**Spoiler: not the positive article I intended to write, but as Sara of Living the Dream in China wrote, behind every couple, there’s a crazy Chinese mother-in-law**
The background I come from is a family of four sitting round the table, each eating dinner from their plate whilst we make some light conversation about what we’d done that day. Comments about the food would probably happen at the beginning of the meal: “Ooh, this looks very nice”, “smells wonderful” or “gosh, I’m starving”. At the end of the meal comments may be made such as: “that was great, thank you” or “shall we have a cup of tea?” We children, on seeing some new vegetable, may have asked: “what’s this, Dad?” Comments about food were quite limited, most of the conversation was on day-to-day life and the emphasis was on sitting together as a family.
Now anyone who knows anything about another culture knows that food is often central to learning about that culture’s ways. And anyone who knows anything about Chinese culture knows how big a role food plays in their culture. One of my favourite blogs Speaking of China featured an interview with Carolyn J Phillips, who said:
Food is such an integral part of Chinese culture that it’s really hard to fit into a Chinese family if one isn’t adept at the cuisine. I suppose this is true to some extent with any country, but the Chinese are probably on par with the French and Italians when it comes to the importance of dining well.
That sums it up very well.
I’ve always loved Chinese food, however these days I find myself eating my three meals a day in a very different way than I once did.
Rather than having their own unique characteristics which accompanying their unique roles in our day – carb-loaded quick breakfast, convenient and smaller lunch, warm and larger dinner – breakfast, lunch and dinner in our house are all pretty much the same. Same quantity, same types of food, same routine.
My mother-in-law, who has recently retired (again) and decided to move in with us for the sole purpose of taking on all housework, prepares the food, shouts 吃饭 and the rest of us sit down to eat. She usually continues to bring bits and pieces from the kitchen and pops in and out of the kitchen during the meal, and taking 5-10 minutes to shovel some leftovers from a previous meal she has deemed too old for her son to eat, or finishing off whatever we didn’t eat much of. The rest of the time she will spend time encouraging to eat more or this, more of that, saying what the food is, perhaps how much the food cost per 斤 and telling us to eat more again. Other conversation is kept to a minimum, it seems this is so we can concentrate on what we’re eating. When we finish eating, we can get up and go. No clearing up together with some more chatter. No tea.
My husband’s family don’t eat out all that often, so I was interested to see how a meal outside would go, when we recently took a trip to Yangshuo. I suspected my mother-in-law would struggle to sit down and enjoy the food with the rest of us, taking time to enjoy the meal, and I was right. Ordering was a lengthy process, with many questions of the waitress about whether the ingredients were fresh, and making sure we ordered the best. After ordering, she went to watch our fish be weighed in the kitchen. Throughout the meal, she kept encouraging us to eat this, that and the other, and offering to order us more food, and making sure everything was finished. Not the relaxing meal I had hoped.
There is a huge emphasis not to waste. I know this comes from my parents-in-law’s growing up in a generation of relative poverty, and with many many more mouths to feed. But I find quite a contradiction between the excess of food that is put on the table, with many different dishes to choose from, inevitably providing lots of leftovers, and making sure nothing is wasted. My mother-in-law has obviously got this all perfected, but when I see her fishing out a broccoli I bought 2 weeks ago and refusing to let me throw it out, still serving the same chicken dish from 8 days ago which hasn’t been frozen in that time, or leaving leftovers overnight without refrigerating, I feel it’s gone further than I feel comfortable with.
My personal peeve with our set up is that without being able to see how much is on my plate, it’s hard to gauge how much I’m really eating, and it’s quite often that I’ll stand up from the table and suddenly feel stuffed and realise I’ve overdone it. My husband would say that’s greed, but having always had a single plateful of food served, it’s an adjustment I am still working on.
After 5 months here, I’m also starting to miss having a nice (cool) sandwich at lunchtime, or a simple bowl of soup for dinner, perhaps with a dessert after. Choosing what I feel like eating is not currently an option, and neither is skipping a meal in favour of a larger one later.
It might be time to work on a more positive attitude, or ask mother-in-law to move home…