I hadn’t been back to China since settling in New York more than two decades ago, but even before I touched down in Beijing the summer of 2003, Jiujiu, my mother’s brother, had drawn up a list of relatives to whom I should be paying respects. This was not wholly unexpected, and I was very happy to let Jiujiu take the burden away from me. God forbid I forget to call on someone of importance. What did surprise me, however, was seeing who was on top of his list of VIPs: my wet nurse 金全真. It never occurred to me that an ex-servant would trump all my aunts, uncles and cousins, yet Jiujiu was adamant that I go.
A few years ago, the significance of paying respects to a former servant would have been lost on me. While living in the US, I had always heard the lament “hard to find good help these days”, but it was not until I had to look for a nanny to help raise two youngsters in suburbia that I was fully able to commiserate. Suddenly, the trials and tribulations of securing a devoted caregiver had been thrust upon me, and I was singing the same sad refrains that had become familiar to working Moms across America and China.
Unlike maids that were remained in service in China, wet nurses had become extinct when I was born in the 60s, succumbing to the will of a burgeoning Communist credo. At time my wet nurse was our tenant with her 9-month old 6th child. One day she saw I was still hungry after feeding, so she opened her blouse and fed me. After that Mom decided to employ her. The relationship was symbiotic, based on her desire to help and Mom’s desire to pursue a career.
My wet nurse was a tong yang xi, a child daughter-in-law raised by the family of her future husband. Tantamount to indentured servitude, it was a traditional arrangement born of convenience and necessity. In olden China, the wet nurses were in great demand amongst the upper classes since cultured women would never submit themselves to the indignities of breast-feeding. For one thing, the Chinese considered enlarged breasts lewd and unsightly. Nevertheless, the heartfelt way in which Jiujiu spoke of her indicated that she was more than just a convenient hand. China was still reeling from three straight years of famine at that time and the paucity of basic supplies made her services more precious than ever.
En route to her home near Marco Polo Bridge, I found myself growing anxious about the reunion. My mother had committed suicide when I was only seven years old during the Cultural Revolution, so any link to the past held no small interest for me. Was I a good baby? Did my Mom tuck me in at night?
She was living with her eldest child in a red brick siheyuan, a quadrangle courtyard dwelling that housed two families. Her daughter had been laid off by her danwei (work unit) and was being paid by her siblings to take care of their mother. As soon as we entered the tiny bedroom in the east wing, we were met with the pungent odor of urine. My children crinkled their noses and held their breath, and I sensed their reluctance to step any further. An armchair sat in the corner next to her bed, the bottom of its seat cut out with a chamber pot resting directly beneath it, a makeshift toilet. Sitting up in bed, she appeared frail and unfocused. When her daughter introduced me, I was greeted with a blank look.
“She can barely recognize her own children anymore”, her daughter explained apologetically. Aside from a diabetic condition, she had had a stroke that left her paralyzed and unable to speak.
Upon seeing Jiujiu, however, a wide grin spread across her face, her eyes agleam with anticipation. Hands in pockets and looking very chipper, Jiujiu spoke with great animation. To her daughter’s surprise, she hung on every word he spoke, nodding and smiling and making little noises with her throat. Jiujiu’s enthusiasm, the emphasis he placed on the gifts I had brought, his thoughtful comments and his patience, showed our visit to be more than just nostalgic whim. We weren’t there for old time’s sake. He took it as his duty to inquire about the well-being of our former servants now that he ‘s the patriarch. When he finally spoke at length about my mother, a look of recognition crossed her face, and she turned to appraise me with new meaning. Trying to think of something appropriate to say to someone who, at the expense of her own newborn child, had provided me with mother’s milk, I came up gallingly short. The only connection we made was when I sat down to take a picture with her. She put a hand on my forearm and gave a comforting squeeze, as if to say: Its okay. We may not remember each other, but we both know why you are here.
My children couldn’t have been happier when we finally headed to the front door. Indeed, I felt a sense of release as we stepped back out into the sunshine and began to wend our way past the vendors dotting the narrow and dusty hutong. Saddened as I was by her condition, I was glad we had made the trip and happy that I was able to connect with her, however fleeting it may have been. Seeing my wet nurse now, her body spent and useless, my mind flashed back to an old photo of a robust young woman clinging to a well-fed cherub. As the Chinese saying goes that when you drink water always be mindful of the source.
As the epilogue, few months after that visit, one day in October Jiujiu called me up, announcing that my wet nurse had died, with a little relief and almost a hint of joy.
4/15/2011 Useless Knowledge