Laid-off workers have an saying, nan bao nü chao: “the men are secure, the women are super.” It means the men work as security guards, the women work in a supermarket. For every ten families where workers were laid off, there are seven or eight like that. Mei Fen and her husband were among them.
Mei Fen’s husband used to talk big. Like many in his generation, he heeded the government’s call to marry late and have a child late, and when layoffs came he was one of the first to be out of work. He didn’t marry until his late twenties, and he was barely forty when he lost his job. Some people figure out a way to get by in a situation like that. Some squander the rest of their days and never find a new purpose. Mei Fen’s husband was a likable guy, and he quickly got promoted to the head of his security team, and was later transferred to a leadership job. Mei Fen still worked at the supermarket, stocking goods and running checkout. Both worked irregular hours, and there were at least a few nights each week they didn’t even see each other. One summer night in 2006, right after the typhoon, while Mei Fen dozed at the cash register, her phone suddenly rang, jolting her awake. Within an hour she was a widow. Her husband had been coming home from work on his scooter when a motorbike hurtled by. The sky was too dark, the bike got too close, and Mei Fen’s husband was knocked off. When they picked up off the side of the highway, his body had been ripped to pieces. Mei Fen received a condolence payment from the government.
At the time, ten years ago, the money was a huge sum. People said he’d given his life to support his wife and daughter. Mei Fen’s wiser friends told by wise friends to invest it or buy a house, but her relatives were adamant. Don’t you touch it—that money cost your husband his life, and if people see you laughing or living it up, they’ll talk behind your back. Mei Fen didn’t dare spend it. She just deposited it in the bank, as though it were some sort of organ dug out of her husband’s body to keep in cold storage. Your father had nothing, she told her daughter, he just left this little sum so you could get married. But as the years went by, the amount grew less and less impressive.