Susu’s Three Choices

No. 47

Greetings from Chinarrative, the newsletter bringing you China’s best long-form journalism, carefully curated and translated for your enjoyment.

In this issue, we meet Susu, a 22-year-old Douyin personality from a remote part of the Chinese countryside. In the past couple years, some rural users of the wildly popular short-video app — known as TikTok outside China — have achieved a certain degree of recognition, typically by offering viewers glimpses of slower, more homespun lifestyles than those in the country’s vast, hectic cities.

Susu herself has already racked up some 55,000 subscribers to her channel. But while many of her posts remain lighthearted and frivolous, others reveal a darker side to her life in a far-flung mountain village as a 22-year-old mom. In patient interviews with Chinese nonfiction platform Renwu’s Lin Songguo, she details an existence marred by drudgery and her abusive husband’s gambling problem. A word of warning: the article contains references to addiction and domestic violence.

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Susu’s Three Choices

By Lin Songguo

Interviewing a full-time mother in the countryside is perhaps harder than interviewing a major celebrity or company founder — because she’s often even busier than them.

My interviewee Susu is usually not free in the morning. After getting up, she will cook breakfast for the children, clean the house, feed the rabbits, and drive the chickens out of their coop. In the afternoon, she will see that her daughter takes a nap, and prepare dinner for the whole family. After dinner, she must bathe the girl and put her to bed again. Time is not the only problem; she can’t accept interviews in front of her family for fear that they will mind. She can’t disappear for too long, in case she gets criticized.

In August of this year, the TV series “Nothing But Thirty” was aired. Somebody found Susu’s Douyin account, and someone else wrote an article introducing her: “The 22-year-old full-time country wife; the opposite of Gu Jia.” (Gu is the leading character of the series, who transitioned to a housewife and does her best to ensure a good future for her husband and son.)

Apparently, given the right frame of reference, people realize that the concept of a full-time mother extends beyond the city. This 22-year-old woman lives in Wuzhou, Guangxi province, and is the mother of a three-year-old child. At the age of 19, Susu married a junior high school classmate and gave birth to her daughter. After that, she lived with her in-laws deep in the mountains and worked as a full-time mother — with no salary, and on standby 24 hours a day.

Susu’s world is very remote. The shuttle bus from the city of Wuzhou to the county where she lives takes two hours. From there, another bus runs to her town twice daily. Then you have to rent a motorcycle and drive the mountain road for half an hour, climbing and climbing, until you reach her mountain-ringed home. In her village, where everyone has the same surname, life revolves around the family unit. The homes lie far apart, each occupying a hill. Going to the neighbor’s takes a long time. Everyone here knows everyone else and hasn’t seen a new person in several months. Life is like a fortress.

Somewhat whimsically, Susu poked her head out of the fortress. After she got married and gave birth, she took to recording videos of everything she encountered: her husband’s gambling, the family debt, domestic violence, the collapse of her relationship, financial difficulties. There is also the erosion of her self-esteem and the troubles of her birth family — an aging father, a mother with dementia, and a brother in the hospital with schizophrenia.

But more often, when you see Susu in the videos, there is a kind of innocent happiness. She isolates herself from the heaviness of daily life with simple dances, a kind of carefree display.

No Escape

When I spent a morning with Susu, our conversation was fragmented. She had to take her daughter out, and kept an eye on her while we chatted. The three-year-old couldn’t calm down and kept making requests — going to the toilet, drinking milk tea, eating snacks or rice noodles, taking off her shoes, strolling in the street, and riding in her cradle. After a few hours, the young mother was exhausted. This was normal for her.

Susu’s fate as a wife and mother was sealed very suddenly.

In the third year of junior high, she fell in love with a boy in her class. The two of them went to work in Huizhou. At first, the couple didn’t discuss marriage. But the winter after she turned 19, Susu unexpectedly became pregnant. She kept the news from her parents for two or three months. When she came clean, her father strongly objected to her having the baby, saying she was too young. He told her to get an abortion.

The first time Susu went to her husband’s home in the mountains, she noticed how much more remote it was than where her family lived. But it was different from being at home, where people had long looked down on her because of her mother’s blindness and dementia, her brother’s schizophrenia, and the family’s extreme poverty. After she arrived at her husband’s house, she found his relatives to be hospitable; they gave her money to buy clothes and vegetables. Her in-laws cooked up something delicious and gave her a pile of rice crackers when they left. “It was so nice to feel respected, cherished and valued,” she said.

Susu and her husband married hastily during the 2018 Spring Festival. Her wedding dress, bridesmaids’ dresses and high heels were all rented for 1,000 yuan ($150). Her makeup cost 200 yuan and was applied by someone in the village. Her whole face was bloodless white, and she didn’t like the color of the lipstick. But she was still satisfied, marrying the boy she had liked since her teenage years and longing for the new life to come. She thought:

I’ll soon be upgraded to a mother.

Back then, she would daydream about the future. Just like when the distant Canadian writer Alice Munro talked about her young marriage:

Maybe it is because I was brought up poor — I hardly ever think about money. That’s very odd, because poor girls are supposed to be much more practical. Maybe it’s because I know that you can live very close to the bone … I do think though that women often need an emotional life — maybe even a bad one.

It was only after the birth of her daughter that she realized things weren’t like that. When the girl got sick or developed a fever, Susu was scared she was too cold, too hungry, too hot, or crying too much. Every day taught her a new lesson. When her daughter was a few months old, Susu got tenosynovitis and developed a big bulge on her wrist, but didn’t bother to treat it. Her wrist hurt when she moved things, and it was painful to wash and wring out her clothes.

Her daughter grew bigger by the day, posing a question to the whole family: Who was going to raise her?

Susu’s husband was the first to leave. Becoming a father at only 19 years old had no effect on him, and he went off to earn a living as a migrant worker. Her fortysomething mother-in-law helped out, but she had two other school-age children to look after and could earn 200 yuan a day working as a bricklayer.

Susu yearned for the outside world. Some of her happiest years were spent working in a factory in Huizhou that made cellphone cases. In the quality-control department, the bosses were nice and the atmosphere was good. Her work was like going to school — “learning while playing.” She worked steadily, working two shifts on the assembly line until 8 p.m. She stayed up until 10:30 p.m. every day and earned 4,000 to 5,000 yuan a month — saving around 2,000 yuan and sending another 1,000 yuan back to support her family.

She once hoped to be promoted to supervisor, but then her neck started to hurt. At the hospital, doctors told her she had worked too long with her head bowed and bent part of her spine out of place. She spent the money she earned on treatment. On the doctor’s advice, she resigned from her job.

Once she had a child, it was even harder to find another job. She hoped to find work as a cashier or something that wouldn’t require her to bend her neck. But her in-laws convinced her with a simple line of argument. “You don’t know how to count. Stay home and watch the kids while your mother-in-law goes out to work. She can earn thousands of yuan a month, and the kids can go to school.” Susu comforted herself:

It’s fine to sacrifice myself for the greater good, but I still have no money. I am still young, right?

That was the first time Susu realized that mothers, more than anyone else, have to make sacrifices. As a mother, everyone could escape except her.

Never Easy

Susu soon discovered that becoming a mother, becoming a full-time mother, and becoming a full-time mother in the mountains are three completely different things.

The most difficult part of being a full-time mother in the mountains is the sense of isolation. The natural environment and family atmosphere dictate what mothers can and cannot do. Living alone in the mountains means that a family has to endure extreme loneliness — there’s no town to go to and nobody to call on. Susu was just a girl in her early twenties who craved going out for a bite of marinated chicken feet or a bowl of noodles, but never could.

Danger lurks everywhere for children who grow up in the mountains. Her daughter can’t go to the water tank, onto the roof, up the mountain or to the river. Sometimes, when Susu feels tired, she lies down. But she never rests for too long as many other eyes are staring.

Susu is not a sensitive person. She had a somewhat wild upbringing and learned to survive in a big family. She always endures. But she hates how her in-laws all say the same thing whenever anything is wrong with her daughter: “Go find Mommy.” The words make the usually-restrained Susu angry. “The whole family says that: ‘Go find Mommy, go find Mommy, go find Mommy,” she says. “At those times, I feel they aren’t human.”

Susu’s family seems to tacitly agree that since she is a full-time mother, she shouldn’t make any mistakes. One day, I agreed to talk to her at 12 p.m., but she didn’t call until two hours later. That morning, while playing with a toy car in the yard, her daughter fell backward and split her lip. Blood went everywhere, and she cried for two hours straight. On the phone, Susu sounded depressed. She didn’t eat all day.

Whenever something like this happened, Susu faced double sadness — her own self-blame and the misunderstandings of those around her. Everyone had the right to say a few words whenever something seemed wrong with her daughter’s care. “How can you give her so little food?” they’d ask, or “Why do you wash her hair every day?”

Those tiny moments made the round-the-clock mother experience an emotional breakdown. She asked:

I have worked so hard, why don’t you understand the situation and come help me?

In April, Susu wrote on Douyin:

I’ve raised my daughter alone for a long time. My daughter thinks I’m a grumpy mother, and my husband thinks I’m crazy. What’s even funnier is that everyone else thinks you have it easy.

Being a full-time mother also means surrendering her financial power and being dependent on others. Susu’s husband doesn’t know what it’s like — in the last two months, he only gave her 200 yuan, and later took back 76 yuan. Relying on the support of her in-laws, Susu lived frugally. She wore a 10-yuan coat, pants that her sister didn’t want and six-yuan slippers bought online.

Susu buys the cheapest things for herself and the most valuable for her daughter. But recently, even this became impossible. Her mother-in-law stopped sending the milk powder that her daughter had used since she was little. Each can cost 368 yuan and lasts Susu about a month. Her mother-in-law, arguing that the family has debts and the girl wasn’t putting on enough weight, decided to stop buying it. Susu switched to buying cheaper milk, and then stopped buying it altogether. A sense of loss enveloped the young mother.

The British writer Rachel Cusk once wrote at the beginning of her book “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother,” that everything you encounter as a mother is related to choices. The same applies whether it is in London or in the countryside of Guangxi. Susu also faced many losses after becoming a full-time mother.

Susu is both a mother and a daughter. But since having a child of her own, fulfilling her obligations to her parents has become a difficult task.

Susu is the eldest daughter and the backbone of her family. Her mother has the mental capacity of a young child and is also blind. Her 72-year-old father suffers the problems of aging. Susu’s elder brother is schizophrenic, her younger sister is a migrant worker in Dongguan, and her younger brother has just entered junior high school and has developmental problems. Susu was always the most reliable child. Her hands are dark and rough with hard callouses from the farm work she did with her father from a young age.

Susu’s brother, who is two years older than her, has been hospitalized in Wuzhou for a long time. Susu always looks forward to seeing him, but finds it hard to return home while caring for her daughter. She doesn’t dare ask her mother-in-law to take care of the child, and can only wait until she has time off work.

In late September, when her mother-in-law was at home, Susu went to visit her family, planning to take her mother to have her welfare qualifications reviewed. Her mother’s dementia is so advanced that whenever she leaves the house, she constantly holds onto her daughter, crying out and walking slowly.

When Susu left her husband’s home, her mother-in-law asked if she wanted money. Susu didn’t dare take it. She worries that in any future family dispute, her in-laws might accuse her of taking their money to support her birth family.

Susu remains torn between motherhood and daughterhood. In one video from May, she sits eating gloomily. In a post below, she wrote:

Because of his hyperthyroidism, caused by diabetes, my brother has been admitted back into the hospital. I don’t have the money to pay for it. My brother blames me for getting married to a man without a car. My sister complains that I married too early. I don’t say what I think.

Behind Susu the mother, there is also Susu the young woman.

In the end, she is a 22-year-old who likes pretty clothes. She has a white polka-dot dress, which she bought last year but never dares to wear, fearing the village’s wagging tongues. Her husband also pressures her not to dress too attractively at home.

One of Susu’s outlets is taking videos on her phone. When her older relatives aren’t home, she turns on the phone and records herself. Only then does she put on the clothes that she otherwise never dares to wear — the strapless skirt that exposes her shoulders, the short top that leaves her midriff bare, the black leather skirt. She does her hair in a double ponytail or braid, puts on lipstick, turns on filters that beautify her image, and dances in front of the camera.

Susu is flexible and learns fast. When she enters the shot, she always laughs. The videos are bright and happy. In some, her daughter sits nearby, lies on her side or walks through the shot.

When her relatives finish work and come home, Susu takes off the clothes, lets down her ponytails and puts on a large, plain 15-yuan T-shirt. When she walks out of the room, she is once again an obedient daughter-in-law on her way to clean out the rabbit hutch or chicken coop.

Under one video, she writes:

I can’t believe it. I’m already 22 years old, a tiger mother. But I’m also still someone who cries when wronged. I’m not ready to grow up, but it’s unavoidable.

Life Choices

When Susu describes life as a mother, her husband remains almost invisible.

Her 22-year-old spouse works far from home and rarely makes video calls home. Even when he does, he rarely asks about his daughter. It’s always Susu who takes the initiative to send him videos of her. In their three years of marriage, the young couple has gradually felt the bitterness of adult life.

Early this year, Susu’s husband, Xiao Hu (a pseudonym), who has a monthly salary of between 3,000 and 4,000 yuan, became addicted to online gambling and racked up debts of 80,000 to 90,000 yuan. He took out new credit cards and got loans on personal finance platforms. Eventually, he bought a POS machine and, without telling Susu, used her account on a personal loan platform, to borrow 7,000 yuan. Susu disagreed and quarreled with him. Angry, Xiao Hu broke the phone.

That summer, during a fight about money, Susu’s husband hit her. Around the same time, her father, who still works the fields for a living, sent her 200 yuan, telling her to spend it on a visit to her brother in the hospital. Susu put the money in a drawer at home and repeatedly told Xiao Hu not to touch it, saying it was her father’s hard-earned money:

Other people don’t understand that kind of sadness. My dad is over 70 years old, and I still rely on him to send me 200 yuan.

But when she looked again a few days later, Xiao Hu had already taken the money and gambled it away. In the angry altercation that followed, he pinned her to the ground and punched her, leaving her arms covered in bruises. “He hit me with all his strength — it was painful beyond words,” she said. The men in the family mainly reproached her for kicking up a fuss over money. She shot back: “He can use the money, but not on gambling.” The men were silent.

It wasn’t the first time Xiao Hu had hit her. Sometimes, when they were speaking, he lost control and beat her arms and legs. But this time was the worst. The next day, Susu went to her cousin’s house. Her parents-in-law persuaded her to come back, and when her husband came to pick her up, he had bought her a silver bracelet. She forgave him, relieved that they had both stepped back from the brink.

Susu posted a video of her injury online, and after the two reconciled, she made the video only visible to herself. Her fans didn’t understand. They asked her why she didn’t get a divorce, telling her that if her husband had done it once, he’d do it again. Others kept asking her: “Why don’t you run?”

Where Susu lived, this city concept was too remote to consider. Susu never told her father that she had been domestically abused, because it deemed shameful. Even though she was innocent, the incident would bring shame to her family. Divorce was the same; there is no honor in it.

Additionally, her husband still has a big place in her heart. She remembers how her heart leapt the first time they held hands as teenagers. “I can’t bear it. I can’t let go,” she says. “I’m afraid of regret. I’m afraid my dad will feel ashamed of me.”

More importantly, since becoming a mother, Susu often reflects on her upbringing, trying to figure out how she got here.

Recently, she took her mother to meet some relatives. Susu remembers that when she started junior high, she had an aunt in the city of Liuzhou. Her aunt was kind to her, gave her money, and helped her attend school in Liuzhou, because of Susu’s good grades, good behavior and strong ability. Of the four children in her family, she was the most promising. Back then, whenever Susu had a holiday, she went to her aunt’s house. The two of them lay on the bed, talking endlessly. Her aunt always told her to leave the mountains and marry a city boy — not to lug a hoe around the fields forever.

Unable to bear these expectations, Susu fell ill and secretly dropped out of school without telling her aunt. She kept her marriage, pregnancy and childbirth from her too, fearing that she would disappoint her. Her relatives didn’t understand her choice and looked down on her for it.

We might say that Susu has faced three big choices in her 22 years. The first, at 16, was whether to drop out of high school. The second, at 18, was whether to have her daughter after unexpectedly falling pregnant and getting married. The third, at 20, was whether to leave the factory and return to the mountains. But although these seem like real choices, in reality Susu passively accepted the outcome in each case.

I asked her, when do you think you are at your most beautiful? Her answer was spiritual: “When I feel understood.” But on the way back from seeing her relatives, she wrote on social media: “I no longer thirst to be understood as before.”

At just 22, she often looks back on her life. She thinks of the lack of love:

You’ll never experience how a 72-year-old dad, and blind mom who’s lost her marbles, raised their four kids so that I got married as soon as I was old enough.

She is determined not to let her daughter meet the same fate or grow up in a broken home.

That’s what life and emotions are like. There aren’t many simple choices. She can’t answer the people who ask why she doesn’t run. She can’t escape her life.

But she has resisted in her own small way. Susu’s younger sister, who is one year younger than her, is delicate and introverted. She works in a mobile phone factory in Dongguan and is unmarried. Susu never asks her sister to do anything for her folks back in Guangxi. Instead, she tells her time and again:

Don’t get married early. See more of the world. Save money. For mountain girls whose destinies so often seem predetermined, it’s a way of earning freedom for yourself.

Translator: Matthew Walsh

Contributing Chinarrative Editor: Isabel Wang