DURING OUR FIRST YEAR IN FULING, Adam’s best freshman student had been a girl named Janelle. She was so far ahead of the others that there was no comparison, and something about this intellectual distance also set her apart socially. She had no friends in the class and spent her time alone, often talking with Adam or me to practice her English. At the end of the school year, she seemed depressed, and then for some unknown reason she went home early, missing her final exams.
At the start of the second year, Adam had class for the first time and called roll. Everybody was there except for Janelle, and Adam asked if she was sick. A few students shook their heads. Nobody said anything.
“Will she be here later?” Adam asked.
“No,” said Shannon, who was the class monitor.
“She will not come back this year.”
“She is dead,” Shannon said, and then he laughed. It was a nervous and humorless sound, the sort of Chinese laugh that was simply a reaction to an uncomfortable situation. It wasn’t difficult to distinguish these laughs from normal ones, but nevertheless they always sent shivers down a waiguoren’s spine. The students had their heads down and Adam quickly changed the topic. On that day class was a long two hours.
The subject was difficult to broach and we never heard much about it, because none of the students had known Janelle well. All they could tell us was that during the summer she had jumped off a bridge in her hometown. When the Chinese commit suicide, it’s common for them to jump off things—bridges, buildings, cliffs. Sometimes in the countryside they eat pesticide. They tend to do a much more thorough job of killing themselves than Americas do, especially American women, who often take pills and are saved by having their stomachs pumped.
Chinese women are more likely to commit suicide than Chinese men. More than half of the female suicides in the world take place in China, where the suicide rate for women is nearly five times the world average. China is the only country on earth in which more women kill themselves than men.
Fuling women lived under complicated expectations, and the economic pressures of Reform and Opening seemed to weigh particularly heavily on them. In the countryside, many of the men had left to work in urban areas, and for every stick-stick soldier or construction worker in the city, there was a peasant wife back at home, tending the farm alone. A total of 66 percent of China’s agricultural workers are female. Social scientists believe that this imbalance is partly responsible for the high female suicide rate, which occurs predominantly in the countryside. Rarely do these rural deaths seem to be the result of poverty; in fact, most happen within a relatively affluent and well-educated class of peasants. Adam’s student Janelle was a textbook example of this trend: she wasn’t poor, and she had academic opportunities that were unusual for peasant girls. But Janelle’s career path most likely would have involved returning to her hometown to teach, which probably had been a depressing prospect for somebody so bright. I suspected that she had recognized clearly her own potential, as well as the bleakness of her future: to become a rural schoolteacher, marry young, raise a child. In the end it was more—or less—than she could bear.
11 January 2019
Female Suicides in China
From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 273-274, 281: