She spends the nights alone, sleeping in a tent balanced on her car using stakes. He often eats his meals in parking lots. She has only seen her daughter and grandchildren once in the past six months, and her husband not once. A 56-year-old retiree from central China’s Henan Province, Su Min has never been happier than he is now.
“I was a wife, a mother and a grandmother,” he said. “I left the house this time to find myself.” After fulfilling the family’s expectations for an obedient Chinese woman, Su adopted a new identity: fearless traveler and internet sensation. She has been crossing China alone for the past six months, documenting her journey to more than 1.35 million subscribers on various social media platforms.
The attraction she exerts is not mainly due to the landscapes she captures in photos, although there are many of them. These are the intimate revelations that she interweaves with the photos, on her abusive marriage, her dissatisfaction with domestic life and her new-found freedom.
Her outspoken but vulnerable demeanor turned Su, a former factory worker who graduated from high school, into an accidental feminist icon of a type rarely seen in China.
Older women send her messages commenting on how painfully familiar their story is, and receive her at every destination with fruit and home-cooked meals. Young women see it as a source of advice on marriage and parenting.
“I wanted my mother to be like Aunt Su and live freely, instead of being trapped, isolated by life,” says a comment left after one of Su’s videos. Its unexpected popularity is a testament to the collision between two important forces in Chinese society: the rapid expansion of the Internet and the growing awareness of gender equality in a country where traditional roles are still deeply entrenched, especially among older generations.
“Before, I thought I was the only person in the world who was not happy,” he said in an interview that took place inside his beige tent. She left tropical Hainan, the southernmost province of China, on the way to Guilin, a city famous for its green hills and located 800 km away. It was only after sharing her videos online, she said, “did I learn that there are a lot of people like me.”
Until the fall of last year, Su had rarely traveled. But the idea of driving had seduced her for a long time. She said that as a child in Tibet, she sometimes missed the bus on the way home from school and was forced to walk back 19 km in the mountains. Every time a truck drove by, she imagined what it would be like to be seated in the wheel, comfortable and safe.
But automobiles were rare and the idea of owning one seemed impossible. At the age of 18, she moved to Henan and worked in a fertilizer factory. Five years later, he got married. She and her husband had only seen each other a few times, which was not uncommon at the time, but Su imagined that marriage would be a way to escape the endless household chores she was forced to perform.
Instead, she said, she found herself having to deal with even more housework, in addition to verbal and physical assault. Her husband disappeared for long periods of time and then beat her if she asked him where he was. Once he hit her with a broom.
Yet, Su said, it never crossed her mind to leave. She feared the social stigma that is still pervasive in much of the country. She settled for her life at home. In 2017, her daughter had twins and Su was given the task of looking after them – which she was happy to do, but which kept her tied to her house. Age had appeased her husband’s assault, but they barely spoke. When they spoke, it was to argue. Su consoled himself by reading time travel novels and watching Korean romantic soap operas, but he still felt deeply alone.
When she had particularly hard arguments with her husband, she passed out. A doctor eventually told her that she was suffering from depression. At the end of 2019, he came across a video of someone showing off their camping gear on a solo road trip. She remembered the dream she had had as a child of driving a car, with all the freedom and comfort that it represented.
In the months that followed, she devoured all the videos she could find on road trips. She took lots of notes: what apps people used to find camping sites, what tips they used to save money (she found, for example, that it was possible to buy campsites in bulk, etc.) shower inlets in public bathrooms).
Soon Su decided: when her grandchildren entered kindergarten, she would undertake a road trip on her own. She had bought a small white Volkswagen a few years earlier with her savings and her monthly pension of around $ 300.
His family resisted the idea. Su reassured his daughter, guaranteeing that he would not be in danger. She ignored her husband, who was laughing at her. On September 24, she secured the tent on top of the car, placed a mini-fridge and a rice cooker in the trunk, and left her home in Zhengzhou City.
While traveling, Su posted videos about his latest wanderings. In October, one of the videos went viral on Douyin, Chinese TikTok. In it, she described how she felt oppressed by household chores and her husband. “Why do I want to take this road trip?” Because life at home is too hard. “
Millions of people watched the video and shared it with hashtags as “runaway woman”. Su continued to tour the country, visiting the historic city of Xi’an, the mountainous Sichuan province, and the ancient city of Lijiang. So far he has driven nearly 14,000 km.
To save on the tolls imposed on the highways, he drove through smaller secondary roads. At night, she opened the tent above her car as if it were an accordion, feeling more secure at the top. Before leaving each morning, he hung his wet towel on a clothesline lying in the back seat of the car.
In her videos, she was dazzled by her newfound freedom. She could go at any speed she wanted, brake as hard as she wanted. At every stop he makes new friends.
Wrapping up dumplings for the camera in a parking lot in Hainan in February, Su laughed when tourists passing by asked her who was traveling with her. “I love hot peppers, but my family doesn’t like them, so I forced myself not to eat,” he commented in an interview. “Now after leaving home, like chili peppers every day.”
She encountered occasional hostility. Once, she said, a man asked her how dare she speak publicly about her family’s private affairs and said he would beat her if they met in person. She replied, “I’m glad we haven’t met.”
Su’s daughter, Du Xiaoyang, who visited her in Hainan last month, said her mother is now a new person. “Whatever she wants to do, she does. Before, it seemed like she was afraid of everything, ”she says.
In March, luxury goods website Net-a-Porter even featured Su in an advertisement celebrating International Women’s Day. Even so, she blushes when someone asks her about her recent fame. And she says she’s not yet qualified to describe herself as a feminist.
“It took me many years to figure out that I had to live on my own.”
There are limits to what she is ready to change in her life. Although she is determined to leave the house if her husband continues to abuse her, she says she does not want a divorce, aware that her daughter would feel obligated to take care of her father if Su left him.
But she tries not to think too much about the eventual return home. Before that, he intends to tour all of China. It may take a few years. “Now that I’m finally gone, now that I want to give up this life, I need time to let the past go,” he explained. “There are a lot of things that over time can have a result that you never imagined.”