The worth of work

Cover of "Miss Chopsticks"

Cover of Miss Chopsticks

57. Miss Chopsticks by Xinran

So yes, more Xinran, and unlike the other books of hers I’ve come across, this isn’t the straight retelling of the lives of her interviewees, but the novelisation of three of those lives. The inspirations were from and in different parts of China, while the novel concerns three sisters from a rural village in Anhui who go to the city to seek their fortune, or at least some money to send back to their mother. The unstated (and perhaps hidden even to themselves) dream is to vindicate themselves and her in their being supports to the family, rather than just half of a family of ‘six worthless girls’.

The way their father refers to them is as ‘chopsticks’ – to be used once and thrown away – while he wanted a boy to be a ‘roofbeam’, holding up the family’s honour and financial situation. While that sounds fairly horrific to me, and I suspect most of my readers, the impression is given that he’s relatively¬†positive about all his daughters, all of whom live at home as part of the family until they marry, die, or move away to work, all as adults, including Four, who’s deaf and dumb. It’s not much, especially considering they don’t even get personal names, being always known by their birth order, but considering all I’ve heard about baby girl abandonment and infanticide in China, it is apparently something. (Neither topic is brought up in the novel, although there is discussion of how the family got so far around the one child policy, but they do come up in the afterword.)

The story is very positive, despite showing us some of the very bad things that could happen to our heroines: all three find a good job where they can shine and develop skills, knowledge, friendships and financial independence on their very first day in Nanjing and they are able to go home on the Spring festival each year and show just how well they’ve done, gaining admiration and vastly increasing not only their own self-confidence and pride in themselves and each other, but also those of their parents. I’m certainly not suggesting that nothing goes wrong, nor that they don’t succeed through a lot of hard work, but this is really about showing us how country girls can get on in the city, despite the vast cultural, technological and educational chasms that separate the two societies. (One character describes the countryside as being 500 years behind the city, and in certain areas she doesn’t appear to be exaggerating.)

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