Monday, October 29, 2007

cramping my style

So what's it like to live with my future mother-in-law in a one bedroom apartment in a small northeastern Chinese city? It's funny you should ask because I'd be more than happy to tell you.

As of September 30th, Ming and I could no longer consider ourselves Beijingers. It was time to leave our home of a year and a half. Our landlord wanted us out and it was time to go anyways. Off we went to Ming's hometown, the place where we first meet, Chengde.

I may have said this before, but I'll say it again. Chengde is very small by Chinese standards. It has a population roughly the same as my fairly large sized hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (population: 700,000), but that's a small town in a country of 1,300,000,000 people (America: just 300,000,000 people). Here, I can't find the everyday luxuaries that I can find in Beijing. No venti Cafe Americanos, no pepperoni pizza, no dental floss. I have to rough it here and I must do so with a smile because my in-laws are never more than 10 feet away from me.

Though things have been challenging this past month, I must point out that life here is not without its advantages. A taxi ride anywhere in the city isn't more than a dollar. The air is cleaner and the streets slightly less crowded than Beijing. But perhaps one of the best perks is that I'm not allowed near any cooking or cleaning supplies. Everything is done for me and mama (as I refer to Ming's mother) appears more than happy to do these things for me. I can understand why. Since being forced to retire (as all Chinese are) last year at the tender age of 52, mama has a lot of time on her hands.

But this kindness has a way of knawing away at the independent American inside of me. I am 24-years-old and capable of making a bed and washing my own clothes. Cooking on the other hand. . .well, I'm not great with a wok. I certainly can't complain about the 5 course meals served to me every lunch and dinner, although I do have something to say about the manner in which they are served. . . .

To the distress of every dietician and anorexic out there, at the Chinese dining table people never believe you've eaten enough. Perhaps this is why one of the first Chinese phrases a foreigner learns is "Chi bao le" ("I'm full.") and also why "How are you?" is often mistranslated into Chinese as "Ni chi le ma?" ("Did you eat?"). Here, the state of your well-being is based on whether or not you recently ate a meal.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Before one can achieve fullness, naturally she must try everything on the table. Right? It is insisted that I try everything-stinky eggs, liver, congealed blood, chunks of pork fat. There are just some things a girl will never find appetizing, but try them I do. The problem then arises, since I have eaten the food it is therefore assumed that I like it and that an additional serving must be heaped on top of my rice. I now have two options: be rude and admit to not liking it or pretend to like it and be subjected to eating it for the rest of my life. I chose the former. Luckily I'm not as picky as I once was. I'll eat my way through seaweed, sprouts, unidentifiable pickled vegetables, donkey, goat, fish heads, and every flavor and texture of tofu. Miraculously, I have not put on any weight.

Once I've navigated my way through an entire meal, feeling all bloated and lethargic, I wish to retire away in a cozy corner of the house. But I can't. This is no house. This is a small one bedroom apartment with a 2x2 foot bathroom. The only privacy I have is when I'm taking a shower (over the squatty potty) and that's only on sunny days. The water is heated by solar power. Unfortunately, it's been pretty gloomy and cold in Chengde these days. You don't want to know how long it's been since I last took a shower.

My Hungarian friend, Katalin, so kindly reminded me that this is, indeed, how most of the world lives. Elbow to elbow with their overbearing relatives, everyday, in cramped apartments. But if this is what my future holds, all I ask is to be able to have a decent bathroom to hideaway in.

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