THESE ARE THE STORIES OF REAL LIFE PEOPLE.
Love, struggles, triumphs, loss, heartache, joy, tears, inspiration, laughter, success, failures, decisions & happiness make up our lives… everyone’s lives.
Wang her father’s surname, Li, her mother’s surname and Jun, her name, means noble character but she is known as ‘Dou’. Born 29 years ago in Haimen, a small city in Jiangsu province, 140 kms north of Shanghai. It’s situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River and has a population of 1 million. Small, by Chinese standards.
Dou’s childhood was very normal, again by Chinese standards, and a happy one. Born and raised by her parents, Mr and Mrs Wang who both originated from Haimen. Her father, a worker as defined in China, or better described as a sheep farmer, grape picker and gatherer of herbs and plants to make TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Her mother, a tailor.
She lived with her parents, her younger sister of 3 years, Wang Li Jia and her mother’s father, in his house. It’s tradition in China for immediate families to have their parents (grandparents) live with them to help with the cooking, maintain the house and look after their children while they go to work. Two small children was a lot of work for Mrs Wang and she was fortunate to have her husband’s mother living only a 5 minute walk away, so Dou spent many days and nights there. Over the years Dou formed a close relationship with this grandmother and looked to her as a mother figure. Even though there were many grandchildren, Dou remained her favourite. She was smart and came from a good family of doctors in Nanjing. The family fled to Haimen in 1937 due to the Japanese invasion, also known as the rape of Nanjing. Even though Dou spent most of her time away from her mother and sister, they were close by and she always felt loved by them.
Her father’s work meant he was away from the household for long periods at a time so he could provide for his family. This meant Dou and her sister’s childhood was spent mainly with their mother and grandmother. Although Dou didn’t have a close relationship with her father due to his regular absence, she knew 100% his sacrifice was for the family who he loved. Mr Wang’s money went in to building the family a comfortable house to accommodate everyone including all the grandparents. It was going to be a grand house, one he was proud to be building himself, but on the first day of construction the family received bad news that Mr Wang’s father had passed away. The house took just over a year to complete and as they were about to move in and enjoy the home as a family, they received more bad news. This time Dou’s grandfather on her mother’s side had passed away. The bad news didn’t end there. Around the same time they were hit with further shocking news that Mrs Wang was diagnosed with liver cancer, and within three months she had passed away. The family, though not superstitious, felt the house was cursed and Mr Wang who’d built a 3 storey house so everyone would fit comfortably, now had a house too big for what family was left.
The harsh reality of the sudden death of Dou’s mother meant having to find the girls a place to live since Mr Wang needed to work. Dou was sent to stay with her aunt, her father’s sister, whilst Li Jia stayed with her mother’s cousin. This was a temporary situation and luckily both homes were located in their hometown allowing the girls to see each other every day at school. In fact, Dou had the responsibility, being the elder child to accompany her sister on bike to school.
Being 12 and even with an understanding of death, Dou was scared. Scared she would be next in line to death because it wasn’t uncommon in their family, on her mother’s side. The hardest part was dealing with the emotions that followed. Maybe the adults in her life thought she was unable to handle such a complex matter or perhaps they didn’t know how to approach the subject themselves. Either way, life moved forward and the death was rarely discussed. This temporary housing situation lasted less than a year and the girls were reunited in their “cursed” home with Mr Wang’s mother, the girls’ grandmother (the one Dou grew up with).
Two years after the passing of Dou’s mother, Mr Wang brought home another woman to meet his children. She was to be his future wife. They married shortly after and she moved into the family home. Again Dou and her sister were faced with another traumatic situation. Even though this one was a positive event, for their father, it was nonetheless, another emotional baggage to add to their already heavy load. The woman was kind, but not her mother.
At age 16, after 1 year of living as a newly formed family, Dou was sent to boarding school in Deshengzhen, a town 8 kms north of Haimen to complete high school. Although it wasn’t far away, it was easier for the family logistically since her father was unable to accompany her or collect her from school. She did however spend every weekend at home with the family. This arrangement lasted for 3 years until she moved back to her hometown to finish senior high school.
Dou felt unhappy living in Haimen. Too many reminders of heartache and death and she wished to escape her past and start anew. The opportunity arose on graduating from senior high school when she applied for college in Hefei (Anhui province), to the west of Jiangsu province to study dentistry. However, shortly after starting the course, she realised it wasn’t teaching her how to be a dentist but rather how to work in a factory making dental equipment. She hadn’t understood or seen that the course title had 2 extra Chinese characters following the word “Dentist”, as many of her fellow students. Those 2 characters were key! However, Dou persevered because the thought of going back to her hometown and living with her family was out of the question. On receiving the final certificate, she headed to Nanjing, a bigger city (6 million people) where she had an uncle who offered her a place to stay.
Dou felt lost and disappointed, not knowing what to do. She had no direction and only a certificate for a job she had no interest of pursuing. Every day she would read the local newspaper and see what jobs were available. One day an ad caught her eye looking for a kindergarten teacher. She’d never taught before but loved kids and staying home doing nothing was not an option. So she got an interview and was offered the job with a 4 month trial period earning a small salary of 600 RMB ($90 usd) a month. She proved herself, got a better salary and over the following 4 years, Dou pursued a career in teaching and thrived at it. She had studied English since she was 14 and was able to teach the language at kindergarten too. Everything seemed to be going well. She had a good job, friends and lived in a vibrant city she liked.
One day Dou’s colleague from school told her about a friend of her husband’s who was single. Dou was 23 years old at the time and in China that is deemed the age to marry. Yes, even in 2016. She was given the boy’s number and they began texting, never having met. One month after chatting they decided to meet face to face. Hank, his English name, was from the town Haian, not far from hers. They dated for about a year before Hank proposed in a very romantic fashion. He invited all their friends and family to the famous river in Nanjing, unbeknown to her and when she arrived, her heart was beating fast. He got down on bended knee and asked her to marry him. She said yes. They were married on the 23 of January 2014.
Life for Dou changed dramatically. She married and moved in with her new husband. Hank had a good job working in IT and she continued to teach. They lived in a small apartment, ate out regularly which they both love to do and spent the following 3 years enjoying married life. At age 27 Dou fell pregnant which was part of the plan and also expected culturally. She took maternity leave and moved back to her hometown in preparation for the birth. Unfortunately or fortunately, Hank had been laid off from his job and found himself at home with Dou from September 2014 till January 2015. Fortunately because he was able to enjoy family time and be there on the 2nd of November 2014 when Dou gave birth to a healthy little boy named Xijun. This was another important milestone in Dou’s life. They were a real family, but it wasn’t going to be an easy ride.
After having Hank at home for 6 months, it was time for him to go back to work and provide for his family, but the job he was offered happened to be in Shanghai, 4 hours from Haimen. There was no work in his field in Haimen. They talked and decided the job in Shanghai was the best option even if it meant dividing the family. Rent and day to day life would be expensive for a young family and it made sense for her to be close to her father and stepmother for any help. Hank’s job meant he would be away for as long as the job required. Over the following 13 months Hank visited his family only a handful of times. Travelling home every weekend would have been an expense they couldn’t afford as well as his job being demanding and requiring him to travel often. Also, it was his chance to prove himself in the company in order to work his way up to be a manager.
After so many months without her husband, Dou was faced with the question. Do I go to Shanghai or not? Originally she didn’t think Hank would be away for so long and the distance and longing to live as a normal family under the same roof was always on her mind. Hank also felt alone in a city of 20 million people. In March 2016 life threw the answer to that question at them when Hank had to go to hospital for kidney stones. Dou was concerned about her husband being alone and decided to go to Shanghai to take care of him but she had to leave Xijun, her son with her husband’s parents in Haian. This of course was one of the most difficult decisions to make, leaving a 17 month old with his grandparents, but taking him to Shanghai would have been too difficult. She was hoping it would be a temporary situation but 4 months later she was still in Shanghai. Her husband wanted her close by and so she found a job in a kindergarten. This is where I met Dou. Financially it would be good for them having two salaries but emotionally speaking it was heartbreaking and worrisome not seeing her son. She did visit him once a month.
Life in the big city proved difficult. Dou’s job was 2 hours away from their home. Originally she’d accepted the job because Hank’s office was going to relocate in that area but unfortunately that didn’t happen and Dou found herself travelling 4 hours a day! I never heard her complain and she always had a smile on her face. One day we took the subway home together and were talking. She told me on the weekend the government had decided to evict everyone in their building. I’m not sure why but these situations do happen regularly in China. Dou thought because there were too many people living in the building but regardless, from one day to the next they had to find alternative accommodation. Luckily their landlord found them a place within a few days. I asked her on that ride home, “How are you still smiling?”. Her response, “Even if I don’t smile, the situation is still the same”.
Hank has now been offered a job back in Nanjing and Dou has found a teaching job there too. Once they settle in, the plan is to go back to Haian to get their son and live together as a complete family in Nanjing.