On Monday 6th October, after four long and frustrating months, my friend Charlie and I finally had an opportunity to organise the rescue of my trafficked Hmong friend M, who would then be returned to Vietnam under the auspices of the Hanoi-based NGO Blue Dragon.
M, however, chose to let the opportunity pass and to remain in China, despite the risk of a second unwanted pregnancy and the lack of control over her life there.
She and I had plenty to catch up on.
In the two months since I’d last spoken to her, M had indeed been sent away to work in another city, but it wasn’t at all the potential sale into sex work I’d feared. In fact, her situation was remarkable only for being so very ordinary.
M was working 14-hour days, 25 days a month waiting tables in a restaurant. Working early mornings and late evenings, she’d rented a room nearby to save commuting in the dark. As such, M had indeed had recovered a small measure of freedom, just as she’d hoped.
She had five days each month to visit her baby girl – and even then it appeared there was little chance of M falling pregnant. As much as her Chinese “husband” wanted a boy, he’d told M they couldn’t afford a second child yet.
Although M was not happy, nor comfortable – nor, perhaps, even safe – the immediate danger seemed to have passed.
With the passage of months, however, M had become overwhelmed with myriad fears about the future of her daughter and herself, and had lost her resolve to return to her home and family in Vietnam.
Three days later – on Thursday 9th October – our mutual friend P returned home from China for the first time in three years and eight months. Like M, P had also been abducted from Vietnam and trafficked to China, where she had been forcibly married to a Chinese man.
Whilst in China, P had also been mired in the endless uncertainties of the future that awaited her in Vietnam. As soon as she arrived home, however, those doubts and fears had fallen away, and she no longer questioned the validity of her decision, nor contemplated a return to China.
P could understand M’s position better than any of us, and was the most vocal advocate of M’s return. She knew firsthand how it felt to be sold as the wife of a stranger, how it felt to bear his child, and how wonderful it felt to have finally regained her freedom.
In the first weeks following P’s return, I facilitated regular lengthy phone conversations between the two girls, in the conviction that P’s successful reintegration would be the best means of giving M the encouragement she needed.
Neither P or I, however, could understand M’s behaviour. Something didn’t add up. M was unequivocal in her desire to return to Vietnam – and yet, despite all the assistance and encouragement we offered, she could not be persuaded to take the leap.
As the weeks passed, P lost patience with M’s lack of action. She spoke to her with less frequency, less insistence, and less hope.
On Wednesday 5th November, P’s mother Bao journeyed from her village to spend a rare evening with us in town. P, her mother, her aunt and I all shared dinner together in the local marketplace.
The two elder women told me how much they appreciated all I’d done in locating and encouraging P in China, both having believed they’d die without ever seeing P again. They’d keep me in their hearts forever, they said.
Bao had brought some unexpected news from her village where, a few days earlier, she’d met with both M’s mother and eldest sister. Since our first meeting nine months ago, M’s family have taken a very unusual and often antagonistic role in our story.
Bao told M’s mother she should trust me, because I’m a good man and want to help. M’s mother said she didn’t want my help. Her daughter was fine in China, she said, and I should leave her alone.
It was a strange response, but not particularly surprising. The real surprise came from M’s eldest sister, who told Bao that M had fallen pregnant once more, three months earlier, and was now expecting her second child in May.