I'd be remiss not to preface this piece by saying that this is a controversial perspective, although I'm also going to refrain from passing judgment or making casual generalizations.
This is simply Tiantian's story, as told by Tiantian to the podcast Story FM. The original podcast first aired on June 9.
On a side note, Story FM surpassed its 500-episode mark in mid-May. A belated congrats to founder Kou Aizhe and his team, who do such a phenomenal job maintaining both high output and quality.
Take care and see you soon.
I Was a Kept Woman, But "Big Brother" Changed My Life
Transcribed by Zhu Siwei
My name is Tiantian. I'm 34 years old. I live in Xinjiang. I'm living the life I want to live.
I was born in an impoverished mountainous area where kids had to carry their own rice to school. I ate half a kilogram of rice each day and carried 2.5 kilograms per trip. The only thing we ate with our rice was homemade chili sauce.
In circumstances like this, most girls in my village quit school to work after completing junior high. Only boys were allowed to continue their education. I always maintained decent grades, but in the second semester of the third year of junior high, my mom said: "You can't take the senior high entrance exam. We need to save money for your younger brother."
I remember clearly the year was 2002. I was 15. I burst into tears, burying my head into my hands as I wept silently.
I felt disgruntled and furious. I knew Mom hid her cash under her pillow, so I stole 50 yuan and ran away without hesitation. I didn't say goodbye to anyone. All I had on me was the 50 yuan (US$8).
I took in the vast mountains as the rundown minibus I took stumbled over the county roads. The tears streamed non-stop.
I was at a loss when I arrived at the county seat. I had no idea where to go. I stood still at the bus station for a full 20 minutes. I ended up spending the night at an Internet cafe, where I had my first-ever bowl of instant noodles. How delicious it was!
No one wanted to hire me because I was just a girl. But I had finally left home. I was in a city for the first time and had my first glimpse of the outside world. So I wasn't scared, rather I felt relaxed and liberated.
I was still unemployed by Day Two. And the outside world was running out of patience. A second peaceful evening was not in store.
On my second evening in the county seat, I became a magnet for job referrals when I walked the streets.
"Young sister, are you on your own? Do you need a job?"
Among these people was a man in his 40s who took me to his barbershop. I was quite confused as to why a row of women sat inside every barbershop. After washing hair for three days, I had my answer. Getting your hair washed was code for patronizing a sex worker.
When I figured out what was going on, the owner of the barbershop couldn't help asking me if I was willing to take customers. I refused. He didn't force the issue because I was a virgin. He wanted to wait for the right price. Even though the owner was in no hurry, I was terrified, being a live-in employee. Every day there were customers who showed interest in me. I was worried I'd be dispatched to a dark room soon.
During my time at the barbershop, I became close with one of the other girls. She was gorgeous and had pale skin. She also took customers. But she told me that she didn't want to continue in that line of work and invited me to escape to Dongguan with her. She said she could lend me cash to cover my train fare.
We set off that same evening. The barbershop was located 2 kilometers from the train station. Because I had no luggage, I pretended to go for a walk and headed straight to the train station. My colleague later showed up with her luggage. Everything went smoothly.
I felt very lucky at the time. If I had been working for an extremely shady barbershop, perhaps I would have been trafficked already.
In retrospect, there was a reason why things went so smoothly.
After a 30-plus journey on hard seats, we arrived in Dongguan. My friend took me to her friend's place. I trusted her, so I didn't ask too many questions. But when we got to her friend's home, things didn't feel right at all. There were so many men and women and the floor was covered in mattresses. It was a mess.
If I mention Dongguan these days, everyone is clear about the connotations. Back then, I was clueless about what was unfolding before me.
At that point, my friend told me: "These are all my friends, so don't even think about leaving. Even if you tried, you wouldn't manage to escape."
I was indeed trapped.
My hosts enthusiastically treated me to a meal. When they heard I had never tried bubble tea, they served me a cup. I passed out after a few sips.
When I woke up, I had no idea what time it was. My first sensation was pain in my lower abdomen. It was that time of the month. Then I noticed a needle mark on my arm. Mired in fear and panic, I discovered a young man sitting next to me. To this day I don't know his name. He was my handler.
After regaining my composure, I carefully felt if anything else was off in my body. Luckily, I felt fine except for nausea and weak limbs.
My period had saved me.
Because I still hadn't recovered fully, I thought the next stop was the hospital when the young man carried me on his back. Instead, he took me to a motel, where he handed me 100 yuan and parted with the warning, "Don't go back there again."
And then he left.
Why did he help me? How was he going to account for my disappearance? Did he pity me? Or was he in the same boat? I've always wanted to track him down and get answers to these questions. If he hadn't rescued me, I can't imagine how the rest of my life would have evolved.
But sometimes you cross paths with people in a fleeting moment and never see them again.
I was terrified that the people I had escaped from would track me down, so I decided to leave after working at the motel where I lived briefly. When I left, the owner gave me 500 yuan.
Armed with that bit of cash, I returned to the city near my hometown. I felt so stupid, having run away from home without an iota of real-life experience. But I still refused to go home. I got a job at a restaurant. That's where I met another person who changed my destiny.
I called him "Big Brother." Big Brother was about 30. Clean-cut and well-groomed, he was in good physical shape. He looked like a boss. On the day we met, he was eating at our restaurant with a group. I was their server and took their order. I like to smile, the thinking being that smiling brings good luck. Indeed, I drew Big Brother's attention that day. Wearing a serious expression, he asked me: "You're so young. Why aren't you in school?"
Typically, when a customer took an interest in me, he'd flirt a little. But Big Brother asked me if I wanted a different job.
"And which company do you happen to run? Do you want to hire me?" I responded in a joking tone.
"Not a problem," he said, before handing me his business card. "Just look me up if you want to switch jobs."
I studied his card. Wow, a real-estate company! By that point I had been working for some time, so I knew the property industry was a booming sector. Not wanting to spend the rest of my life working in a restaurant, I showed up at Big Brother's company a few days later.
When I first got there, all I could handle was odd jobs. But I always tried to be upbeat and pro-active, which probably caught Big Brother's eye. Out of the blue, he asked me one day: "Do you want to continue your studies? If you do, I can pay for your tuition."
Shocked and moved, I froze. I took the next day off to research schools. Eventually, I decided on a private secondary school in the county seat. Tuition cost about 2,000 yuan a semester.
Big Brother transferred me 5,000 yuan and told me: "Just focus on your studies. Don't come to work anymore."
Because I switched schools, my old school and parents were notified. But after I made clear my reasons for running away, my parents felt guilty and let me continue my schooling in the county seat.
Out of gratitude, I got in touch with Big Brother regularly to give him updates. I also visited him during vacations. When we became comfortable with each other, we ate out together and chatted frequently. Sometimes he resembled a parent. On other occasions, the nature of our relationship was fuzzy.
All men are drawn to physical beauty. All men have desire.
On the day of my 16th birthday, Big Brother booked a private room at the best hotel in town and invited a few of his employees. Without a hint of embarrassment, he introduced me by saying: "This is a student I support financially. Get to know her a bit."
Because Big Brother rarely brought female company to meals, his employees surmised we had a special relationship. They teased: "This sister is so young. How could you?"
Big Brother just smiled in return.
But the evening wasn't limited to teasing. Both Big Brother and I drank that night. Using that as a pretext, his employees got us a room at the hotel.
In fact, I was extremely shy the entire night, avoiding eye contact with Big Brother. I admired him, so when he propositioned me, I was at a loss. Was it love, or plain vanity? In any case, I was certain I didn't want to refuse.
After sex, I was overcome by disbelief. I stood by the window and gazed at the night sky. Was it just a drunken fling? Maybe he'll apologize when he wakes up and say this was a mistake.
But the next day Big Brother didn't say a single thing. All he did was a give me a hug, a big hug.
(Translator's note: The age of consent in China is 14.)
After that night, the dynamics of our relationship changed. Big Brother used to be quite strict. After we became a couple, I behaved more impulsively. For example, I skipped all my weekend evening self-study sessions and spent the time with him instead.
He was a solid writer, so he reviewed my essays. During my monthly break, I'd show him my homework. Sometimes he would wake me in the middle of the night to decipher handwriting he couldn't read.
He also attended parent-teacher conferences. He was both a lover and a parent at the same time.
In fact, the unusual nature of our relationship had puzzled me at one point. It was, after all, not the type of romantic relationship I had envisioned. But after all that I had been through, I felt it was incumbent on me to value any level of concern directed my way.
Not to mention Big Brother was romantic in his own adult way, not limited to showering me with gifts of jewelry and clothing. He was very mature, never giving me the silent treatment. When I threw a fit and slept on the sofa, he would always move me back to our bed after I fell asleep.
He offered to give me two apartment units, but I refused. I didn't want material benefit to compromise the purity of our relationship.
In senior high, I only had four days off a month. He always spent those four days with me, until I started university. He picked a fancy school for me and had me major in golf resort management, in the hope that I would join his business eventually.
But maturity also meant being cold and calculating. I wanted to have a child when I was in university, but he didn't think the timing was right. He also didn't want to get married.
I was open to not getting married. My thinking was simple. I just wanted to be with him. My plans for the future revolved around him. I thought we were going to be together forever. We agreed to have a kid when I graduated from university.
Unfortunately, that day never arrived.
On Oct. 2, 2008, Big Brother got a call summoning him to the offices of the local city government.
Before he set off, he told me to head home and promised to pick me up in two days. We had a habit of hugging every time we parted. That day was no exception. It turned out to be the last time we embraced as lovers.
He didn't show up two days later. My calls to him didn’t go through. I knew he was in trouble. Big Brother had told me that his phone was being tapped by the authorities because he had raised funds illegally. It's just that I never thought the situation was that serious.
I called all his friends. All I could find out was that Big Brother had been arrested. No one was willing to tell me where he was, how he was doing or what was in store for him.
I could only track him down on my own.
I had to find Big Brother. He had left without saying anything, without saying goodbye. How could I take a separation like that?
If not for Big Brother, perhaps I'd still be stuck working at a small restaurant. He was my rock. Now the rock was gone, I was in a state of utter panic. Locating him was also a form of closure.
All I wanted to know was how he was faring. I didn't expect anything else.
I considered taking a leave of absence from school to track down Big Brother, but he always viewed my studies as a priority. He expected me to finish, so I decided to carry on. But that also meant I had to shoulder the expensive tuition myself and that I could only confine my search to weekends and long holidays.
My first stop was the local prison where he was arrested, but that led me nowhere. Indeed, how could a case of this complexity be handled locally?
Operating in a foreign city posed an even bigger challenge. It was fishing for a needle in a haystack. I started with cities in our province, making the rounds in surrounding cities first. In two years, I covered nearly all the cities in our province, to no avail.
On a day in 2010, a friend who was helping me finally let it slip that Big Brother might be in City A.
I set off for City A immediately. I was overcome by emotion during the journey. Once I got off the highway, I hailed a motorbike for hire and asked the driver to take me to the local prison. He responded: "There are two prisons in town. Which one?" In a trembling voice, I said: "Just pick one!"
When we arrived at the first prison, I approached the first staff member I saw and asked if Big Brother was being held there.
"And you are?" the man asked.
"A friend," I responded, after pondering my answer.
Lo and behold, the man I approached happened to be the warden. He was perfectly clear on who was being held there. He asked me to wait in a meeting room. I knew then I was in play.
The room was surrounded by glass and windows covered by metal bars. I had imagined our reunion countless times in the years leading to that meeting, but for it to actually happen in that environment was unsettling.
As my thoughts wandered, Big Brother appeared.
Big Brother was stunned when he laid eyes on me. It looked like his jaw was about to drop. I could sense tears forming in his eyes.
"How could it possibly be you?" he exclaimed.
Never his wildest imagination did he think that I could track him down on my own. As for me, I was speechless as tears rained down my face.
Big Brother broke the silence. "How have you been?" he asked.
"You probably know my latest. I spent ages looking for you. Your friends wouldn't tell me anything. Didn't they update you on my situation? Why did you keep your whereabouts a secret?" I said.
"I always upheld such an image of success in front of you. I didn't want you to see me in the doldrums. Now that I'm in prison, I'm in no position to help you. If we stay together, it will jeopardize your future." For the first time, I saw a vulnerable side to Big Brother.
I had so many questions. How could Big Brother bear leaving me on my own? Why did he cut me off so abruptly?
But prison was hardly the setting for a heart-to-heart. Our reunion ended quickly. Many questions were left unanswered.
Regardless of how he assessed my abilities, I had survived. The fact is both of us had changed a lot in two years.
In prison, Big Brother nursed a belly. He never used to wear casual shoes. Yet he donned a pair when we met again.
I also learned to be independent. I completed my studies on my own and managed to find Big Brother.
Still, it was extremely difficult to tackle these tasks independently. The economic pressure was immense. In my toughest moment, I leaned on a new boyfriend. He's a businessman I met on our campus golf course. He was also the one who helped fund my education and my search for Big Brother.
That's why I avoided the questions I had for Big Brother on subsequent visits. The more pressing issue for me was whether to choose the past or the future.
I started to visit Big Brother regularly. After about four visits, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. I told him everything.
He thought it would be great if I could be with my boyfriend in the long run.
I asked Big Brother: "Do you want to pick up where we left off? One word from you and I'll wait."
Big Brother didn't address the question directly. "The fact that you are willing to visit me when I'm down and out—that's more precious than romance," he said.
His answer was obvious.
In fact, that was for the better. I finally had full closure to the dilemma that had been nagging me constantly.
Further down the road, we faced more trials. Time flew.
My boyfriend and I got married. When Big Brother was released in 2012, he also started his own family. Our families socialized frequently and got along well.
Gradually, I built my own career. But soon I realized all the material wealth I accumulated didn't provide the life I wanted.
In 2018, I ran away again. I returned to my home village to start a bed and breakfast.
People have asked if Big Brother and I would have had a future together had I waited. I never think about it that way. Whatever happened happened for a reason. I accept it all with open arms. After going through so much, I have few attachments.
The human heart operates in strange ways. I ran away from my rural village and now I'm back. My heart has returned to its starting point. That gives me a peace of mind.
So I now run a bed and breakfast in rural Xinjiang. Big Brother has promised to visit. He also wants to enjoy the peace and quiet.
After all these years, we are still like family.