mil­lions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE -

com­put­ers and a sin­gle car, the rat­tling sil­ver van.

There are two main roads; at their in­ter­sec­tion are two gen­eral stores, a fer­til­izer shop and a small restau­rant. There is no run­ning wa­ter, and the town got elec­tric­ity only a decade back.

Most of the money comes from mi­grant work­ers. About 40 per cent of the vil­lagers leave home to join China’s ur­ban work­force.

The mi­grants’ salaries have bought bricks and lum­ber to re­place the grass and mud once used to build homes. Peo­ple proudly show off their tele­vi­sions, wash­ing ma­chines and re­frig­er­a­tors; ev­ery­body knows who has what, and how much it cost.

The price is paid in ab­sence. Most of the year, these ham­lets are ghostly, drained of the young and fit.

For these two weeks of the hol­i­day, though, the vil­lage looks like its old self. Couples get mar­ried, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the luck of a new year and the pres­ence of mi­grat­ing rel­a­tives. Rov­ing hol­i­day mar­kets spill from one vil­lage to the next, ped­dling live fish, dried lo­tus, pigs’ heads, hand­pounded se­same oil, moun­tains of fire­works.

Dur­ing these fleet­ing weeks of hol­i­day, ev­ery­body has ev­ery­thing. But it doesn’t last, and some­times the cracks of dis­tance show.

Li’s chil­dren have grown up with­out him. He seems un­easy around them, scoffs that their mother gave them names that are em­bar­rass­ingly ru­ral.

His son, Sheng­shun, has been acting out. He skips school, runs off with his friends. To the fury of his teacher, who threat­ened to ban him from school, he dyed his hair bright red. His grades are ter­ri­ble; in a few years, he’ll prob­a­bly fol­low his fa­ther’s ex­am­ple and mi­grate to a big city.

Now he trails af­ter his fa­ther, hurls him­self at the older man, who brushes the boy away. He man­ages to lure his fa­ther into a wrestling match, but it doesn’t last long.

As for 15-year-old Yingying, she is tall and dreamy. She earns bet­ter grades than her brother, and helps her mother in the kitchen. She pines for ad­ven­ture, of be­com­ing a fac­tory girl some­place bustling and dis­tant.

“I al­ways think out­side is bet­ter than my vil­lage,” she says.

New Year’s Eve is draw­ing closer, and Sun Fengzhi is minc­ing goat fat for the stew, bang­ing it over and over with a shin­ing cleaver. She mar­ried Li more than 13 years ago, when she was 26. She has hardly seen him since.

With her hus­band out of earshot in the yard, Sun de­scribes a melan­choly fam­ily life.

“He went away and I had to take care of ev­ery­thing,” she says qui­etly. “It was re­ally dif­fi­cult for me. I had to take care of the kids my­self. I used to hold them so long my arms were in pain. I had to be their fa­ther and their mother.”

One of the neigh­bour women slips out to warn Li: “Your wife is crit­i­ciz­ing you to out­siders!”

In­side, Sun’s face is cloud­ing over with com­ing tears; her voice hardly au­di­ble. Li bursts into the room. “Stop com­plain­ing so much,” he yells at his wife, who cringes and shrinks from him.

Their son joins in, echo­ing his fa­ther’s or­ders: “Stop com­plain­ing!”

Sun drops her red­dened eyes and turns to the stew.

The day of New Year’s Eve is clear enough that the sun pierces the chill, herald­ing the com­ing change of sea­son; the en­tire hol­i­day pe­riod is called chunjie, or spring fes­ti­val.

Li wears a grey woollen sweater and jeans as he works in the back court­yard. Much of his hol­i­day is spent catch­ing up on the re­pairs, the bro­ken wa­ter pump on the well, the loose tiles on the roof.

Then it is time to change the faded ban­ners dec­o­rat­ing the house. Li climbs a bam­boo lad­der and, as his son stands be­low peel­ing off strips of tape, they hang the aus­pi­cious cou­plets pur­chased for the New Year. Across the top of the gate, gold let­ters on a strip of red pa­per read: Hap­pi­ness and for­tune will pre­vail.

— Los An­ge­les Times

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