Married at Fifteen

Hai Bo Song was born on October 5, 1914 in China to Jie Fu Song and Jing Fen Chan, who were farmers.  It is unclear how many siblings Hai had, as cousins in China were also referred to as brothers and sisters.  Hai’s youngest son, Ning, explains that at that time in China, it was common for most of the people in a whole village to be related to each other.  “That’s why two people from the same village were never allowed to marry.”  In those days, Ning says, “people were very much tied to the land, and a family’s wealth and worth was determined by the amount of land they owned.”  Thus, it was the custom for the man of the family to travel to the United States to work and to save money for a period of ten to fifteen years and then come back and buy another parcel of land to increase the size of the farm.  He would then send his oldest son to America to begin another ten- to fifteen-year stint.

Though they were already considered somewhat well off, Hai’s family was no exception to this practice, with Jie and several of his sons working in America in shifts.  When Hai was fifteen, her parents arranged for her to marry Wu Hong Lim, who had been working in America with his father from age 12.  When he turned eighteen, he was sent back to China to marry the girl his parents had selected for him, Hai Bo Song.  He stayed long enough for Hai to give birth to a healthy son, Tai, and then he returned to America to complete his stint.

As it happened, Wu stayed in America beyond the normal fifteen years due to WWII.  After the war ended and the Communists moved in to take over China, thousands of people fled, trying to get to America to be reunited with their fathers or husbands.  Hai and Tai were among these and managed to make it out of China.  They eventually met up with Wu in Chicago.  There, Hai and Wu had two more sons, Shi and Ning.  Tai was well over fifteen by the time Shi was born, but a fifteen-year gap between siblings was obviously common for Chinese families at the time.  Wu and Hai lived for many years in Chicago’s Chinatown, with Wu working as a waiter and Hai eventually getting jobs in factories.  In the 1960’s, the family moved to the north side of Chicago.

Ning explains that his mother is a quiet woman and easily pleased.  She enjoyed socializing with her Chinese neighbors when they lived in Chinatown and has never really learned to speak English well.  She also liked crocheting, playing Mahjong, gambling, and watching Chinese soap operas.  She only left Chicago once, and that was to go to Boston for a relative’s wedding.  She also enjoyed going to Chinese funerals.  Once they moved to the north side and had a small yard, she also took up gardening, something she hadn’t done since she her days in China.

Tai and Shi eventually married and moved to the suburbs, but Ning has remained all these years with his parents, caring for them as they aged.  Except for a hairline fracture in her back after she fell in 1972, Hai has remained in good health until recent years.  In the early 1990’s, Hai developed shingles and, according to Ning, has slowly “gone downhill” since then.  Ning says that whenever the weather changes, she still has twinges of pain.  Two years ago, she fell again, this time breaking her hip, but she eventually recovered, slowly but surely.  Ning says that his mother is amazingly strong, both physically and mentally, and that she has always been independent, out of necessity, from a young age.  “She never gives up,” Ning says.

At the time that Hai broke her hip, however, Ning was also struggling in having to care more for his father, Wu, who was progressively becoming more confused.  He was repeatedly found wandering in the neighborhood, lost, with the police bringing him back to the house nine times in the space of a month and a half.  The police suggested that perhaps Wu be admitted to a nursing home, but, Ning says, “I couldn’t do it.”  It would have gone completely against Chinese culture, Ning explains, in which the “children are obligated to care for their parents.”  In an effort to keep Wu at home, Ning instead put high locks on the doors to keep Wu from wandering.  This only seemed to incense Wu, however, and caused him to become combative.  He even once drew a knife.  This was the last straw for Ning, already worn out from caring for his mother.  He took Wu to a doctor, who in turn diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s and insisted that he be admitted to a nursing home, which Ning reluctantly agreed to.

Not long after his father was admitted to the nursing home, Hai suddenly collapsed one day in severe pain.  Ning called an ambulance, and it was discovered that part of her intestine had ruptured.  During the resultant emergency surgery, the doctors further determined that she was also suffering from colon cancer.

Hai was accordingly discharged to a nursing home with hospice care, though not the same home where Wu is a resident.  Ning thought it best for them to not be in the same place, as in their later years, they had become very argumentative.  Also, Ning reasoned, they would not be together, anyway, with Wu being on a separate Alzheimer’s unit.  Ning wanted Hai to be in a smaller facility that could hopefully give her more attention.  Tai and Shi and their families have started to become more involved and visit often, though it is Ning who continues to come twice a day, every day.

Hai seems accepting of her prognosis and seems to take her fate in stride.  She is very alert, though she can only communicate through an interpreter.  She says that she is not afraid to die and that she has lived a good life.  She does not seem to enjoy sitting with the other residents, preferring instead to sit alone in her room, where she waits for Ning to come and visit.

(Originally written: November 1995)

If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago:



Showing 6 comments
  • Pam Carmichael

    Wow never knew how this was with the Japanese people, wow they worked so hard, great story!!!

    • Michelle

      Thanks for reading, Pam! Yes, very hard working!!!

  • Lee Gilmer

    In 1967, I attended the Purdue Indianapolis campus with a Chinese girl who was 12 years older than her younger brother. Her father had gotten her mother and daughters of China to Hong Kong after the Communists took over then he came to the US. It took him 12 years to save enough to bring his wife and daughters over. There was a little consternation when we were scheduling a school trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when they asked if anyone was not born in the US and she said she was born in China. They asked Tiawan? When she said no, mainland China they check with someone and the next day she was told she would be able to go. I just finished reading A Girl Like You and was so happy to read such a well written and edited book. I was brought up reading Agatha Christie and have been so disappointed at the grammatical and spelling errors in so many of the books that get published today. Even the WSJ seems to not do any editing anymore or even spell or grammar check news stories before they go to press. I am looking forward to reading more in this series. There have only been a few authors that I’m willing to pay to buy more of their books but I’m looking forward to reading more of yours.

    • Michelle

      Thank you so very much, Lee, for sharing that story of your experience at Purdue! The subject of immigrant stories is very fascinating to me, so thank you for adding this. Thank you, too, for reading A Girl Like You. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it! I hope you enjoy the rest of the series just as much. Please stay in touch!

  • J Yonesawa

    This family was Chinese, not Japanese.

    • Michelle

      Yes, correct!

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