In Chinese villages, grandmothers run the show. They wake early, hustle up food for their families, prepare their grandchildren for school, plant and harvest crops and sell leftover fruits, vegetables and meat in local markets. They are powerhouses, these women. In the Chinese tradition, in addition to their daily chores, they take care of their grandchildren. Grandmothers throughout the countryside can be seen going about their lives with babies strapped to their backs and toddlers clinging to their legs. Parents work outside the home. Grandparents hold the home together. So it was when I returned to China this past year. The grandmothers wore the babies, carrying them in their arms and across their backs. They fed them freshly sliced apples and peeled off slivers of orange, popping them into tiny mouths. Grandmothers ensure children are bundled up for the chill of winter, arms padded with so many layers the kids can't lower their arms.
One of the traditional chores for a Chinese grandmother is to make shoes for her family. Not every grandmother can do this, however. It's an art passed on to only a few, depending on her mother's and grandmother's skills. As globalization takes hold and villagers continue to migrate to bigger cities in search of better jobs and opportunities, the grandmothers stay behind. They tend to the land and the people, the littlest people, who cannot yet migrate. Amidst all of this, these tasks and chores, they stitch shoes. Needle and thread. Scissors. Cotton, velvet and corduroy. Buttons and snaps. They sit, with their grandchildren, in markets and beside rivers, in the courtyard of a family home, and they make shoes.