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Chapter 4 Gendered Hardship, Emotions, and the Ambiguity of Blame In the afternoon of November 1, 2007, I returned to Baoma. I had arrived in Langzhong the previous evening on a fleeting visit after a conference in Beijing. I had not been there since April and was keen to meet my friends and gan haizi (or “dry” children), and to see what effects the efforts to build a “new socialist countryside” had had on the village. When I visited in 2006, two of my former neighbors had died—Aunt Li of a stroke, Grandma Chen by drinking pesticides after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer—and I was hoping to avoid a repeat performance. The sun was shining and a fresh breeze blew across the fields as villagers patiently administered farm chemicals and planted wheat. Aunt Guo called me over to the irrigation ditch, which had barely a few inches of water. As she squatted by the water, washing the tank she had just used to spray pesticides, we pondered over the brand new though unfinished houses built along the road in an effort to ease transport and communications. Her neighbor joined our gathering , while she emptied a basketful of radishes into the same spot in the ditch and began to wash them. A taxi drove to the end of the village road, and two passengers got out and walked across the paddies to a cluster of houses a little farther down. In 2007, taxis remained a rare sight in Baoma. Few taxi drivers ever agree to descend from the hilltop, afraid that the bumpy road might damage their means of livelihood, unless they are trying to extract a few more yuan from their customers. I perceived this as a bad omen. The only occasions when taxis ventured to the lower reaches of Baoma were for weddings, serious illnesses, and funerals. I knew there were no young villagers of marriageable age in those houses. I looked across to the two women, who like me had 118     Making Sense of Cancer carefully scrutinized the vehicle, and asked the usual question in these circumstances: “Who is that (Na shi na ge ma)?” Aunt Guo (whispering): It’s that one, you know, the teacher’s wife, that Liu Minjie—she died yesterday. It was stomach cancer. You know her, right? Anna: Yes, I know she had thyroid, but she was in good health when I last met her in April [2007]. Aunt Guo: Yes, but she was a worrier, that one—she was always upset. She had a hard time, you know; her husband died over ten years ago, and she cared for those two young children. She found out she had cancer in the summer. She died really fast—she was terrified when she heard that word, cancer, and if you are terrified of it, it gets you very fast. Uncle Xi: Your emotional condition (xinli zhuangkuang) is very important . Someone else—a man only in his forties, who lived in the next village—he died of cancer in just a couple of months, too; he was scared to death (xiasi) when they told him he had cancer. I heard of a villager who was told he had only a few months, but he did not worry, and he got better—he’s well now. But Minjie, she was scared. Aunt Liu (Minjie) was fifty-six when she died. It had required particular persistence to dispel her suspicion toward me when we first met (August 24, 2004). She believed I was a journalist and that she was too uneducated to have anything worthwhile to tell me, and feared I would disgrace her by publishing pictures of her mud and bamboo house, which she felt was a focus of ridicule in the village. As she had occasion to observe me harvesting rice with a number of local families, she gained confidence and became one of the most outspoken and welcoming of villagers. During all our meetings, Aunt Liu stressed that her life had been characterized by a series of hardships. In 1975, she married one of the village schoolteachers, and as a consequence she had to carry out all of the farmwork alone. Due to gynecological problems that are now curable, Aunt Liu had been unable to bear children and had to adopt a daughter. This, she explained, had attracted her father-in-law’s anger and frustration. In turn, she felt these negative emotions, as well as his predisposition to become irritated...


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