A Letter to the ‘Working Sisters of China’

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Dear The Working Sisters of China,

When I first met my husband he told me about one of his younger sisters who had given up her education at the age of 13 in order to support the family including his school fees. My Chinese was still basic and I found names hard to remember so I called her 打工妹妹: working little sister.

At the time the decision was made for his sister to go alone to the provincial capital and earn money for the family, my husband being the eldest had protested. However, his sister, due to another family circumstance, had already left school recently and upon learning that their mother couldn’t financially support all three children’s education, she decided not to return to the classroom. She saw a brighter academic future in her brother. Their studies at the time were both going well but he was male and she female. She thought that if she could support him financially through his school years, he could then carry the whole family out of poverty. The decision was made not just for him but for everyone. My husband reluctantly agreed to her plan even though he didn’t like the idea of his younger sister supporting him. He offered to leave school and work down the coal mine but she made her case and it was agreed. This made him more determined than ever to succeed at school as he couldn’t risk his sister’s sacrifice.

I know there are many ‘working sisters’ throughout China like my sister-in-law. I must say that I have also heard of working brothers, depending on the family set up.

I am aware that you may have given up your childhood, your academic dreams, possibly a successful career path, and it can also affect your marriage prospects. How can this debt be repaid? Whose responsibility is it? Your parents? Your siblings? Society? Or how much of this debt am I responsible for? If it wasn’t for my ‘working little sister’ -in-law, I would never have met my husband. My children will benefit from my husband’s education but without ‘working little sister’ that wouldn’t have been possible. If someone is to repay such a debt, how is it calculated and how far should they go to make it even? How do you view this debt? I don’t think it can be calculated as the amount you spent on your sibling. How do you put a figure on a childhood? How do you put a figure on someone’s future?

I once had a private English tutoring student. She told me about her uncle who had also given up school to pay for his brother’s (my student’s father’s) education. She told me how he had never managed to find a good job due to his lack of qualifications and had worked himself literally to death. He died of exhaustion she told me and as he was her favourite uncle she was heartbroken by his passing and struggles. Her story affected me greatly. I thought of the unfair life set up for these siblings. I wondered if their debt was ever repaid and if it was could it possibly be repaid in full? I wondered about those who marry into these families where parental responsibilities have been shifted onto a child’s shoulders. My ‘working little sister’ sometimes said she never saw it as a debt that needed repaying but she also said it wasn’t my debt to repay. However, if my husband were to repay it, in my eyes it does become my debt because our joint finances will be affected. Therefore I always saw it as our family unit’s debt.

Throughout the years I have done more than my best to make it up to my ‘working little sister’. I don’t know how anyone else feels but my heart is now at peace.

My dear working sisters of China past, present, and future, I say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘辛苦了’. Put your hands up and let us hear your stories. I would like to hear: your struggles; your achievements; your opinions on this debt; and how being a ‘working sister’ has affected your life and your relationships. For people like me who marry into this family dynamic, what advice can you give?

Best Wishes,

Felicity

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