Xiaowu with Bai Yunfang, 13, and Bai Yunhua, 9, in 2018
The Bai Family
It is 7 or 8 hours by bus to Dao Xiaowu's childhood home, a humid rubber-producing village bordering Myanmar. Xiaowu is of the Wa ethnic minority; she still visits her old home every so often, but it has been over a decade since she moved to Xiaohusai to settle down with her husband.
“It seems like lifetimes have passed since my childhood,” Xiaowu laughs wistfully. Her parents both passed away when she was a child, forcing her and her siblings to drop out of school after second grade. "After they were gone, I couldn't afford to keep going to school. I had to start working at a very young age."
Fast forward a few years, and Xiaowu was sixteen — a ripe age for marriage in rural China. She met her husband when he came to her village as a construction worker. He’d bring his friends to sit around at her house. Soon, they decided to get married.
The Bai's Living Room
In small villages such as Xiaowu’s, tucked away in the mountains, life is both wonderfully and painfully simple. “We stayed at my childhood village for a few years,” Xiaowu tells us. “But the tropical climate was unbearably hot, and my husband was often ill due to this. We actually had two children before Yunfang and Yunhua, but they both passed away from illnesses when they were just babies.” A few years later, Xiaowu and her family had no choice but to move back to her husband's hometown — Xiaohusai.
“My husband drank a lot when we first moved back,” Xiaowu explains as she invites us into her warm, smoky kitchen, where sour plums and green mangoes are drying. “He seems more motivated this year," she adds with hope. Her husband isn't home as we speak — it's Sunday night, so he's sending the two kids off to school for the week. Their schools are in the nearest township, an hour away by motorcycle. “I think he’s realized he wants the best for our kids,” Xiaowu says. “So do I.”
They have two daughters; as of 2020, Yunfang is fifteen, and Yunhua is eleven. The daughters spend their weekends at home. Their house only has one bedroom, so the kids sleep on the sofas in the living room. “They like watching TV on weekends,” Xiaowu tells us. She gestures to the small TV in the living room, where a costume drama is playing in the background.
interviewing Dao Xiaowu, 2017
Bai Yunfang, watching a talent show (2018)
We visited Bai Yunfang at her middle school a few days later. She is timid, and sits still in her seat with the quiet discipline taught at rural Chinese schools. “I want to be a singer,” Yunfang tells us shyly. Her living fees are around 200 yuan a month ($28), which she mostly spends on food. “My parents definitely worked hard to send me to school,” Yunfang says. “I really want to continue my education.”
When we saw Yunfang again in 2018, she was watching a talent show, admiring the singers on stage. In 2019, she'd pierced her ears, wearing two small studs on each ear. This summer, in 2020, she'll be taking the grueling national high school entrance exams alongside millions of other eighth graders. There's a lot at stake—where she'll be going to high school depends on her performance.
Bai Yunhua, the younger daughter, is sweet and outgoing. She works hard in class; she's collected dozens of awards from school, which are taped to the living room wall. Every time we visit Xiaohusai, Xiaowu proudly shows us the growing gallery of certificates on their wall. When we're not in Xiaohusai, Xiaowu often sends me videos of Yunhua reciting texts from her schoolbooks.
Yunhua attends a boarding school in Mengku, the nearest town from Xiaohusai. "I get homesick sometimes," she says, but smiles positively every time we meet. "I get to see my family every weekend."
Yunhua will be entering middle school in 2021.
Bai Yunhua (2018)
Back at the village, while sifting through the wild mushrooms she had hand-picked, Xiaowu is a little hesitant when she admits, “We’re still struggling financially.” But things are looking up. This year, they were finally able to buy a tea roaster - a large, curved pot that most families in the village have installed outside their homes. “Having the tea roaster makes processing the tea leaves so much easier,” Xiaowu tells us. “Processed tea sells better.”
Xiaowu spent the latter half of 2019 thousands of kilometeres away from home. She'd taken a temporary factory job in Dongguan, an industrial city in southeast China. "The bus ride across the country took more than forty hours," she tells me as we catch up in the winter. "I'm glad to be home now."