Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000
In the summer of 1983, when I was sixteen, two fellow-village girls and I travelled together to the distant, completely unknown, and mysterious city of Beijing.
We girls had never been away from home. Like newborn calves that do not fear the tiger, we had no fear of the unknown world. As if going to the market or going to see a film, we set off lightheartedly, without any psychological preparation. We didn't feel any sadness or regret about parting with our family and relatives. Later on, my mother said that she was hoeing in the fields at the time and she watched us leaving the village, walking further and further along the path to the nearest township, never once looking back.
Before we left for Beijing, the county capital was the furthest I'd ever been and I'd never even seen a train before. We walked ten li to town to take the bus to Hefei. At Hefei we got on the train, only to discover that there were no seats left. At midnight, a kind person squeezed me onto the edge of a seat with three other people. I fell asleep as soon as I sat down. When I woke up I found myself on the floor...
The train slowly drew into Beijing station. The three of us, a bit nervous and afraid, followed the tide of people out of the station.
Holding a piece of paper with an address on it, we asked directions of everyone who came along. We asked I don't know how many people and walked around in circles for I don't know how long. At dusk we eventually found the address on the paper. We knocked on the door, and the person who opened was sister Zhen - just the person we were looking for to give us refuge. Seeing her was like seeing our own mother, we were so overjoyed. But sister Zhen did not smile when she saw the three of us. She didn't dare let us into the apartment, and instead came out and closed the door. She took us down from the second floor, to the entrance of the building. She complained about so many of us coming all at once, saying that she had written for Huazi to come, so how come Asan and I had come too. Asan and I didn't know what to say. I said I wanted a drink, so sister Zhen went back in and got a big glass of water. The three of us each had a few mouthfuls. We were so thirsty we were like the parched earth in a drought, and a few mouthfuls of water could not quench our terrible thirst. But I was too embarrassed to ask sister Zhen to get us some more water. I squatted on the ground, tears flowing down my cheeks...
At the beginning of the '80s, it wasn't that common for peasants to go to the cities seeking work. When people walked down the streets and heard the familiar accent of their hometown, they would stop and chat warmly. Work was hard to find, and I remember that we looked for quite a few days without finding anything. One morning, I was wandering in the gardens of the apartment complex, when I saw a young mother pushing a pram in which lay a baby, soaking up the sun. I walked up and asked in a loud voice, if she needed someone to look after the baby. She was a woman of few words. Holding the baby, she packed up and asked me to carry the pram. I followed her into the building. We went into an apartment on the fourth floor. The woman mumbled a few words with a man there. He sized me up and asked me a few questions in a stern manner. That was how I found a job. The wage was fifteen yuan a month. The wage wasn't important, the main thing was that I had somewhere to stay.
My life as a migrant worker started here. Every morning before the sun came up, I went to queue for milk. Sometimes, because I was anxious, I would wake up very early and wait for daylight. At first, I had no idea how to do the work, I couldn't see what really needed to be done, so all day long I worked without stopping, spinning around like a top. It was so tiring! When I washed the bowls I broke them, and when I cut the vegetables, I cut my hand, but the most tiring thing was the stress. The child's mum was still on maternity leave, and while she was around I didn't dare to rest, even when there was nothing else left to do. Moreover, we couldn't communicate our emotions. Only when I took the child out to play, did I have a chance to relax a little. It wasn't easy getting through a day. Each day dragged on and on. At home in the village, I was never aware of this thing called time. I was naive and innocent then, living without a care. Time went by like a light breeze. But now the wings of happiness had been clipped, and time was like a net that trapped me.
After one month, the child's parents gave me a day off, so I went to see my friend Huazi. She persuaded me to stay for a meal, and then let me stay the night.
The next day, when I went back, noone answered the door. But it was quite clear there were people moving inside. I was so confused. I didn't understand what was going on. I knocked for a while, but noone opened the door, so I went downstairs to talk to Fat Auntie of the residents' committee, and tried to explain why I was crying. Fat Auntie huffed and puffed upstairs, grumbling at me, but not without sympathy - you're so young, why do you want to leave home and do this. Is it because you have nothing to eat at home? Hearing this made me even sadder and I couldn't stop crying.
Fat Auntie knocked on the door, and called out the mother's name, and then the door opened. Fat Auntie went in, and the door shut again. After a while, Fat Auntie came out and said to me: You didn't come home last night and that scared them. They took your things to the police station. You can go and get them back this afternoon.
That evening, I took the train to go south. Asan didn't want to work in Beijing anymore either, so she went home with me. On the train, Asan swore she'd never come back to Beijing. I didn't say anything. But later, Asan did go back to Beijing, and what's more she worked there for many years, before going home to get married.
From the hills of our hometown, I looked down at the smoke curling up against the sunset. The red sun was like a balloon sitting on the mountains opposite, and it was so peaceful and quiet. The cowherds were riding on the backs of the cows, ambling toward the village. When I'd left, the rice paddies were still like green carpet, but now everything was golden.
I returned home in a sorry plight. I didn't say a word about the wrongs that I had endured. Mum thought I would settle down, and would not try to make a fuss about going to Beijing again. She didn't expect that I'd run off again to Beijing straight after the harvest. This time I was too embarrassed to tell my family. Having been to Beijing, my closed world had been opened, and I could not be confined again. What's more, having been to Beijing, I could never return to my original carefree, naive and innocent state.
The second time I came to Beijing, it was much easier. It was easier to find a job looking after a child. The child, called Little Pei, was only one year old. Little Pei's parents were returned youth. They were extremely good to me, and every New Year and every holiday, Little Pei's mum bought presents for me. At first I couldn't believe it, thinking that she would ask me for payment. Little Pei's mum also enrolled me in a tailoring class. When they came back from work, they let me go to classes. They were accountants and they taught me how to use the abacus and how to write characters properly. During those days of looking after Little Pei, I was very busy, but happy and fulfilled. Little Pei's parents were my spiritual teachers. It was they who made me believe in the love and kindness of ordinary people.
After several years in Beijing, I knew the streets and alleys of the city like the back of my hand. I frequently changed employers and saw all kinds of people and all kinds of families. I was very curious and wanted to lift the veil on the mysteries of society, to see the true face of people from all walks of life.
I once cooked for a famous writer. The difference between being a cook and looking after a child lies in the fact that for the former you need to go out and buy vegetables, and when you buy vegetables you can steal a bit of money. Before this job, I was like all the others from Anhui who try to cheat a bit with the shopping money. We never let any chances go, even if it meant just keeping twenty cents to buy an iceblock. But I had great respect and admiration for writers and I thought they were all saints. I felt that I couldn't let them look down on me. The first time the writer's wife tried to check the shopping bill with me, there was only one cent unaccounted for. We smiled at each other. After this, she had complete faith in me, and never checked the bill again. It is a great feeling to be trusted. I slowly began to understand, then, that there is such a thing as moral integrity. I appreciated my new self. Even though I left the writer's household, I never tried to cheat again, regardless of whether I was trusted or not. Because my new self was watching me, I could never do anything that would make me look down upon myself.
The reason I left the writer's household was that there was too much work. I was busy all day long, working like a machine, and I would be exhausted after a day's work. I said I wanted to leave, and the writer's wife asked me to wait until they had found someone else.
After a week, the writer's wife told me that they had found a new nanny, and that I had to leave that day. While waiting for them to find a new nanny, I had worked hard like an idiot, but eventually they just sacked me, leaving me nowhere to go. The benevolent smile on the writer's wife's face made my heart turn to ice. Just as I was going, she said she wanted to check my luggage, saying that this was a regulation. Whenever someone leaves they must be checked. She was afraid I might have stolen their books. In my heart I didn't want to, but I said yes.
How I hated myself for being so weak. Why didn't I have the guts to say 'no'! For many years I felt so sorry for myself! We girls who've left the village are poor, ignorant, and have such low self-esteem. We long for the respect of society. But if we don't stand up for ourselves, who will take us seriously? We girls who work as nannies, feel this even more deeply than those who sell vegetables, work as waitresses or work as shop assistants. We enter the most basic cells of society. The differences between city and countryside in terms of civilisation and ignorance, and the difference among people in terms of beauty and ugliness are all fully exposed, directly clashing with each other. The transition from clash to harmony is a painful process of awakening.
Looking back at the past decade, we, the first group of country girls to enter the city as migrant workers, remind me of the young people who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution era. They went to the countryside from the city, whereas we went from the countryside to the city. Both groups suffered both physically and psychologically. They were swamped by the waves of politics, whereas us, we are swamped by the waves of the market economy. Compared with them, we are much more fortunate.
My home county, Wuwei, has already been totally transformed. In the past, the road from the small township to the county capital was very narrow, and now it has become a broad highway. The thatched roofed huts in the village have become a thing of the past. It's not a novelty to see two storied houses appearing one after another. Peasants who've been locked away for thousands of years, at long last have the opportunity to go to the outside world. Through struggle and hard work they are changing their lives. Reality has proven that we were right in having stepped forth.
 A more literal translation of the title (Chenzhong de huaji) would be 'Heavy season of flowers.' This title is deliberately odd. 'Season of flowers,' i.e. spring, refers to youth, which is supposed to be light and happy, but here it is described as heavy.
Mian Xiaohong's story was originally published in Nongjianü Baishitong, [Rural Women Knowing All], 2, (1999): 28-31, translated by Tamara Jacka and Song Xianlin.
 One li = approximately 0.5 km.
 This is very little. The average wage for housemaids in Beijing at that time was between twenty and thirty yuan. One yuan = US$0.1.
 Jumin weiyuanhui - A sub-governmental body with a jurisdiction of approximately 2000 people, charged with maintaining harmony and order in the area. The majority of members are unemployed or retired women.
 This term refers to urbanites who, as students during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), were sent to the countryside, but who later returned to the city.
 Anhui is a relatively poor province to the South of Beijing. The author is from Wuwei County, Anhui, a region well known as a traditional supplier of housemaids to the capital.
This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.
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