” Love is the only treatment. I’d recall my mother’s love, and how in this world she was the only to love me. Everyday I’d wholeheartedly think like this, and my mental illness hasn’t worsened.
This year, my mother called and told me that our production team’s land was acquired to build an intermediate stop on the Zhengzhou-Wanzhou high-speed rail line. Myself, my daughters, and my eldest brother’s whole family all had hukous from the village, where we had land. They only paid 22,000 per acre of requisitioned land in the village, an unfair price. The team leader posted an announcement for every household to send a legal representative to petition the government and fight for their own personal benefits. My brother had also gone out for temporary work, so only my mother could represent our family.
Mother told me that she followed the other representatives to the village, county, and city governments. When they got there, they were pushed around by the young kids working to maintain social stability. The legal defense team captain was 60 years old, and she was the youngest on the team. Four of her ribs were broken by the stability maintenance kids. Mother was 81, and thankfully they had a conscience and didn’t push her, they just pulled her by the arm. But they ripped her arm, dislocating her shoulder.
They bought up all the land for 22,000 per acre. Per capita this was very low, and for some of those who couldn’t do temporary work, how would they go on? None of the authorities were willing to think of these people, nobody was willing to think of these poor souls. All over China, all over the earth, in every remote nook, there are stories like this, all people forced to accept their misfortune.
I thought of the cold winds in the first lunar month, thought of how my 81-year-old mother was fighting for the the interests of her unsuccessful children, hurrying about for them. All I can do is write down these characters, and express my guilt. What else is there for me to do?
What can I do for my mother. My mother is a good and honest person. During childhood, more than half the people in the village would pick fights with the migrants from Junzhou who had moved here to fix the Danjiangkou reservoir. The most famous person from Junzhou was Chen Shimei, who was ordered to death by Bao Qingtian. Today, Junzhou City is underwater. My mother, a strong woman at the top of the village hierarchy, would step in to prevent the bullying of these migrants. After I became an adult and moved into the big city to seek survival, I became a weakling in the lowest ranks of society. While I was the daughter of the village strong-woman, I would often be bullied and looked down upon by others in town. At that time, I’d wonder: is it that people bully anyone they come across who is weaker than they for pleasure? Or is it a genetic thing? Ever since then, I’ve taken the intention to treat every person I meet who is as weak as myself with love and dignity.
Life nonetheless continues. I am an incompetent person, and following that I am destitute, and yet I can still do something!
On the Beijing streets, I embrace every disabled vagrant; I embrace everyone suffering a mental disorder. I use my embraces to pass on the love of my mother, to pay back my mother’s love.
My eldest daughter told me that ever since she began working at a cultural firm she gets a bottle of Huiyuan juice every day. She isn’t used to drinking juice. Everyday after work she takes the bottle to the to the gate of the firm where the homeless grannie is at the wastebin sorting through scraps.
See also Manya Koetse’s full text translation of Fan Yusu’s viral essay at What’s on Weibo.