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 Southwest 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 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 mother-in-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.