In late 2020 Su Min left her unhappy marriage behind and hit the road. The 58-year-old retiree had raised her family and done her duties, and her husband, she says, was treating her badly. So she studied online videos about road trips and set off across China alone in a VW hatchback with her pension and a rooftop tent.
As she travelled, Su filmed and posted videos and diaries of her journey, speaking candidly of her dissatisfying life of housework. She also marvelled at the beauty of the country she was finally exploring, and made new friends.
Su built a following of millions and regularly trended on social media, featuring in a Net-A-Porter advertisement for International Women’s Day.
As Su travelled and her fame grew, many women saw her as an accidental feminist icon, for rejecting the traditional expectations of a housewife and grandmother and taking control of her life. She shyly dismisses the moniker and says she’s not that famous, but enjoys how often she is stopped on the street, and how older women in particular have related to her story.
“As an ordinary housewife, someone who no one pays attention to on the street, to now have a lot of people see me and recognise me, this means there is an improvement in my life ,” Su tells the Guardian via Zoom. “I am at least acknowledged, and I think a life in which you are acknowledged is really good.”
Su had married in her early 20s. After growing up in Tibet and moving to Henan after high school she married after meeting her future husband just a few times. She says the marriage soon became unhappy, but she didn’t leave, fearing the strong social stigma around divorces.
Her husband has not spoken publicly about her trip or her accusations against him.
Change came in 2019 when Su saw an online video about someone living what has been popularised in the west as “van life”, and made a decision: when the grandchildren she was helping to care for entered kindergarten, she would leave, and she has barely looked back since.
“I met many like-minded travel pals, and fans who like me, so my life is wonderful on the road,” Su says. “I am very fulfilled, and so there is no feeling of loneliness or discomfort. On the road, my friends keep me company.”
Along her journey she upgraded the hatchback to a campervan. “I finally have my own home,” she told viewers in one post. “In the past, many things don’t belong to me in my family. There was not my name on those things. But my name is finally on this van now.”
Last month, after two years, 80,000 kilometres, 10 provinces and 200 cities, Su came home.
She returned to Henan province to spend the mid-autumn festival with her family, and to tell her husband she wanted a divorce. Su says her husband made no contact with her the entire time she was away.
The reunion, filmed and uploaded to her social media, appears awkward and hostile. In the video her husband seems to make comments about her return, saying she couldn’t survive out there any longer. One Weibo discussion hashtag about the video has been viewed more than 380m times, with streams of mostly supportive comments.
“I’m so happy for her! Su Min has changed,” said one commenter. “She can finally be free, so she is changing her fate. Go, Su Min!”
Su says she has the support of her children in seeking a divorce, and hopes her husband will grant her one. But if he doesn’t, she will just continue her travels.
“Divorce is just a piece of paper, it doesn’t have much meaning,” she says. “I won’t have a second family or seek other partners anyway, I will rely on myself … My husband did not interfere with my travelling, so if I go on the road again, he will just let me be.”
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu and Chi Hui Lin