A story about my childhood friend Jane

This is a true story.  It’s about one of my childhood friends.  To protect her privacy, I’ll call her Jane.

Jane and I grew up together, in a village in northern China.  We started playing together long before the primary school.  We were in the same class in the primary school (5 years) and middle school (2 years).  Our families lived on the same street, and just half block away from each other.  She and I were good friends.

Jane has 4 siblings: one sister, and 3 brothers.  She is the youngest.  We both did very well in the school.  Jane was very good at history, geography, and Chinese, especially writing.  I was just the opposite:  very bad at Chinese, and horrible at writing, but good at math and science.  We helped each other quite a lot.

After sharing the same class for 7 years, we departed for two different high schools in 1979.  During the weekends, she and I still saw each other.

At that time, the high school lasted for only two years.  Once the 2nd year started, each high school student had to choose one of the two track options:  either Science, or Liberal Arts & Humanities.

For each track option, the courses will be different.  The common courses for both tracks were:  Chinese, math, English, and Political Science.  For Science track, it would include additional courses of physics, chemistry, and biology.  For Liberal Arts & Humanities track, the additional courses would be history and geography.

Not surprisingly, Jane chose the Liberal Arts & Humanities, and I did the Science.

In the July of 1981, Jane and I attended the 3-day marathon college exams held nationwide.  The college enrollment rate was about 2.5% nationwide then.  It was tough to get into the college.  Unfortunately, Jane didn’t make it.  I went to a college in Beijing.

It was not uncommon for many students to repeat the grade, and attended the college exams again.  Some even tried 3 times, or 4 times.

Jane really wanted to try it again.  There would be a great chance for her to succeed the 2nd time.  But, her chance was taken away by her mom.  Why?  Because she was a girl, that’s it.  Her family was very traditional, and boys were given a much higher priority than girls.

Her mom insisted that, the family didn’t have the money to let Jane repeat the grade.  If Jane were a boy, money would not be a problem at all.  In the family, her mom was the queen.  Her dad might have an opinion, but was too cowardly to voice his concern.  Or even if he did, her mom wouldn’t listen anyway.

There was no way to get any student loans then.  If the parents didn’t want to foot the school bill, the kid was doomed.  In this way, very sadly, Jane had to give up.

Jane was left behind in the village, and helped her family to farm the land.  After several years, she married, and had kids.

Jane and I got together once, after her first kid was born.  She told me about her hope.  It was: one day, her kid could go to college, and fulfill the college dream for her.

Since then, I had not seen Jane for over 20 years.  In the spring of 2012, I went back to the village visiting my parents.  Luckily Jane and I were able to see each other.  With other two classmates, four of us (used to be 4 little girls) had a lunch together, and sat in Jane’s house to do the catch up.

At that time, Jane’s mom was in her late 80s, and was living with Jane.  Jane’s other siblings were either living far away, or the old lady didn’t like living with her sons and daughter-in-laws.  I guess Jane suited her needs.

Four of us were talking in another room.  The topic came up about Jane’s college dream that was shattered by her mom.  Jane was saying that, finally she forgave her mom for that.  I really don’t know how.

Unfortunately, Jane’s first kid didn’t make to college.  The kid was not that interested in college.  Her 2nd kid was still in the middle school then.  I hope the 2nd one went to college.  I’ll check with her next time.

Even in 1980s, many girls were not treated equally by their parents.  Like Jane , they had to give up their ambitious dreams, simply because they were girls.

In that sense, my family was doing better.  My parents encouraged me and my brother on the school work, and sent both of us to the college.  I’m grateful for that.

Several years ago, my uncle (my father’s brother) was working on a book about our family tree.  He gave me one copy of his book.  From the family tree, I can still see the bias clearly against girls.

All the girls (including my uncle’s daughter, me, etc.) were not on the family tree.  Only the boys were listed there.  But we all share the same family name.  The girls were put in a small section, in an appendix, called “World of Daughters”.  I thought my family was modern.  Not much.  What a shame.

In many villages in China, people say: “Married daughters are like the water poured away”.

I hate those ugly traditions.

I feel the pain for Jane, hope she found some inner peace, and wish her the best.

End of the story about my friend Jane …

Questions for our readers:  who should be blamed for Jane’s misfortune?  Her mom, dad, or the old traditions?  If you were Jane, what would you do differently then?

Take a look at my eBook, a mini-memoir on Amazon: “DAD’S BICYCLE: Journey of A Chinese Family”.

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28 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    That was a great right up about your friend Jane. I think it is probably mostly the traditions that decided her fate and that is sad. Some traditions are wonderful and we want to keep them going, but others not so much. And depending on how rural your village was may determine how long these traditions will hang on. I am fascinated by actual recounts like this of different cultures. Keep up the great work!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Bob,
      Thank you. Yes, the traditions played a big part in Jane’s case. My village is in Shan Xi province, about 250 miles south west of Beijing. It’s very rural, and backward. In my eyes, it has not changed much during the last 30 years. But the people living there may not agree with me. It is a different world.
      – Helen

      • Bob says:

        We sometimes forget how rural and old fashioned some of our hometowns or villages can be. The farm in North Dakota that I grew up on had a town of about 80 people 5 miles away. The next largest town was 2000 people and about 20 miles away so pretty rural. We were back last summer for a nieces graduation and it was interesting just watching people in the auditorium and how they were so much different than we are in the suburb of Minneapolis where we live. It’s almost like going back in time, my brother has part of his machine shop sectioned off to a house where he lives and raised his family. Also he just has a old flip phone, but I guess that’s okay, sometimes I think that would be better myself. Also they had the graduation party in the shop which the niece thoroughly cleaned and set up tables with banners and made it very comfortable. Here the graduation parties can get very extravagant with full catering and outdoor tents set up as the typical arrangement.

        • Retire Early Helen says:

          Right. North Dakota is really not that far from Minneapolis, but the life sounds so different. Change can be hard, unless there is a real need to change. People usually keep doing what they are doing, and maintain the status quo. To the outsiders, it could be a little bit shock. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Steve says:

    Hi Helen,
    That was a well written article on your childhood. I think tradition should be blamed for Jane’s misfortune. I am very fortunate to been born and raised in a first world country where many things are taken for granted. It’s sad that gender plays any role in society, lets hope these traditions change with the next generation.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Steve,
      Thank you. China was quite different 37 years ago. The village where I came from was one of the poorest places, and still is today. Jane’s case didn’t happen to every family in that village. But it’s not uncommon at that time, and people never questioned why. Big cities in China are very different. In the last 25+ years, most of the families in the big cities have only one child, and gender is not an issue. Like you said, I do hope the tradition changes for better.

  3. GYM says:

    Thank you for sharing that story about Jane. Unfortunately even now this is common (although not to that extent, where she would not be able to go to college). There is sexist favouritism in Chinese culture. My brother was raised and praised just for being a boy and us girls (three) were not encouraged as much. My dad is very traditional and sexist. He wasn’t very excited when I told him I was pregnant (actually there was no response) because I was not his son. Thankfully my husband was raised by a father who was much more encourage and equitable towards him and his sister.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      GYM,
      I know what you are talking about. The mindset is still there even in cities, so subtle, and sometimes we can still feel it. In the remote rural villages like my village, most of the families have very low income, and the preference is blatant even today.

  4. Caroline says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Helen, I would probably blame traditions and years of “brain washing”.
    Really it is no different than some kids in North America who could do really well and only need a little push from their parents, but because their parents grew up thinking they would always be nothing they tell their kids the same. Some of them still make it but without your parents guidance and help, it is so much harder. Not just the money aspect.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      That’s right, Caroline. Parents have a big influence on their kids, in terms of the ways of thinking. Especially at the early ages, kids needs more encouragement and guidance to develop their interests and tap their potentials.

  5. Hi Helen,

    Sorry to hear and know about your friend Jane. I feel extremely sadden by the fact that world has become so advanced and we still see these tradition that keep away good opportunities from women versus men. I feel sorry but I wish these traditions change in future to keep things fair and square. I have a daughter, 7 years old, I can’t be more worried for her future after her marriage. I will do best I can to give her best education and get her on her own feet without any support needed from her in-laws family. That’s the best I wish every family do for their daughters.

    So sorry for your friend’s story.

    Good Luck.
    TDK.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      TDK,
      It is sad. In that village, going to college was the only way to leave the misery behind, and have a better life. Unfortunately Jane’s opportunity was taken away brutally. I agree with you, and hope the bad traditions change. It will take a long time. Thanks for sharing the thought.

  6. Rocky says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. It is unfortunate that Jane was not able to pursue her dreams. I would say the blame lies with the traditions and our tendency as human beings to orchestrate our world’s to operate in a way we see fit. Most traditions are developed to protect the status quo which is the opposite of innovation. Any time innovation of any sort has taken place it has been to disrupt a status quo of some sort. When we purposely manage who is allowed to participate in certain situations we hamper our ability to innovate. Who knows how much farther this world would be if we had not stopped people of different races, genders, socioeconomic statuses, etc. from participating in whatever they chose.

    I hope your friend Jane has found peace and happiness in the life she has lived. Fingers crossed her 2nd daughter has interest in college.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Rocky,
      Yes, it is a sad story. At that time in China, there were many girls like Jane, who had the potentials but didn’t get the needed support just because of the gender. They had to accept their destiny, though I never believed in destiny. Bad traditions could ruin people’s lives, and the change has to begin within the community. I also hope her 2nd kid could go to college.
      – Helen

  7. gofi says:

    This is touching – thanks for sharing. I’d blame the mother for not allowing Jane to pursue her dreams. Jane being a good daughter listened to her mother. I did the same – I listened to my brother and pursued a course that I wasn’t a good fit at. I am just grateful that I came across FI at the right time – it has given me contentment. It will give me the time to fulfill my to-dos in life.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Gofi,

      Definitely Jane’s mother played a big role. So was her dad. Her dad’s silence and obedience was suffocating. Nobody stood up for Jane and told her mom that, what mattered the most was Jane’s future, not money.

      I’m glad to hear that, you figured out what you like to do for your life. That’s wonderful. Wish you the best.

      -Helen

  8. Ms ZiYou says:

    That is so sad, that females are even written out of the family tree!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Ms. ZiYou,
      The daughters are excluded from the family tree. The sons are listed as the branches of the tree, and their wives are attached to the branch as leaves, but are still on the tree (sort of). To them, the daughters are kind of outsiders. That tradition is not pretty.
      – Helen

  9. anonymous says:

    Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t limited to China. My mother was told in the US in the 1960s by her parents that they would only pay for her brother to go to college. She ended up dropping out from lack of money. She later got an associate’s degree while my sister and I were little.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      I’m very sorry to hear that, your mother had to drop out of the college because of lack of money. That was sad. It’s good she got her degree while being a mom of two kids. That’s quite an accomplishment, and needs a lot of courage and persistence. Thank you for sharing your story.
      – Helen

  10. Wow, such an incredibly sad story. I wonder what Jane would have majored in if she had attended college.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Good question. I’m not sure. She might choose Chinese literature, history, law, etc. She would be very successful in the college, and work later.
      – Helen

  11. Joe says:

    The old traditions are so backward. Hopefully, it will change in the future. Seems like China is very resistance to change, though. My mom’s family was bias against girls too. The boys all went to private boarding school. The girls went to local school. They all attended college, though.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Joe,
      Yeah, we can see the boys and girls were treated a little bit differently in your mom’s family. In the rural areas in China, those old traditions have deep roots. People like to follow them blindly, instead of challenging them. It needs more generations to think creatively and change.

  12. BusyMom says:

    I grew up in India. It is the same there, except college is not that hard to get into. So most of them go to college. But you can see the difference every where else. My family was better, or so I thought growing up. However, when I now look back, I see a lot of the injustices I didn’t notice growing up.

    That was well written, and very touching.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      BusyMom,
      Thank you for sharing your thought. When living within that environment, people didn’t realize how bad the traditions were. It was a big melting pot. Only when having left that place and looking back, they see the issues in a fresh angle. In some old Chinese saying, it sugarcoats the hometown: “Even the moon is prettier in the hometown.” Considering those old traditions, I don’t think that’s the case.
      – Helen

  13. Dash2Retire says:

    That was a lovely story. Glad you were able to connect with your friend again. I’m sure that you are an inspiration for her and her children. Fortunately, it sounds like Jane and her mom have a nice relationship now.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Dash2Retire,
      Thank you. Jane and I were so happy to see each other 6 years ago. It looks she is close to her mom. Jane is a grandma now. She is doing all right compared to her peers over there. She is a very capable lady. But, definitely her life would be far better, if she were able to go to college.
      – Helen

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