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2016-04-20 08:49:06 Voices

My husband and I are both the children of farmers. My family was lucky. We were well-off while I was growing up, and before meeting my husband’s family, I had never been exposed to the financial problems that grip so many rural households. Because family is of paramount importance in China, you are stuck with your relatives through thick and thin. This is especially true in China’s rural regions, where lifestyles are much more traditional than in the larger cities. An extended family is an economic unit, and all members are expected to contribute to its overall success.

My husband's family is from a small village in Xiaochang County, in Central China’s Hubei province, and I visited them for the first time over the Chinese New Year in February 2005. His brother’s wife left a deep impression on me. She was small and awkward, and I remember noticing at first how unattractive she was — an observation for which I immediately felt guilty.

In the countryside, the most important factors when choosing spouses are economics and family status. My husband’s brother and his wife both came from impoverished roots, which made them a good match. Still, despite the fact that she was ugly and came from a poor background, the woman was animated and full of life. We hit it off immediately.

As a matter of fact, the family was actually doing pretty well at the time. My 75-year-old mother-in-law was in good health, and my husband’s brother had a good job. He and his wife had been working in construction in Beijing with my husband’s fourth oldest sibling. The sibling — “Four” — was a sister who had married a contractor. He had employed many young workers from the village and brought them to Beijing. They worked hard, and he paid them fair wages. Four and her husband had ended up becoming very rich through various real estate ventures in the 1990s, and they were in many ways the pride and joy of the family.

When children leave the countryside to pursue their futures in cities, it is expected that they will send back money to support their families. My husband was still studying back then and had nothing to send, but the members of the family working in construction in Beijing did. That part of the family worked long hours, and they, as is often the case with migrant workers, sent their children back to the countryside to be looked after by my mother-in-law.

Although already in her late 70s, my mother-in-law still cooked, fed the chickens, and took care of chores around the house. She ended up raising almost all of the children in the family. They only saw their parents once a year around Chinese New Year, but they were loved and well-cared-for by their grandparents. Money was flowing from Beijing back to the rural home, the children were well-fed, and everyone was happy.

When children leave the countryside to pursue their futures in cities, it is expected that they will send back money to support their families.

This all changed when an unexpected turn of events shook things up in the family.

In the midst of the global financial crisis in 2008, the government stopped paying the arrears they owed at the family construction site. The construction company soon found itself gripped by crushing debt that wiped out the family business and our years of savings.

The family landscape changed dramatically over the following year. Four and her husband had always been well-off. Their business had brought jobs to other family members, as well as supported the relatives back in Xiaochang County. Four’s husband always wore nice clothes and had an air of success about him. This all came to a crashing halt in 2008. Unable to pay his debts, my husband and I received a call near Chinese New Year in 2009 from Four’s husband, begging us to lend him money.

But we didn’t have any to give. My husband was still in school, our savings accounts were nonexistent, and we were actually in debt ourselves. Our financial situation was dire; mortgage payments were due on our house. In addition, we held a secret grudge against Four and her husband. When the construction business collapsed, they owed a couple of family members who had been working for them almost 100,000 yuan (around $14,500). This money represented years of hard work for the family members and had been reserved for their children.

We believed that Four and her husband had been irresponsible and should have tried harder to protect the interests of their loved ones. Still, the duty to our family bound us together. We called a wealthy friend and borrowed some money. Four promised to pay us back within several months, but she was in no position to make such a promise. We never saw the money again.

They never recovered from the disaster, and never again did they return home for Chinese New Year. The family members that they owed the 100,000 yuan to had no other savings. In one fell swoop, the financial crisis sent the entire family into turmoil. It fell on me and my husband to support almost everyone.

In 2015, I visited Four and her husband in Beijing. They lived in a chaotic, run-down part of the city that reeked of sewage and garbage. They had been hiding out for years in a tiny bungalow at the end of a winding alley. The husband never dared to go home. Not only was he terrified of running into the people to whom he owed money, but he could never face the family he had abandoned. Because of debt, neither he nor his wife could openly seek employment. Instead, the two worked under the table at a cafe, while their two daughters worked as tour guides.

A family is a delicate economic unit. This is especially true in China, where people are tasked with taking care not only of their own children, but also of an entire extended family. The heyday of our family was in the 1990s, when the money was flowing from Beijing to the rural household and everyone was happy. Now the family is fractured. The rural home still exists, but it maintains no contact with Four and her husband, who live in utter destitution in one of Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods.

To Be Continued

(Header image: Farmers carrying shovels walk along a path through a farm in Zhumadian, Henan province, Nov. 30, 2015. Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone)