Traveling to Dengfeng,
I traveled to the village of Zhou Shan in Dengfeng today. I have heard stories of the women in this village and wanted to meet them. I was grateful my driver Mr. Shen knew where he was going.
We drove through villages and cities on dirt roads, and rocky roads. We saw cave dwellers and village homes being torn down by large bull dozers. People were sitting out in the rubble scavenging through the dirt and rock as though an earthquake had shattered their world. The government wants their land, so they are moving them to high rise apartment buildings.
For some of the younger people they look forward to the change. The older ones who have lived there all their lives are sad and lost. As we drove by I saw men, women, and children walking around the leftover pieces of their lives. My heart was sad for them.
Zhou Shan is in the country side, with hills covered with trees that were turning gold and yellow with autumn approaching. There was a little stream that ran through the village. Children were playing with an old seat from a car. A woman was sitting at the entrance to her home on a small wooden stool scrubbing shoes with a brush and water. There were two forks in the road and the driver wasn’t sure which one to take. We only lost our way a couple of times, and he never hesitated to ask questions and get directions.
I admire Mr. Shen. He has been my driver each time I have come to campus. I request him for many reasons. He has a soft, kind face and smile, and is a patient and slow driver. He has been a driver for 31 years. He has a son in college and a daughter who is married. He likes to cook homemade noodles for his wife. He does not speak English but we communicate through the students. I tell him he’s driving Miss Daisy. Any time I have had to catch a bus, train, or plane he always makes sure I get on before he leaves me. Today I needed to go to the bank when we arrived back on campus; he took me to get what I needed. Mr. Shen makes my visit to China easier.
When we arrived at Zhou Shan the women did not know we were coming. We pulled up to a gated community of white buildings with a marble courtyard and a garden with a small table and chairs. The students hollered out something and the women came out of a room upstairs. Olivia, my student told them I was there to meet them. As soon as they saw me they smiled and clapped their hands and came downstairs to greet me. The oldest woman was 68 and was so warm she put her hand in mine as we walked upstairs to their work room.
As we entered their work room it was different from other work rooms I had seen. It was clean, well lit and the energy was happy and calm. In the middle of the room was a large table covered with thick quilt batting, and a soft cotton batting. They had some darling child printed fabric they were cutting out to make jackets for children. There were three treadle sewing machines, and shelves filled with pieces of the jackets waiting to be put together.
I did not feel a rush from them to get things finished, or have a quota to get done. What I learned was this was a place where the women are carrying on the traditional handiwork that has been done for generations. They did everything from hand or on these old singer sewing machines. I looked at their fingers hardened with calluses and tape around some of them. This was a community center for women. There was a women’s association meeting room, a room for older people, and a women’s library.
Their handiwork was beautiful. I wanted to buy everything from them. They said people come from all over to their village to buy things from them. The most recent customers were from Hong Kong and Thailand. They make tiger faced pillows and stuffed animals, traditional wedding dresses and bedding, shoes, wallets, wall hangings, quilts, shopping bags, computer bags, children clothing, purses and more. Everything they made was perfect. The best part was they seemed to love what they were doing.
There are 18 women who work here 7days a week from 8-5. They have a kitchen and cook lunch together every day and feel like they are all sisters. They get paid 18 Yuan a day which is $3 American money. I got the feeling it was not money they were after, it was the companionship of each other and spending their time doing something they loved. Of course they wanted us to stay for lunch. I asked them not to prepare me any meat. I was afraid they would bring out the pig or something.
I was able to watch and even help the older woman make homemade noodles. It was quite an effort. They chopped up vegetables thinly and sautéed them in oil, after scrambling eggs they got from their chickens. There was a large pot of boiling water with a little colander on the top of it. When the noodles were done she dropped them into the water. One of the women was washing out the bowls and brought them in to fill with noodles, vegetables and eggs. We ate outside at the little table and chairs. They brought a liter bottle of homemade rice vinegar and a container of spices and one of ground up garlic and vinegar to put on our noodles. They were delicious! It was such a good soup and since I could put the spices in myself I really enjoyed it. After we ate our noodle soup they brought out the big pot of water the noodles were cooked in and set it on the ground. I was told this was soup and we now pour it into our noodle bowl and drink it up. That was unusual but I figured it had been boiled so why not. It just tasted like starchy water. The girls told me it is very good for you. I think they believe everything their mothers have told them.
The air outside was cleaner than in town and cool and crisp. The trees were hanging over our heads dropping leaves. The students were taking in deep breaths with each bite and saying something. When I asked what they were saying they said “we are breathing in happiness, because this taste like home.” In other words “comfort food”. They were so happy to eat something their mothers made. They said that when they were children their mothers would make this noodle soup and they would walk outside and sit down with the neighbors and eat and talk together.
The story the older woman told me was sad. She had 7children, 6 daughters and 1 son. She was teary eyed when she said she had to give away 3 of her daughters when they were born because she could not afford to feed them. Her son lives nearby and her daughters live further away but they buy her so many clothes she cannot wear them all. She seems so happy to be doing her handicraft with these women.
One of the stories I heard, that brought me to this village, was something these women did to change the law. For generations the baby boys have always been cherished over the baby girls. The law stated that when a baby boy was born the placenta would be buried in the middle of the village. When a baby girl was born the placenta would be buried outside the village. These women went to the Elders of their village and challenged this law. They said the girls were just as important as the boys and they should all be in the middle of the village. After some time the law was changed. I was so impressed with their courage to take a stand for something they believed in and would not back down. From this experience other women in neighboring villages have taken courage to do the same. It has been such an inspiration to me to see what a difference a few can make and how it is spreading on to others.
This was a wonderful day. I made new friends and felt a connection with my heart to more women in this country I have come to love.