Xia Lang, Yue Li's friend, standing in front of Yue Li's Paul Frank store.
It was 1957 and she was eighteen years old. Her mother had given up on life, and her sister, crippled from birth, could not work. They were all the family left to Xia Kelan. Then she got a job at the government-owned oil company.
“The first month I worked for my company I gained fifteen pounds,” she said, smiling at the memory. “Finally there was enough food and I could support my mother, my sister and myself.”
It was not family or love that sustained Xia Kelan throughout her life. The ever-faithful bedrock she drew strength and hope from was the oil company that employed her until retirement. Her job provided Lan with a security she’d hardly known in her difficult childhood, and provided her opportunities not possible to obtain in the war-torn country of her youth.
Born in 1939, her family had already begun their descent from wealth to poverty. Twenty years before, her grandfather’s steel mill was churning out product needed for the infrastructure of a new, booming China. Although the tiny, mountainous town of Qi Jiang was only connected to the rest of China by footpaths on land, it sat on the mighty Yangtze River. Steel could easily be shipped the 100 kilometers or so to Chongqing, the largest inland port in China. And the mountains behind the town were rich in coal and iron, the two resources necessary to make steel.
The early 20’s was a good time for the Xia family. Lan’s father and mother had just married, and although their first child was born handicapped, they expected many more to come. Their future was bright, with her father due to inherit the steel mill and the other trading businesses built around it. The Qing Dynasty had crumbled some ten years before, replaced by the up and coming Kuomintang (KMT) governing party of the Republic of China which had opened the doors to foreign investment.
But the KMT party was not the only group vying for control; Young Mao ZeDong had gathered an impressive support and by 1927 the two were at war with one another.
This was the beginning of the end for Lan’s family’s wealth. First one faction and then the other seized her grandfather’s factory for their own war efforts. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and the KMT Party and the Communist Party temporarily joined forces to beat back this brutal force, the family’s assets were further depleted to serve the sino-Japanese war effort. Civil war resumed after the Japanese were defeated until the triumph of the CPC in 1950.
After twenty-three years of war, all that was left of the Xia family was Lan, her sister, and her mother who struggled to find work to support them. Lan was eleven years old the first time she witnessed her country at peace.
The first memory Lan has is of herself making her way around the furniture toward her grandfather.
“I could not walk yet, so I must have been less than a year and a half,” she mused. “My grandfather was everything to me. He greeted me in the morning by throwing me up in the air, and he was the one who carried me everywhere.”
The day of her fist memory he was strangely still, laying on the summer couch he normally sat on, awaiting her arrival.
“I can see him now, his long white beard covering his chest, his face so close to mine.” She stopped and looked down at her folded hands in her lap.
“I was confused,” she said. “Why wouldn’t he pick me up?”
He’d died that day, and her father followed him a short year later.
“My mother gave birth to eight children, but only the oldest and youngest survived. My sister was sixteen when I was born.”
When she did not volunteer the causes of their deaths I asked her. She shrugged, looking uncomfortable.
“I don’t know what happened to them, my mother never spoke to me of it. I heard one died of eating poison when he was four. Another of an infection of the lungs when she was six.”
Perhaps I looked incredulous, because she hurried on, almost defensively.
“There were no hospitals, no doctors. Sometimes there was no food. When people died, we didn’t know why. I still don’t know what my father died of. Some kind of disease.”
She lived in a town torn from their traditional infrastructure where medical and other support would have been built into the village, but not yet propelled into a future that provided vaccinations and other modern life-saving services much of the rest of the world enjoyed.
Lan’s education was provided to her by a caretaker; it was obvious she could read and write and count money by the time she was eighteen.
“The first thing my boss had me do was pay some of the employees their salary. He gave me 10,000 yuan to disperse. I’d never in my life seen so much money. I was scared to death to be trusted with it.”
She married shortly after she began work at the oil company, and gave birth to her first child when she was twenty-two. A set of twins followed, and two separate births after that. Somewhere in these years, her husband, a truck driver, was transferred to Tibet. Thankfully Lan’s company had work for her there as well, and the following years found her working full time while managing the care of her children alone while her husband traveled the roads. Often he stayed away for months at a time, and more and more frequently, staying with other women.
“One day he just did not come back,” she said. “I was supporting all of my children as well as my mother and sister then.”
I asked her if she married again.
“Oh, no!” she said, grinning nervously and waving her hand back and forth, palm out, in the Chinese way of saying, definitely not!
“I’m no good at being married. Having a relationship is too complicated.”
“And the children?” I asked her.
She looked down at her hands again.
“I lost two,” she said. “The twins. One was four – the girl. She was with my mother at the time. I was away. She was shitting water (dysentery?) and my mother took her to the hospital too late.”
She took a moment to regroup, then continued. “The boy was nine months. He was living with another family.”
When she didn’t volunteer any more information, I asked her what had happened.
“I don’t know. They never told me.”
After a bit she looked up, tears sliding down her cheeks.
“This is the first time I’ve spoken to anyone about their deaths,” she told us.
Throughout it all, the oil company remained faithful to Lan. They paid on time, promoted her as promised, rewarded her for hard work. When she retired, they paid her a generous pension – they still do. One of the few people of her generation who’d traveled outside of her own province, she is comfortable taking trips around China now, walking the streets and talking to the locals. Seeing the sites. Looking for the perfect retirement place.
She owns seven homes and apartments in seven provinces.
“Now I must decide where I will live when I’m old,” she told me, her smile adding more wrinkles to her face as she contemplated this luxury problem.
“It will probably be Kun Min,” she confides. “The weather there is always like spring.”
We chat for awhile about her relationship with my daughter-in-law, Yue Li. They met when they were neighbors some twelve years ago.
“I love her like a daughter,” she told me.
“And I too,” I tell her. “She is beautiful on the outside and the inside, and all of our family loves and treasures her.”
More tears appear on her face, this time ones of happiness.
“It makes me so happy to know this,” she told me.
As I’m gathering up my things, I ask her if there is anything else she’d like to tell me. Suddenly intense, she grabs my arm so I will stop and hear her.
“Duty,” she says. “Life is difficult, but we must always be responsible and do our duty.”