Cold War over re­frig­er­a­tor

NewsChina - - ESSAY - By Chris Hawke

I knew the first visit by my fu­ture-in-laws had taken an ugly turn when my girl­friend stopped trans­lat­ing her mother's words to me about our old wooden court­yard home on the side of a moun­tain in West China.

My fi­ancée had just quit her job at a Swiss bank in Bei­jing to lead a stress-free life in Dali, Yun­nan Prov­ince, a place nick­named “Dal­i­for­nia” by lo­cals be­cause so many big city Chi­nese are mov­ing here to es­cape the pres­sure and pol­lu­tion of the eastern re­gions and rein­vent them­selves.

New­com­ers to Dali don't re­ally have jobs. We have projects. And mine and my fi­ancée's most im­por­tant pro­ject is to raise a fam­ily in the fresh air, drink­ing clean moun­tain wa­ter, and eat­ing the lo­cal food sold at the daily farm­ers' mar­ket a mere 100 steps from our front door.

The first step in that pro­ject is to have chil­dren. And this is the point where my fu­ture mother-in-law be­came ag­i­tated.

I pieced to­gether her words: “You need to make my daugh­ter com­fort­able be­fore she can have chil­dren.”

She didn't like the new place, that much was clear. I was so en­am­ored with the court­yard home I had leased for 20 years, I had been un­able to see it through any­one else's eyes un­til my in-laws came to visit.

It is an old walled com­pound, with seven wood and stone build­ings, held to­gether with a mix­ture of straw, clay and sand. Dragon heads are carved into the ends of the beams hold­ing up the roof.

My an­nual rent is the same as what my girl­friend paid each month for a flat in Bei­jing. There is a rea­son for this. When I took the lease, only two of the build­ings were hab­it­able. Be­fore I moved in, there was no kitchen, shower or toi­let. One of the first things I had to do was empty a bucket over­flow­ing with hu­man waste into the gar­den.

Dali is known for its wild mar­i­juana, and I can only sur­mise this helped fuel the pre­vi­ous ten­ants' de­ci­sion to knock out one wall of the largest build­ing, and build a sun deck over it, which af­forded a beau­ti­ful view of the moun­tain and nearby Erhai Lake.

In the process, they cut off the dragon heads of sev­eral tim­bers. They also caused a ma­jor leak­age prob­lem in the roof, rot­ting some of the beams, and caus­ing the roof to partly fall in. It looks bad, even dan­ger­ous.

But to my sur­prise, the col­laps­ing build­ing was not the main thing an­noy­ing my moth­erin-law.

“For my daugh­ter to have a fam­ily, she needs to be com­fort­able. She needs to have a good diet. She needs seafood!”

Not the fresh fish avail­able in the lo­cal mar­ket, but “seafood from the ocean.”

I pointed out we were 2,600 kilo­me­ters from the Pacific.

“Then get a re­frig­er­a­tor and buy frozen seafood,” she re­sponded.

So this was the heart of the mat­ter. It was bad enough that her daugh­ter was mar­ry­ing a pro­fes­sional banjo player who did not own his own apart­ment or car. It was un­ten­able that her daugh­ter was liv­ing with­out a re­frig­er­a­tor.

I tried to ex­plain I be­lieve that the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis we are fac­ing, fu­eled by thought­less and re­flex­ive con­sump­tion, threat­ens hu­mankind with ex­tinc­tion.

In my own small way, I want to take a stand, by eat­ing lo­cally, and min­i­miz­ing energy con­sump­tion and waste. When I got to the part about want­ing to in­stall a com­post­ing toi­let, she rolled her eyes.

None of this was good enough for her daugh­ter, she made clear. Ev­ery­one needs a fridge, nearby fresh mar­ket or not, ex­tinc­tion be damned.

My fi­ancée, bless her soul, told her mother we didn't need a fridge and closed the con­ver­sa­tion.

When she had one in Bei­jing, it was al­ways filled to the brim with fruit and veg­eta­bles, much of which would end up rot­ting. She agreed it was waste­ful.

Now that we have a daily mar­ket steps away from the house, she keeps boxes full of food full to the brim in the kitchen.

At first, we used to ar­gue about wast­ing food al­most ev­ery day, but af­ter a while I gave up, be­cause noth­ing ever changed. Be­sides, she is a good chef.

I un­der­stood where she got her cooking habits when I vis­ited her par­ents in in­dus­trial Shenyang in the north­east prov­ince of Liaon­ing for the Chi­nese New Year holiday. They al­ways served at least twice as much as peo­ple could pos­si­bly eat, and rolled the leftovers into the next meal. Just like at our place.

I can't stand to see food go into the com­post, so at our home I try to eat all the leftovers I can, even when they are a few days old. This has led to pe­ri­ods of gas­tro-in­testi­nal dis­tress.

Af­ter suf­fer­ing a re­cent bout of se­ri­ous food poi­son­ing, I made a de­ci­sion. Cooking less is im­pos­si­ble, I re­al­ized af­ter she re­cently or­dered a set meal for seven when we went out to din­ner with an­other cou­ple.

We are get­ting a re­frig­er­a­tor. It's bet­ter than throw­ing out food. A vic­tory through a thou­sand small cuts on the chop­ping board for my mother-in-law. The first of many, I as­sume.

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