In the Oscar-nominated movie Nomadland, we see the main character, played by Frances McDormand, become more confident, more true to herself as she drives the open roads. Although road tripping as a way of finding answers to your questions seems to be an American avocation, born from our Interstate system and our love affair with cars, one 56-year-old Chinese woman shows us that it’s actually a global phenomenon.
Last September, Su Min drove away from her home and abusive husband in a small, white VW hatchback and into Internet stardom. As she’s crisscrossed China, covering more than 8,500 miles, she’s posted videos of her travels, in which she talks about what propels her and challenges the deeply held conventions about a woman’s place in Chinese culture.
“I’ve been a wife, a mother and a grandmother. I came out this time to find myself,” says Su, who has one daughter and twin grandchildren.
Getting the Guts to Leave
For decades, Su, a former factory worker, lived with her husband in the city of Zhengzhou, taking care of their home, their child and later their grandchildren. Her husband sometimes beat her, she says, one time with a broom, and she bore that and all her domestic chores stoically.
At the end of 2019, she happened across a video of someone on a solo road trip, and a plan was hatched. She researched how to live on a tight budget, how to find campsites, and what tent to buy (she found one that unfolds on the roof of her car). By the time her grandchildren entered preschool (and her daughter didn’t need her to watch them), she was ready.
“It took me so many years to realize that I had to live for myself,” she says.
The Accidental Feminist Icon
Once she started posting videos on social media, she began to get noticed. In one video that went viral, she said, “Why do I want to take a road trip? Life at home is truly too upsetting.” She now has 1.35 million followers on several social media platforms.
“Older women send her messages about how painfully familiar her story feels, and greet her at each destination bearing fruit and home-cooked meals,” the New York Times reports. “For younger women, she is a font of advice about marriage and child-rearing.”
The women she’s met on the road have opened her eyes, and she’s been encouraged by the camaraderie. “Before, I thought I was the only person in the world who wasn’t happy,” she told the Times.
She’s marked some of China’s most famous sites off her bucket list–including the terra cotta soldiers in Xian and the Himalayan town of Lijiang–but she’s not sure where this all will end, which must be thrilling after a prescribed life of domestic chores and daily drudgery. “Now that I’ve finally come out, now that I want to leave behind that life, I need time to let it melt away,” she said to the Times. “There are many things that, as time passes, may have an outcome you never imagined.”