Tired of her abusive husband, 56-year-old Su Min took the car and left. Her journey made her an icon for China’s unhappy housewives.
Su Min never thought that one day she would feel this free.
She had finally reclaimed the white Volkswagen Polo she’d bought with the money she’d earned working at the supermarket for two years. There was no need to worry about her husband snatching the car keys, nor having to deal with a co-pilot bombarding her with directions as she drove. She could even eat whatever she felt like — in the past, she always had to cater to her husband’s bland palate. Now she was heartily adding chili peppers to the pot until beads of sweat covered her nose.
On the morning of Sept. 23, Su drove her car out of the underground garage and watched her daughter gradually disappear in the rearview mirror. She exited through the compound gate, merged with the traffic on the main street, and joined the expressway, driving faster and faster until she’d left the city of Zhengzhou, in central China’s Henan province. Su was no longer a wife, mother, daughter, or grandmother — she was now just a traveler.
Aided by the videos she took and posted along the way, her trip became a small social media sensation. Women who themselves felt stuck in depressing marriages were inspired by Su’s bravery. Others recognized the plight of their own mothers, quietly shouldering the countless obligations Chinese society expects them to fulfill, or they were just amazed that a middle-aged woman, the stereotypical shepherd of a stable family life, would so unabashedly choose her own happiness.This time she had to leave, and there was no room for compromise.- Yin Shenglin, author
In much of Su’s life, restraint was a consistent theme. When she was a child, she watched her two younger brothers slide down the slopes of Qamdo in the Tibet Autonomous Region and had to resist the impulse to follow them. Later, the task of washing her brothers’ filthy pants came down to her. When she was a young woman, she silently endured the indifference and violence of her husband so her daughter could grow up in an undivided home. When her daughter graduated from college and was looking for a partner, she held her tongue so as to not embarrass her. When her two grandchildren were born, she ungrudgingly undertook the burden of looking after them.
Then, one winter afternoon last year, it was as if someone unstopped her stifled existence, letting in a welcome gush of fresh air. She was browsing online and randomly clicked on a link that took her to a blog post in which someone shared their experiences of going on a solo road trip. Su suddenly saw stars. It had never occurred to her that such a thing was ever possible.
She had a thought: “I can do this, too.” She immediately told her daughter, who thought she was just joking. The daughter has two young twin boys and needed Su’s help to look after them. But this time, Su established a firm condition. “I explained that I would leave the moment they went off to kindergarten next year.”
A Long-Planned Escape
She quietly prepared her departure for almost an entire year. On the surface, she was still the dutiful grandmother who kept house; but inside, she was busy concocting a plan. While looking after her grandsons, she scoured the internet for solo travel guides, and when she saw useful equipment, she added it to her shopping cart on e-commerce site Taobao.
Su had never looked forward to spring so much in her life — and then the pandemic took everyone by surprise. The beginning of her grandchildren’s first day at kindergarten was delayed and she was stuck at home. “Let’s see you leave now!” her husband said, with more than a hint of schadenfreude. She had no interest in arguing with him; instead, she just kept adding things to her Taobao cart.
In September, kindergartens across the country reopened and Su felt that her final obligation as a mother was at last complete. She proved that her mind was made up through actions, not words: clicking the checkout button and paying for all of the things in her cart at once.
As couriers delivered one piece of equipment after the next, her husband became a little flustered. Without his wife, he knew he couldn’t stay with his daughter, who was too busy caring for two young children to also care for him. “He realized that, if I went away, he’d have to move out of our daughter’s home and he’d have no one to cook for him,” Su said.
Her husband tried stopping her in a number of ways — mostly using his preferred method of putting her down. Once the fold-out tent had been installed on her car’s roof, her husband said, “It’s such a shame to waste money like this! You’ll probably only live in it for a couple of days before you’re sick of it. Everything you do, you only do for a while until it grows old.” Later, he even tried taking the ETC card, which enables highway toll payments, out of the car, and only gave up when their son-in-law confronted him.
Su was adamant: This time she had to leave, and there was no room for compromise. “I can’t live like this anymore,” she said.
Left: A selfie of Su Min; right: her trunk full of supplies, 2020. From@50岁阿姨自驾游 on Weibo
An interior view of the tent Su Min uses for her trip, 2020. Yin Shenglin/White Night Workshop
By now, her car was packed full of everything she could possibly need for her travels. In the trunk was food, portable gas canisters, water, as well as pots and pans. The back seat was crammed with suitcases in which she’d packed woolen coats and long johns — she’d decided she wouldn’t be back before winter was over. She also had a small refrigerator, a solar battery, and even a wireless GPS for which she’d prepaid six months of data fees.
From Zhengzhou, she drove west, first to Sanmenxia, a city along the Yellow River, and then to Xi’an, famous for the Terra-cotta Army, where she stayed a week. Along the way, she spent nights in empty parking lots, free motor home campsites, or even at service stations along the expressway. Initially, she was afraid that passersby would stare at her, so she hid herself from view when eating. But after a while, she hardly gave strangers a thought. Unfolding the tent and stowing away the ladder became second nature to her — she could practically do these things blindfolded.At no moment did she feel afraid or lonely — she only felt free.– Yin Shenglin, author
On the way from Xi’an to Chengdu, in southwestern China, she had to pass over the Qin mountain range. The winding roads in these precipitous peaks are feared by even the most experienced drivers. This stretch of her journey took her eight to nine hours to complete. In all this time, she saw no more than two other drivers on the road, but at no moment did she feel afraid or lonely — she only felt free.
That afternoon, mist enveloped the mountains, restricting her field of vision to fewer than 200 meters. She had no choice but to stop by the side of the road for a while. When she stepped out of the car, the breeze against her face felt liberating. She sent a short video to her family: “Look how steep these roads are, and how pretty the mountains are.” Only her daughter replied, urging her to stay safe.
I met with Su after she arrived in Chengdu. A pinch taller than a meter and a half, wearing a linen-colored hoodie with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, she appeared relaxed and refreshed.
In the month since she’d left home, she had driven more than 1,000 kilometers, filled up on gas five times, and had nine points deducted from her license for various unexpected infringements, but she has also smiled far more than she ever did since she got married.
Perhaps in her daughter’s eyes, her decision was a little hasty, but Su knew that she “really couldn’t take it anymore.”
Su Min poses for a photo during her trip, Dec. 2, 2020. From@50岁阿姨自驾游 on Weibo
Living With Him is Stress, Stress, Stress
I accompanied Su on the road for four days. On these travels, Su spared every possible expense. She filled up on free drinking water in service areas and made most of her meals herself. At a scenic area, she spotted a souvenir that she quite liked. She toyed with it for a long while but ended up putting it down. She even washed in the cheapest way possible: by looking for deals for bathhouses on Dianping, a Yelp-like app, that allowed her to take a shower for a little more than 10 yuan ($1.50).
She rarely drives on expressways because the ETC card is tied to her husband’s bank card. Knowing him, she’s sure he’ll blow a fuse if his card is charged more than 100 yuan. In the past, when she needed to drive long distances, she would always pay him back afterward if he was the one who last filled up the tank.
Su told me that, after more than 30 years of marriage, she knew that her husband didn’t eat spicy food. She knew that he loved fishing and loved eating fish even more. She knew that, when he watched TV, he would always switch back and forth between the sports channel and the news channel, eager to see where the latest conflict was. She understood his heart disease and high blood pressure, and she knew how many trophies he’d won by playing table tennis. But she never knew how he truly felt inside.
Most of the time, the two seemed to live in parallel worlds: On shopping expeditions when her daughter was still a child, she’d take her hand and walk in front, while he lingered behind them. When her daughter went off to boarding school in her third year of middle school, they started sleeping in separate rooms. When she heard her husband close the door on the way out, she knew she finally had the right to use the sofa and watch the shows she liked on TV.You’re not free to talk in your own house.– Su Min, solo traveler
Later, after her daughter had married and given birth, the two were once again obliged to share a room. Without hesitating, they bought a bunk bed. She slept on top while her husband slept below. At night, they put their earbuds in and played on their cellphones. At one point, Su even wanted to buy a curtain partition, but she gave up on this idea only because she worried that her son-in-law would find it strange.
At home, Su often refrains from speaking her mind, because her husband’s greatest pleasure is finding fault with everyone for anything — even in the way she takes care of their grandchildren. Once, when she kissed her grandson’s face, he said her saliva would make him ill.
“You can’t say this and you can’t say that,” Su said. She feels as though she has bottled up her grievances for far too long: “You’re not free to talk in your own house.”
She learned to judge when she was in trouble from the subtle changes in her husband’s expressions. Before he loses his temper, he “opens his eyes really wide.” The pair of eyes that once made her heart flutter when they were dating now fill her with fear. “I’m afraid that he’ll lash out and hit me,” Su said. When her husband exploded, he broke things and hit people. Sometimes, he’d raise a fist and smack her. During their worst fight, she also flew into a rage. Acting on an impulse, she grabbed a stool and could easily have hit him with it, but she came to her senses and threw it aside. As she went to leave the room, he picked it back up and struck her in the back, leaving her with a dull pain that lasted several days.
To avoid getting beaten, Su learned to speak as little as possible in his presence. “To live with him is stress, stress, stress,” she said.
One year, Su went out to dinner with some of her former classmates. As they were eating, her husband burst into the restaurant and said to everyone, “Sorry, my wife has mental issues. If she invites you to another reunion, don’t show up.” “He just wants to make me feel embarrassed,” Su told me. After her husband left, some of her former classmates couldn’t quite get over it. They told her, “Just get out of there! I’ll help you find someone better.” She didn’t say anything back, and just smiled.
Su always had a question on her mind. Once when she and her husband were quarreling, she couldn’t help but ask him, “Is the reason you don’t like me because I’m not good-looking enough?” Unfortunately, she never got a clear answer. He merely retorted, “Just how good-looking do you think you are?”
In traditional Chinese thought, sons are preferable to daughters, and a woman who fails to give birth to a boy will be looked down upon by her husband and his family. And so Su has also wondered: Did our relationship go sour because I gave birth to a girl?
In the first two years of their marriage, after the fertilizer factory where she worked shut down, there was a period when Su was a stay-at-home mother. She, her husband, and their daughter all slept together in the same bed in her husband’s company-provided one-room dormitory. But she soon discovered that her husband had a knack for keeping a tally on expenses. Every month, when the time came to pay bills, he’d make her help him figure out where last month’s wages went. Su found this utterly degrading. Was it not enough that she bought groceries, cooked, laundered, cleaned, and considered every need of her family? Was it really necessary for him to track every cent he spent on his wife and child?
She could not accept these “economic sanctions” and started working to earn her own income. Over the years, she has repaired garments, swept streets, waited tables, and delivered newspapers. At first, she wanted to prove she was capable of making money as a way of gaining her husband’s respect. “There’s no use in hard resistance; I had to choose a more subtle route,” she says.
Later, the two ended up going Dutch on everything. She would only cook if her husband was the one who paid for the groceries; and on holidays, when visiting family, they would both buy their relatives separate gifts. Once, when her mother fell ill, Su bought medicine with her husband’s health insurance card. The next day, he changed the passcode without telling her.
This financial divide has never led to her husband respecting her more — it has only increased the distance between the two.
Su and her close girlfriend have been neighbors for more than 10 years now. She’s often envied her marriage: Her husband doesn’t think twice about giving her money to spend on clothing. “She really has so many clothes,” Su said.
In 2019, Su was diagnosed with moderate depression. When it was at its worst, she would often catch herself crying at home, and began to take medication.
Su realized she’d never get the answers to her questions. She gave up looking for reasons and no longer had any delusional expectations of her husband. Later, she started to find the smell of her husband “repulsive” — and after that, she found that all men smelled like him. They all had that same unpleasant stench.
Su Min cooks a meal for herself during her trip, 2020. She prefers spicy flavors, unlike her husband. Yin Shenglin/White Night Workshop
The Elusive “Good Husband”
It was only after having driven for hundreds of kilometers that Su called her mother for the first time since leaving home. She only said that she had gone to take her mind off of things, without giving any specific details.
Her mother’s worldview had never evolved beyond the traditional Chinese notion of “all good things come from familial harmony.” Su knows that in her mother’s mind, there’s no reason to break up the family so long as her husband hasn’t cheated or demanded a divorce. She would never tell her mother that, since she turned 30, she and her husband have essentially been separated.
Sometimes, when she truly feels crushed, she’ll call up her mother to complain, only to be chided: “Any suffering, you have brought upon yourself.” Su has always felt she has not lived up to her mother’s expectation of finding a “good husband” — a man with money and power who can truly help the family.
Su grew up with her family in Tibet until the age of 18, when her father was suddenly transferred back inland. The second year after returning to her hometown, she got a job at the fertilizer factory where her father worked in the laboratory. By the age of 23, Su was desperate to get married. Most of the girls in the factory got married before they were 20 years old.In our day, most couples were set up by matchmakers and there were very few people who were truly in love.– Su Min, solo traveler
What Su really wanted above all else was to be free of her parents. Her mother disciplined her strictly as a child; she wouldn’t even dare to get her hair cut without her permission. In the factory, female workers of her age all lived together in the dormitory, where they’d sing and have fun together after work, but Su’s father insisted that she stay at home. All her monthly wages had to be handed over to him — as her younger brothers were not yet of working age, she, as the eldest child, had an obligation to contribute to the family.
In her head at the time, getting married was equivalent to “living independently.” She would have a family of her own, and would be free to use her time and money as she pleased. Soon enough, she got someone in the factory to set her up with her husband. They had only met two times before their wedding. Su moved out of her parents’ home, as she had wished, and into the staff dormitory.
Her freedom did not last long, however, as she became pregnant the same year she got married. She didn’t expect that a husband who was “not bad to look at” according to her standards and a marriage that “met the requirements” would become such a ball and chain for decades to come.
At one point along the mountain roads, we passed through a dark tunnel and emerged into the light for only a fleeting instant before entering yet another tunnel and being enveloped in darkness once more. Su smiled and remarked with a hint of self-deprecation that this was how she went from her parents’ oversight into a loveless marriage: “Like passing through one tunnel into another.”
But, when it comes to her daughter, Su refuses to let her own tragedy play out a second time. Her daughter only got married at the age of 27 and of her own accord — Su never pressured her and has always wanted her to be free. She also told her daughter to “find a good husband,” but the meaning, this time, was completely different. It didn’t matter to Su whether her son-in-law came from money or not — what mattered was that he’d treat her daughter well.
After giving birth to twins, Su’s daughter became a full-time mother. She was under a lot of stress, had postpartum depression, and often blamed her husband for not looking after their children when he came home from work. Seeing her daughter get angry makes Su anxious. At the same time, she feels like her son-in-law will start looking at his wife the same way Su’s husband looked at her — all men are the same. “I fear men when they’re angry and I worry that he’ll look down on her for not earning money,” she said. Su is always worried her daughter’s happiness is unstable. She is keen for her grandsons to grow up a little bit, so her daughter will have time to find a job that’ll keep her independent.
However, for her daughter’s sake, she works to maintain a semblance of harmony in front of her son-in-law. When cooking, she deliberately asks, “What kind of food do you think your father (her own husband) wants to eat? Will he come home to eat with us today?” “The truth is that I don’t care at all,” Su told me.
In all the time she’s been on the road, her husband hasn’t asked her a thing. Unless absolutely necessary, the couple will not talk to each other directly. If something’s wrong, they will talk about it in the family’s group chat. A while ago, Su’s husband suddenly shared a photo of a high-speed rail ticket in the group. Su clicked on it and saw that he had returned to his hometown. She couldn’t help but feel a little smug. “He used to drive my car whenever he returned to his hometown,” Su said. But now the car was all hers. Still, she couldn’t help sending a WeChat message to her daughter: “What did your father go back to his hometown for?”
A toll station along Su Min’s route, 2020. Yin Shenglin/White Night Workshop
It’s All a Matter of Money
During the past 30 years of lonely and depressing marriage, Su never considered divorce to be an option — unlike an ever-growing number of Chinese.
She has too many practical considerations. In a certain sense, she has nothing of her own at home: The house belongs to her husband, and the car is in her daughter’s name. “Think about it: If I were to divorce and had to move out, how much would it cost me to buy a new house?” Besides, what about her daughter? Which home would she go back to for the holidays? It would cause her trouble, too. And finding another partner? What would be the point?
The most important thing is, “My hardest days are behind me,” Su said. The most difficult time in her life was looking after her daughter while keeping down jobs as well. Now that her child is a grown woman, life is much better than when she was younger. She can’t see why things shouldn’t stay as they are — no matter what happens, she has a car and can go traveling alone.
She thinks her husband’s decision to stay with her is also based on similar considerations: He is currently dealing with a litany of ailments. And who else would be willing to put up with him and his insistence on splitting every cost down to the penny?
When asked about the sweeter moments of her marriage, Su sat silently for a long time, replaying her life from age 23 and on in her head. She arrived at a memory from about 30 years ago. After giving birth to her daughter, Su went to her husband’s house for her monthlong postnatal confinement, during which her in-laws didn’t give her any meat to eat. “Later, I said to him, ‘your family raises so many chickens, and yet you won’t get me one to eat,’” Su recalled. That was the only time her husband showed her any sympathy. He made a slingshot, struck a chicken down from a tree, and made it into a stew.
Despite the monotony of their subsequent days together, Su never thought of finding another husband. Whenever she found someone to strike up a conversation with, it would never last long. She’d think to herself “he’s good-looking,” but that would be it. She is certain that everyone’s marriage has problems, and that perfect romance only exists on TV. “In our day, most couples were set up by matchmakers and there were very few people who were truly in love, so I am fond of men who are very loving.”
Traveling feels like simply switching from one routine to another. Middle-aged women traveling alone like her are few and far between. Once, someone asked her: “Why didn’t your husband come out with you?” Su walked straight past him and, without turning back, replied, “He’s at home playing pingpong. We don’t have the same hobbies.”
Su Min walks upstairs at the Yibin Southern Sichuan Bamboo Sea in Sichuan province, 2020. Yin Shenglin/White Night Workshop
Before she left on her solo road trip, Su filled the void in her life by reading time travel novels. Her favorite stories involve doctors. In the present, they may not seem all that remarkable — but once they go back in time, they’re thought of as medical geniuses. Their ability to time travel gives them complete control over their destiny. As she described these stories, I could hear the joy in her voice. She told me that, if she should travel back in time, she would be willing to get married again, but only to someone she really liked: “Unlike in this life, I would at least have to make sure he would treat me well.”
In Su’s memory, the closest she’s ever been to love was in high school. The son of her father’s comrade-in-arms wrote her a love letter, which he hid in her textbook. Su was so shocked when she found it that she immediately handed it to the teacher, who punished the boy for his behavior. He was so mad that, from then on, he ignored her.
After graduation, they never spoke until 30 years later, when she went out for drinks with several former classmates, including him. At the time, Su was helping her daughter apply to take an exam. Knowing that he had connections in Tibet, she casually asked if he could help her out. He agreed. Six months later, Su received all the documents and procedures she needed.
As steam wafted from the bubbling hot pot on the table between us, Su put down her chopsticks and asked me innocently, “Do you think he still likes me?”You’re so lucky that you can drive. I want to leave, but I can’t.– Fanmail
At first, Su only thought of her husband as a spiteful man, but after driving across the country, she actually felt pity for him: She could still run about freely, while his physical condition forced him to stay put. She has a close relationship with her daughter, whereas he has been alienated from her ever since she saw him hit her mother while she was a child.
She thought of her husband turning on the TV and watching the news alone on the sofa. Suddenly, an idea entered her mind: Perhaps he didn’t really like it. Perhaps he only kept up with the news so he had something to talk about whenever he went fishing or played pingpong with his buddies.
However, she decided these questions were no longer important. Now, Su intends to “live for herself.” These last few weeks are the freest she’s ever felt in her life: liberated from the burden of motherhood, from fake intimacy, from the obligation to make others happy.
After she shared a clip of her travels on a short-video platform, someone reposted it and she gained thousands of followers overnight. Later, she learned that her video coincided with a major news topic: several middle-aged women being tricked by someone posing as heartthrob actor Jin Dong on social media, leading the public to become curious about how women like Su view love.
Multiple women have written to her to say how envious they are. “You’re so lucky that you can drive. I want to leave, but I can’t.” These women are scattered in villages and towns all throughout China. They are somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter. They, too, long to escape, but all they can do is keep enduring.
When we bid each other farewell in the ancient city of Zhaotong, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, Su warned me to be cautious about romance. “Don’t choose love irresponsibly like I did.” As soon as the word love left her mouth, she froze and her eyes glazed over for a moment before she came back to her senses. “No, not love,” she corrected herself. “Just marriage.”
Su Min snaps photos of the landscape, 2020. From @50岁阿姨自驾游 on Weibo
Next, she plans to go to Kunming, then to Lijiang and Dali. There, she’ll camp next to Erhai Lake and fall asleep listening to the birds. Finally, she’ll go to Hainan, China’s southernmost province, for Lunar New Year. Her son-in-law wants her to rush home before the New Year, but Su “doesn’t want to do things for other people anymore.”
She hasn’t thought about her return date, nor has she thought about her plans for the future. The only thing she’s certain about is her direction: She is going to drive her little Polo to the warm south.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Wanqing and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Su Min poses for a photo during her trip, Dec. 2, 2020. From @50岁阿姨自驾游 on Weibo)