Friday, August 31, 2012

Coping with Tragedy (1)

After reading my last post, you might think that Elder Sister and I were quite calm and competent in dealing with all her troubles: the mountain of debt, her injuries, her mother-in-law, and her deep, deep grief at the loss of her husband and the shame of his mistress being given such a prominent place at the funeral. In reality, we were frantic.

Elder Sister was in tremendous pain, and we did not know if she would ever walk again. Yet she could not bear to lose her children. We determined that we would do our best to find a way for her to keep and support them, and all our actions stemmed from this resolve. Every day she had a steady stream of visitors from among Eldest Brother-in-law’s friends and the Liu family relatives. We would sit and talk, rehashing the story of the tragedy and her problems. After each visitor, the two of us would evaluate what we had learned and discuss our next step.

The clues about the debt came from a minor business partner, who was the only other survivor of the landslide. He was in a ward on the floor above us in the hospital, and he and his wife would come down to our room in the evenings while he was practicing walking on crutches. His description of the accident was quite hair-raising. The business partners and their families had decided to go on the fishing trip up in the mountains on the national holiday for Sun Yat-sen’s birthday. They were all quite depressed at the fact that one of the major partners had absconded with the company’s money, and they were trying to cheer themselves up. Eldest Brother-in-law and his brother and cousins were avid fishermen; they had organized the picnic and chosen the location. They chose a place high up in the mountains with a deep fishing hole at a bend in a stream; a huge carp lurked at the bottom. Eldest Brother-in-law had tried many times to catch it, but it always grabbed the bait, eluded the hook, and retreated to the murky depths of the fishing hole. Since the business was at a temporary stand-still, the business partners brought up one of the company’s gasoline-powered generators to run a sump pump to drain the water hole, leaving the carp with no place to hide. By the time lunch was over, they had drained 80% of the water from the fishing hole, and Eldest Brother-in-law, his brother, and cousins were wading in with nets to catch the huge fish. Unfortunately, the change in water pressure on the rock cliff above the hole combined with the constant vibrations from the sump pump and generator shook loose a large slab of rock from the cliff. This is what trapped Eldest Brother-in-law, his brother and cousins in the river. It also knocked out the sump pump and dislodged gravel and other smaller slabs of rock creating a true landslide. The injured business partner had been standing just at the edge of the stream, and Eldest Sister had been a few feet into the water with a bucket to hold the fish when they caught it. The business partner had had his leg broken by a smaller boulder, and Elder Sister had been pinned under a medium-sized slab of rock and then completely buried with rubble. The business partner heard her screaming and hobbled over to uncover her head. Then the two of them had scrabbled with their bare hands to dig the sand out from under her, so that they could free her from the slab of rock that was pinning her to the ground from the waist down. They barely got her out before the water levels rose to the point that she would have drowned. The four men under the large slab all drowned. The slab was so thick that it had to be blasted apart to recover the bodies, and despite the best efforts of the salvage crew, none of the bodies was fully intact. (This accounted for part of Elder Sister’s mother-in-law’s animosity because both her sons were buried “without a complete corpse”—a huge taboo.)

The business partner also filled us in on the details of the company’s debt. He told us that Eldest Brother-in-law had been the personal guarantor for all the company’s bank loans and that when Elder Sister was in surgery and not expected to survive, the notary in charge of the estate had worked with several of the other partners to put any and all debts from the company under Eldest Brother-in-law’s name as an individual. This partner was quite ashamed that Elder Sister was going to be saddled with such a large amount of debt and five young children. He was the one who suggested that she needed to talk to all the partners and the notary in order to fully understand her situation. He and his wife made numerous phone calls to ensure that all the partners met in Elder Sister’s hospital room at the same time the notary was there.

At the end of the discussion with the business partners, the notary suggested that Eldest Sister contact a lawyer. She was so far in debt, she did not believe she could afford a lawyer, but after hearing that her mother-in-law had allowed the mistress to wear the funeral robes of a wife, she also knew that she needed to fight for her rights. Fortunately, I had a lawyer friend, who was willing to consult for free. The lawyer felt that the only weak point in Elder Sister’s case for keeping her children was the fact that she might never walk again and possibly had no way of working to support her children.

When I called the leaders of Elder Sister’s church, we were only thinking of asking them to announce her name with the prayer requests Sunday morning. It never occurred to us that the church would be able to arrange sponsorship of the family as a charity case. Of course, Elder Sister’s miraculous survival made her a good candidate. After she was released from the hospital, the church frequently asked her to give her testimony of miraculous rescue and recovery to warm up the crowd for visiting evangelists. A few years later, her two younger daughters were also sent to the US as part of delegation of Christian youth from Taiwan. The children were told that they were going to evangelize hedonistic American youth, but when Yuni took our family to attend one of their concerts, we learned that the children were being shown to American churches as proof of the efficacy of US church contributions to foreign missions. When Yuni called Elder Sister to let her know, she just sighed and said that was the price of living on church charity. Without that charity her family would not have survived. Yuni was quite upset because Elder Sister and her family had been converted to Christianity through our family and not through US missionaries. He felt that they were being coerced into a scam, especially after we chatted in Chinese with the other Taiwanese kids in the group and learned that many of them were 3rd generation Christians.

When members of the Liu family came to visit Elder Sister in the hospital, the discussions turned to the “hagiography” of Eldest Brother-in-law, similar to the conversations after the death of Grandma Chu that summer. Everyone remembered Eldest Brother-in-law as a teenager learning his trade from Pa. Elder Sister remembered the good years at the beginning of their marriage. They remembered Eldest Brother-in-law’s generosity to his parents and brothers and to everyone in the Liu family. When the visitors were just Ma and her daughters, the talk would turn to the mistress and the shame experienced by the Liu family at the funeral. Ma would scold Elder Sister for having been too soft-hearted in dealing with the mistress. Ma told us all how she had dealt with Pa when he had had his one and only affair. She was especially upset that Elder Sister had agreed to allow the illegitimate daughter to be entered onto the household register and recognized by her father. Elder Sister did not say anything in front of her mother, but after Ma and the other sisters had gone, Elder Sister told me that she registered the baby because she did not want the poor girl to grow up with the stigma of “father unknown” because being the child of a mistress was not the baby’s fault. Elder Sister told me that from her childhood, Pa’s greatest hero had been a man in the village who was wealthy enough to support two households. I said that Yuni had mentioned admiring that family. Elder Sister said that all of Pa’s apprentices had been infused with such sentiments, as well. Since Elder Sister had only borne one son, she thought that Eldest Brother-in-law felt he had a legitimate excuse to start another household on the outside. She said that she considered this a woman’s lot in life. She felt that she would be better in the long run by going along with things and maintaining her feminine virtue than by being argumentative or adversarial.

In the end, Elder Sister was right. She never remarried but instead remained a “chaste widow.” She took her children back to the family farm in the hills to see their paternal grandparents every holiday and on their father’s death day. After a few years, she was able to get housecleaning jobs for cash, and she always managed to scrape together money for substantial red envelopes for her parents-in-law on Chinese New Year and their birthdays. The mistress, of course, took up with another man soon after the funeral. She left her daughter with her mother in the hills so that she was not burdened with a baby. The wife of Eldest Brother-in-law’s deceased brother also remarried within two years of the tragedy. She took her children with her to the new marriage, and they rarely saw their paternal grandparents. In many ways, Elder Sister was a text-book example of a chaste Confucian widow and within 4 or 5 years, she had worn down her mother-in-law and the other nay-sayers in her deceased husband’s family. This tactic won her much freedom to practice her faith and raise her children as she pleased.

The daily reminiscing with visitors in the hospital helped greatly to alleviate Elder Sister’s grief. It also helped her parents and siblings (except for Yuni who had returned to his job in the US two days after the funeral) to work through their loss of face at the funeral and to reconcile themselves to helping Elder Sister regain her place in her children’s family. Since she was determined to keep her children and fight for her rights as the legal widow, the family rallied around to help her get better. Cousins, aunts, and uncles brought her nourishing foods and herbal medicines to promote bone growth and healing. I was exhorted to work with her on as many extra physical therapy sessions as she could stand every day. The hospital’s physical therapist came every morning, and I watched and learned how to help with the exercises. Then Elder Sister and I would do more sets throughout the day when there were no visitors in the room. The five weeks until Elder Sister’s pelvis healed went by quickly. The orthopedic surgeon took another x-ray and promised us that if the results showed that the fractured bones had healed sufficiently, he would allow Elder Sister to practice standing and walking.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Elder Sister's Tragedy (2)

Not long after I arrived in the hospital, the surgeon who had sewed up Elder Sister’s internal injuries decided that she was ready for solid food. The hospital had a kitchen on the floor for all the family members staying with patients. Ma and the other sisters brought me rice, and Pa gave me money for veggies and meat. I had a small pot, a spoon, a hot pad, a knife, and a cutting board for all my cooking, and I stashed them on a shelf in our clothes cupboard. Every morning when the nurses began their rounds to give medicine, I would go make a pot of rice gruel with meat and vegetables for Elder Sister’s breakfast. We would eat while we waited for the doctors to make their rounds. The two surgeons usually came at 9 and 9:30 with one leaving as the other was arriving. 

Eldest Brother-in-law’s funeral took place on my fourth or fifth day in Taiwan. Yuni, Pa, Ma, and our children all attended the funeral. They stopped by the hospital on their way back to Chungli, and all the adults were furious. Yuni and Ma were so upset they were incoherent, and Pa did not want to speak at all. It took us awhile to pry the facts out of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Eldest Brother-in-law had a mistress in another town, and this mistress had given birth to a girl a year or so after the birth of Elder Sister’s son, who is five days older than Peace. Eldest Brother-in-law had given his mistress most of his cash, and he had paid for her house in full. He had mortgaged Eldest Sister’s house to the hilt and used the money for a business deal. His car was mortgaged, as were all the work sites where he was building apartment complexes. And he had signed the documents as personal guarantor for all the company’s mortgages. Then his business partner had absconded to the Philippines with all the cash, which was one reason Eldest Brother-in-law had been fishing recklessly, triggering the landslide that had killed him, his brother, and his cousins. Eldest Sister was left a widow with five children and debts that were three hundred times greater than assets under her name. 

It was a dire situation, but her mother-in-law was only interested in blaming her for jinxing her husband’s family and in wishing her dead. Eldest Sister had been baptized a Christian five years previously when we both were pregnant with our youngest children. After that, she had not gone to the Land God’s temple or the Money God’s temple with offerings for the success of her husband’s business or for his personal safety. Therefore, Eldest Sister’s mother-in-law placed all the blame for those four deaths on her. During the funeral, the mother-in-law essentially disowned Elder Sister—the legal and first wife—and allowed the mistress to walk behind the coffin carrying her daughter. This placed the mistress with her illegitimate child ahead of the legitimate son, the legal wife, and the legitimate daughters. It was also a huge insult to the Liu family, who had turned out in force to pay their respects and to help with the mourning rituals. 

Then to make matters worse, Eldest Brother-in-law’s surviving brothers had approached Pa and Yuni to try to take custody of the five children away from Eldest Sister. Moreover, they said that their mother wanted whatever insurance money Elder Sister would receive to support the grandchildren. The mother-in-law had also demanded the car and the house until she found out they were mortgaged to the hilt. Because it was the day of the funeral, Pa and Yuni had restrained themselves in these discussions. They had said that Elder Sister was conscious and recovering well and that she was not planning on abandoning her children. They told the surviving brothers to bring their mother to the hospital to discuss things with Elder Sister herself. They said that they supported whatever decision Elder Sister would make in this matter. 

Because Pa and Yuni were so distraught about the loss of face to the family at the funeral, Elder Sister said that she needed to rest and that she would consider what she should do. She was not fully aware of the financial situation, and so after the family left, she had me call Eldest Brother-in-law’s business associates. They arrived within a few hours and informed her that when everyone thought she would die, too, the company had transferred all corporate debts onto her husband because they thought that no bank would go after a five-year-old boy, and her four daughters could refuse their inheritance. They encouraged Eldest Sister to refuse to inherit, too, but she did not want to leave her only son with a mess. Unfortunately, it was too late for the company to take back the changes to the books, as they had been impounded in the government’s investigation of the estate. 

Next Eldest Sister had me call one of my friends in Taipei who is a lawyer. Wenzhu came down that weekend and talked to us. She laid things out very clearly to Eldest Sister, so that she knew her rights and responsibilities under the law. The biggest thing was the insurance money. Hsiu-chen and Hsiu-ling had become insurance salespeople when the economy in Taiwan began declining as factory jobs moved to mainland China. Eldest Sister helped them in their new career by buying policies for herself and her husband from each of her younger sisters. Eldest Brother-in-law did not know about the policies, and Eldest Sister had paid the premiums out of money she had earned in her own businesses. Wenzhu said that the insurance money was hers and that it could not be taken by the bankruptcy court or her mother-in-law since Eldest Sister was listed as the sole beneficiary on the policies. She also said that if Eldest Sister did not sign to give her children to their uncles, since she was coherent and competent, the children could not be taken from her. She would need income for the long-term, though. 

Next we contacted the leaders of Eldest Sister’s church. Some of them had contacts in the US and in Hong Kong, and they worked with church leaders to find sponsors to support her family. Two congregations in the US and one in Hong Kong agreed to provide support to Elder Sister and her children until her youngest had finished college. Wenzhu’s only concern had been that Eldest Brother-in-law’s siblings could tell a court that Eldest Sister was unable to support five minor children. The foreign churches provided letters of commitment, and one of the church leaders from Taipei knew of a Taiwanese organization that could ratify the agreements as charity, so they would be exempt from bankruptcy court proceedings.

Eldest Sister’s mother-in-law had fainted on the day of the funerals and had spent more than a week recuperating from her grief. By the time she and her remaining two sons arrived at the hospital to visit us, we had everything clearly in order. Elder Sister politely informed them that she had contacted a Taipei lawyer and the notary handling her deceased husband’s estate. She told her mother-in-law that she was left with debts totally three hundred times the amount of her assets, that the insurance monies would only cover paying the workers’ back salaries from when the business partner had absconded, and that she and her children would be depending on church charity until her youngest child had completed his college education. She said that she would be giving up all the business properties in bankruptcy, but she would be able to keep the house for several years while the bankruptcy case went through the system, as the national tax office was looking into the disappearance of the money. The mother-in-law was mostly interested in the money. When she learned that keeping the five children would bring no additional funds, she quickly agreed to leaving them with Elder Sister. She kept quizzing Elder Sister on this asset and that asset, to which the inevitable answer was “mortgaged to the hilt.” As Eldest Sister’s in-laws were walking out the door after a long and exhausting visit, Eldest Sister called out, “He gave all his cash to his mistress; he only left me with his debts. That’s what legal wives are for.” 

The mother-in-law and the elder of the two surviving brothers did not come back to visit or inquire after Elder Sister again. After another few weeks had gone by, the younger surviving brother brought Elder Sister’s children to see her. When he found me still there ensconced on my cot in a corner, reading Jin Yong’s kung-fu novels, he was embarrassed that Elder Sister’s natal family had brought back the Americans to spend more than a month in the hospital. He and his wife came with hot fresh meals several times a week for the last few weeks that Elder Sister was in the hospital. He apologized for his mother and brother’s attitudes, saying that the sudden death of so many family members had shocked them to the point of derangement. Elder Sister was gracious and promised to bring the children up to the family farm every holiday to spend time with their grandparents, after she was released from the hospital.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Back to Blogging

After nearly a year, I finally have some time to begin blogging again. I graduated in May, receiving my MA in Asian Studies. Here is a picture of me in my graduation finery:

The gold medal around my neck is for making the Graduate Dean's List of University Scholars and Artists. The medal beneath it is for the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society.

My thesis is online, and I have a few publications out this year, with a few more in the pipeline for publication in 2013.

I was one of the translators who had the honor of contributing an essay translation to Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo's book No Enemies, No Hatred.  (My translation is on pages 177-187.)

The paper that Dr. Wright and I presented in Singapore and Hawaii in 2011 will be coming out in November in Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural perspectives.

I am taking a gap year to get some things in order, and I will be applying to PhD programs at the end of the year to start in Fall 2013. I plan to continue studying Christianity in China and sociology of religion. During this year, I am officially the Office Manager of the Long Beach chapter of the California Faculty Association, and I continue with my free-lance translation business.

I have been carefully considering how to continue with my blog because I received some negative feedback from family members, who felt I had portrayed them in a negative light. I would like to reiterate that my purpose in writing is to use my experiences to shed light on the position of women in traditional Hakka families moving into a modern lifestyle. The moves from a traditional agrarian lifestyle to an urban industrial lifestyle and then to life in the United States create many tensions in families. And according to Confucian family norms, the women bear the responsibility for keeping the household on an even keel. They are constantly exhorted to endure, to ren 忍, which is the same Chinese character used in Ninja. The women are the invisible heroes of the household. My goal is not to put down the men around the women, but rather to express what I and my sisters-in-law were thinking and feeling as the family passed through so many changes. Next week, I plan to pick up the thread of my narrative and continue telling the story of my eldest sister-in-law, whom I left in the hospital almost a year ago. I would also like to mention that these traumas occurred almost 20 years ago in 1993. These are old stories, and we have all moved on. But I think the stories are worthy of being told.

Thanks for following my blog, even though I have not posted for so long.