New Years Dinner with the In-Laws


This is the New Year‘s Holiday… and as like Christmas the Chinese folks get their families together for a dinner.  Usually for the past years, Michael  went to the family dinner alone, due to the fact that I visited the states or friends invited me to spend the holiday with them.  This year the “Family”  wanted me to attend the dinner.

Another one of the reasons I usually don’t go is because Michael’s family lives in a small village.   The house they have has no heat, no running water and no indoor bathroom.   It is a very old and very poor home and Michael feels that I would be more comfortable in our home.   His parents usually came to our home and cook for us or clean, etc.   But this year I was going there to show them I could get down in the countryside and I was not a western snob.

I made sure to wear 3 layers of clothes my gloves and my winter coat and boots.  I did not want to complain about being cold in any way.  I made sure and went to the bathroom before we left and I tried not to drink any liquids.   I was ready with my Chanel purse in hand and Iphone in my pocket…. at least I thought.

When we got there … it was freezing outside… so I rushed inside their modest home where it was even more cold and sat down in a wooden chair as they suggested.   The home only had the basics…. table, chairs, one TV… the frig we bought them and a bench.   You could tell by the worn walls and floor that the home had been there for years maybe centuries.   The front door was a double door that opened into a private court-yard… where Michael’s mother was outside plucking a duck in hot water.  Behind the back door was a well where they had a bucket to get their water.   It has to be boiled to be drinkable and if they wanted to bathe there was no bathtub or shower so they needed to fill buckets to wash.  Talk about roughing it.

I sat quietly as his parents raced around pouring me hot water, and getting me fruit that was so cold it was frozen.   After sitting there awhile, I couldn’t stand the cold and I really couldn’t understand how they could live in such a cold place.   I asked Michael to take me out to buy a floor heater since I was going to be here for a while. I figured it would help me and them later to have one.   While we searched for a place that was still open to buy the heater, I turned the heat in the car on full blast.. and made Michael stop at a gas station so I could use the facilities.  All that hot water I was drinking to keep warm was running thru me.

I really do not think people in the states realize what poor is until they have seen how some people live in China.   It makes you really thankful for the things you have.    I was poor growing up.. at least  I thought I was until I saw the people in this village.   I have never seen anyone in my life be as poor as some of the people in China.  To live in cement houses with no insulation, just bar walls and floors.  It was like living in a cave.  I asked Michael why his parents did not have a fireplace.  I figured at least a fireplace would keep them warm and they could even cook something.   He laughed like that was the craziest thing he ever heard… people don’t use those that is old fashioned.   I was confused they would rather freeze than use a fireplace?  unbelieveable.

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After returning from purchasing the heater, the family proceeded to set up an altar to honor the ancestors.  They cooked food and placed it on a table with candles and bowed before it, burning paper money for them to use in the afterlife.  After they each bowed on their knees on that cold floor with the door open,  they took the food and placed it on the dinner table for us to eat.   While the food was being brought out they wheeled out Michael’s grandmother.  Although she was 80 years old, she looked to be like 150 years old to me.  This was the first time I was seeing his grandmother and her seeing me.    I stood up as they wheeled her in as a kind of respect.  She looked at me and point at the chair and told me to sit down in the Chinese I could understand.   I guess that was her way of acceptance because after that she paid no more attention to me.  She just sat in her chair and smoked cigarettes until it was time for dinner.  I could not help but stare a little at the woman because she just seemed so out-of-place.   Like she was from another time, which I guess she kind of was.  Mind you I have always liked old people they have so much history to tell and knowledge.  But this woman just seemed to be out of the time where people just invented the wheel, she seemed so old.

I watched Michael’s mother in the kitchen for a while finishing up the food.  Homemade dumplings, vegetables, spring rolls, beef, fish, and a mushroom dish were the things I could recognize.  The others I could not tell you for sure.

The conversation around the table was all in local dialect, which I cannot understand so I just ate quietly and said a few things when Michael translated the small things that were directed at me.  I did understand the grandmother asking if I was Michael’s wife they all said yes and then she just said “oh” in an no important kind of way and continued eating.  Five hours past by in the time I was at the in-laws, it was the longest and coldest five hours I have ever had.  No disrespect to Michael’s family be I was very happy when he said we had to leave. I was ready to get back to civilization.

On the drive back home, we saw people shooting fireworks all over the place I even got a photo of some of them.  I now see why families go back to their old village home during this time every year.  It reminds them of how things use to be and how they need to keep working hard to obtain things so they do not go back to that way of life.  Lessons taught to their children, who have never had to live that way.   All in all, except for the freezing part, the time was okay… however I was happy that the next few days Michael and were going on a trip to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province to see some friends and I was even more happy to get home and turn on the heat.

Until next time…..

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21 thoughts on “New Years Dinner with the In-Laws

  1. My boyfriend still hasn’t taken me to his home town with the reason that it is very, very small and not very nice. His folks have come here and stayed with us quite a bit. I wonder now, after reading this, what I would find? I’m sure I’ll go eventually but it does make me curious.

  2. I never knew how lucky I was to be raised in the US until hubby and I moved to Hong Kong. Most of the apartments we looked at did not have indoor heat despite their status as a luxury building, ie swimming pools, club house, and gym. I stuck to my guns and insisted on indoor heat. And guess what? It was still cold enough this winter that hubby and I bought a space heater for our unheated bathroom to use while we take a shower!

  3. Keith

    I stumbled upon your blog by accident and well, you cracked me up. A 150-year-old grandma-in-law! I understand your feelings when you first saw her. I also read that she’s ill now. I wish all the best for you, Michael, and your in-laws.
    I live in Hong Kong, a relatively wealthy place, but I can see the Gan’s house is not the worst by rural Chinese standards. At least they managed to send their son to the city and he can now speak fluent English, and even got a foreign wife. That’s an astonishing achievement! 🙂

  4. Jack

    DUDE! This is normal! NORMAL! My grandparents are the same! They had this out house which is basically a mud house with three squat toilets, and while they had running hot water, it was not hot enough so they have a wood burning heater that would heat up the water when you shower …. (they only install that later! when I was a kid visiting them 20 odd years ago, it was heating up the water in a large wood-fire stove and carry that water into the bathroom…)

    About being cold… BUWHAHAHAHAAH! That’s a Chinese trait! I can tell you that. Even living in relative modernity in New Zealand, my parents would forbid me from turning on heaters! (“Wear more clothes!”)
    And worst of all, they insist on opening all the windows for “better air circulation” even in winter! All in the name of saving a few bucks! And we were NOT POOR! (just penny pinching!) Its a reason why Chinese taxi drivers would not turn on the heater even in winter!

    1. @Jack…. I hear ya on that cold thing… i bitch all the time at school because the damn windows are wide open and it is freezing outside. When My inlaws come over to the house.. they are always opening up the windows… what the hell? I told them I was cold at school and they said… it is good for your health… I said.. not if I catch pneumonia….

  5. Trina

    You may laugh, Jo, but if you had changed the place names I swear this could have been a description of me visiting my mom’s godmother for the first time in rural North Carolina in the early 70’s! We were there in the summer, so being cold was not our problem. Just the opposite! It was hot enough to fry an egg on the tin roof of her little house. There was no indoor bathroom the first year we were down there. We poured water in a basin to wash ourselves and used a “chamber pot” at night that had to be emptied behind the chicken coop every morning before breakfast. There was an outhouse past the hogs, but… no, I just couldn’t. The house was made of wood, and there was a knothole just behind the couch. On the other side of that wall, a huge spider had spun a web between the house and a flowering bush. Each night when it got a little chillier, that spider would come into the living room through the knothole to keep warm. Did I mention the picture of mom’s godmother’s father – laid out in his casket – hanging above the TV?

    I hope your in-laws enjoy the heater you bought them, and I would give almost anything to hear what granny had to say once you were gone… 🙂

  6. Pingback: ♦ East Asia Blog Round-Up : 29/1/2012 « Eye on East Asia

  7. Terri

    Hey Jo! Great blog post. I went last year with my best friend to her family’s home in Chenzhou. It was pretty similar to what you describe. Honestly, I had a hard time getting used to it at first (we stayed for about ten days), but having kids there really seemed to help! I really loved playing with her little nephews. We traveled all around, and her family was really welcoming.

  8. xl

    Your husband’s parent’s home looks just like the house my grandparents used to live in, near Shangyu. The thing I remember most was the bathroom situation. There was no indoor toilet; we had to go to an outhouse about 20ft away from the house, in the corner of the courtyard. It had a mud floor and a hole that you crouch over (I guess the hole connected to an unseen septic tank…) Even though I had used that sort of bathroom before when I was a little kid, I had forgotten all about it after living in the US. So when I went back to visit them for the first time, it was like, “oh crap, not this again….”

    1. @xl… exactly… I just had Michael drive me to a gas station.. and went there. Thank goodness.. they were not offended they figured I am a foreigner… so it is normal for me. They still have the holes… everywhere though

  9. Lovely post Jo. It was very humbling. When you become part of that wealthy 10%, I know you will help his family live in a better place with conveniences of a home with basic utilities. They will be thankful for that.

    1. I try my best to help them out when I can…. but I think the fact that I married their son… and he is happy, healthy and well taken care of .. is enough for them. They are nice people… and they do what they can.. but cooking for us when they come over and cleaning to help us out. They get a little demanding sometimes.. due to the fact they are soo traditional… and depend a lot on Michael… but I think we can try to get them to work out a balance to give us some alone time. I hope….

  10. Growing up in Jamaica, I had some relatives who were as hard-scrabble poor as this, and I even lived with them for a time. It’s not a pretty life. Here in Holland…I don’t think they know what poverty really is because the government is always there to bail people out.

    1. I hate to say it .. but I really didnt know what poor was either .. until I saw them. My husband even told me… please know that my family is poor… and dont judge them or make an ugly face. I said.. I would never do that. But he was very afraid to take me home… not because of his family but because they where poor. However, they are more accepting of me… than some of the wealthy Chinese here. Makes me wonder.. because in that little village… few people stare at me…. but in the city… most do… that tells you something.

  11. I love reading your stories…would you say for the most part the chinese upper and middle class is very small and most people live the way your in laws live? Has china’s economic prosperity passed down to the regular people? I hate to use the word peasants.

    1. In China… money doesnt pass down. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. The only way to get out of poverty is to marry rich, or study really, really hard… to get a high paying job. Otherwise, things stay the same. about 70% of all Chinese are poor like my in-laws, 20% middle Class and 10% very rich. That is why most poor children leave their families to go to the cities to try to make money to send home. Or if they have a very pretty daughter they try to get her to marry a rich Man or even become his mistress… that way she can get money to send them. In China there is always the fear of becoming poor again… so they save like crazy, and push their kids to study hard, and girl require house, car and money to marry. It makes you understand a little their need to always want more and more money. It also helps you understand… why marriage isnt for love it is for convenince.. no one wants to be poor. They cant depend on the government to help with anything… no welfare, no health care, no social security…. that is why kids are required to take care of their parents. People in america complaining about too much government help and end of welfare programs… need to live in China where these people have nothing…..

      1. strolling

        “I now see why families go back to their old village home during this time every year. It reminds them of how things use to be and how they need to keep working hard to obtain things so they do not go back to that way of life. Lessons taught to their children, who have never had to live that way.” Such a great observation, an eye opener for the generation that have had way “easier”. You refreshed my memory of what my parents had to go through (cultural revolution etc, etc), makes me look like a little wimp! Keep up your blog with great post!

      2. “People in america complaining about too much government help and end of welfare programs… need to live in China where these people have nothing…..”

        Amen to this!! People talk all that talk, but if the recession had taught us anything, it’s that you never know what could happen to you . . . there are people here who probably were the biggest opponents of welfare/food stamps etc, now they find themselves in need of this type of help. But I digress. . . Thank you for this informative post!

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