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The State Newscast at 10

by Charles Lowe

 

When she is not scrubbing the kitchen window for the dust and grime clothing the rest of Tianjin, my mother-in-law is at work making me a part of her family. My father-in-law wants no part of her schemes and has stonewalled her every chance he gets. The only hopeful sign thus far has been a statement he once offered from deep inside his recliner—a La-Z-Boy that my wife and I had bought for him from a newly opened mall at the end of Machang Road—that, if his daughter had to marry a foreigner, my father-in-law was glad the Lao Wai wasn’t Japanese.

My mother-in-law is not at all deterred by his opposition. Before her elevator plant was sold off to Otis and she had been forced into retirement, she had grown accustomed to putting into practice surreal Party objectives like "we will produce more and higher quality shafts than any factory in the bourgeoisie west."

"The stronger the attack, the more violent the reaction and such a strategy is doomed to failure" is how she sums up her approach in dealing with her husband. In other words, once he arrives at an opinion, she knows that no amount of discussion will ever cause her husband to reconsider his position. One evening over rice and prune-filled pastries after the state newscast has wound to its conclusion, my mother-in-law suggests an alternative approach.

"When facing an enemy numerically and technologically superior," she says, "you go about replacing the beams with rotten timbers."

My wife explains the basics of her plan: "Your father-in-law is infinitely stubborn and has built from his prejudices a sturdy wooden fortress. It is best, therefore, to become rotten timber." "Which means," I ask impatiently.

"Meaning in practice," my wife pauses, "that you have to sit through the family conversations each evening."

Unfortunately, my familiarity with Chinese amounts to knowing a few words like "gon bei" meaning "down the hatch" and that I should avoid the word "ma" as it can both introduce a question and mean mother or horse depending on the inflexion of my voice.

From my wife’s after hours’ translations, I have learned that these exchanges between my in-laws generally adhere to a pattern. My mother-in-law excitedly informs her husband of a new family gossip.

Her cousin has phoned about trouble with a scheme of hers at the bank. This cousin wonders whether she should continue with her cohorts to smuggle funds out of the country or whether she should lie low a while until the threat of blackmail subsides. My father-in-law testily asserts, "The latter course smells of rightism and capitulationism."

My mother-in-law heatedly answers: "if you cut off the head of one weed, a thousand grow in its place."

My father-in-law purses his lips, "Your analysis is suspect."

My mother-in-law nods her head in agreement but argues, "One must understand this is a difficult period with its own peculiar contradictions."

"Typical," he smirks, "always cloaking Western fatalism with the appearance of primitive objectivism."

My mother-in-law downs the rice wine in her tea cup. My father-in-law utters tersely "gon bei" and throws down his cup of wine, his voice and hers attaining with each toast a higher octave until as if on cue, both he and my mother-in-law turn to await my verdict.

The kitchen becomes silent. I search the room for Li, my wife, but she has already fled the scene, a strategy that later she lovingly explains is in my best interest. If she chooses to stay at the table, her parents may expect her to translate my opinion, and whatever that opinion turns out to be, I can only succeed in alienating one or both. It is better for me to feign ignorance and smile.

"Do not adjust your lips," Li says with emphasis, "bare your teeth somewhat open, but not too open, and wait."

"Until?" I ask quizzically.

"Until one or the other starts talking. Don’t worry, they’ll soon forget about you."

Initially I am skeptical that such a ploy can work, but eventually mother-in-law does tap my knuckles, having surmised that I intuit the commonsensical nature of her position. My father-in-law takes a little bit longer before offering a grunt I interpret evidences his recognition that I understand the historical necessity of his position but have chosen to remain strategically silent.

Of course they may also have arrived at the likely conclusion that their new son-in-law is an idiot. No matter. My mother-in-law breaks into a report on her 80-year old brother. From the little my wife has told me before dropping off to sleep, her uncle is having another affair, this time with a retiree who likes to play cards with him in the park. My father-in-law believes his brother-in-law should respect his marital obligations. But my mother-in-law holds the pragmatic view that, if he had not given into his appetites, her brother’s hunger would only deepen, a course that might well have done nearly fatal damage to his liver.

I smile, first at my mother-in-law then at my father-in-law. He offers back a sour grimace before launching into another heated family discussion. I scan the window that my mother-in-law has scrubbed earlier that afternoon. The apartment buildings in their compound are closely stacked together, each separated by only a few meters.

The closeness of these buildings give the neighbor’s kitchen the appearance of being a part of my in-laws’ apartment except for the grayish cloth that is pinned neatly above the window and the poster of Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, and Mao Zedong surrounded by soldiers knee deep in the snows of Yan’an.

I no longer listen to my in-laws’ conversation. I glance in this neighbor’s direction. He reciprocates in kind, looking as if he has stepped out of that poster on his kitchen wall. He wears a gray army uniform and strolls into his kitchen with a muted self-confidence, careful not to upstage his party leaders.

This neighbor flicks on his gas stove and takes from his refrigerator three leaves which he neatly arranges in rows before slicing off their whitish green ends. A flame rises unevenly from the burner. The steam from his wok clots up his window. He swabs the glass clear.

From the way he circles its edges and from how the edges of his cloth are draped over the wooden pane, I suppose he has invited me to share a bowl of soup. I know this is absurd. It would take months or even years for him to summon up the courage to invite a Lao Wei to his home, and he would never meet with me alone. At best, he has only recently heard of my visit from a stray report from his neighborhood committee, a group of old men who sit beneath the one decaying scholar tree in the middle of the compound.

I inhale the steam from his soup, and the chicken broth burns my lips. I leave my newly adopted family. Now I belong in his company.

This neighbor glances easily at me from his window. He is used to dining with company: his wife perhaps has just passed away. My value as his dining company is that I cannot intrude on his grief. Together we enjoy the bouquet of bok choy bathed in onions and garlic.

After he finishes his soup, he brings his chair next to the kitchen window and holds out a Marlboro. Like many in Tianjin, he regularly passes by the billboard of a cowboy that puffs smoke across the Dagu Bridge. I refuse his offer. He turns away and stares into the smog-filled sky barely visible between the apartment high rises. On a distant rooftop, some laborers are still at work, laying down tar, its aroma mixing with the bok choy in his wok.

At ten pm promptly, the neighbor switches off the lights in his kitchen and adjourns to another room to watch the state-run broadcast of the news. My father-in-law taps me firmly on my shoulder and motions for me to sit in his living room on a couch with a wooden stick that pokes into the knob of my backbone.

The anchor of this news hour has thin eyebrows and lightly tanned skin, his jovial banter reminding me of a Letterman rerun. His report features the President of China, Jiang Zemin, opening a new factory, one of many that have of late sprouted like wild mushrooms in Hubei and Hunan provinces.

My father-in-law adjusts forward his La-Z-Boy and studies the flashing light bulbs illuminating an opening of the latest Jet Li film in Beijing. I try to remain focused on each nuance of the event, the snapping bulbs and the star’s brief acknowledgment of crowds of enthusiastic moviegoers. My father-in-law ignores my effort, obstinately refusing to glance in my direction.

The March of the Volunteer blares on. This anthem celebrates the bravery of the students who went off to fight the Japanese in Manchuria. Large pictographs travel the circumference of the screen followed by footage of the Western-looking pilots strolling across the lobby of a Holiday Inn resort. They have the look of wide-eyed tourists except these pilots are not carrying Nikons and are closely trailed by a company of stern and very young-looking soldiers carrying nicely polished Uzi’s.

My father-in-law nervously adjusts his La-Z-Boy while listening closely to the expert commentary until abruptly he slams the chair completely forward and, for the first time in our three-month relationship, looks me straight in the eyes.

I smile, baring my teeth somewhat but not too much and wait for him again to level his diatribe at the television. Instead, he shouts for my wife who has been wrapping with my mother-in-law the meat, pork, and shrimp dumplings that should sustain a week’s worth of conversations.

"What did you do to him?" Li asks. I shrug my shoulders.

The sound of "Lao Wai" peppers his harangue. My wife looks at me and with a slight grin explains that a U.S. spy plane has run into a P.R.C. jet. The Chinese navy has been scouring the coast and has failed to locate its pilot. The American spy plane has had to crash-land on Hainan, a resort island for the nouveau riche and the party higher ups.

"Your father-in-law wants to know whether you agree with your government that the imperialists have the right to send a spy plane over a Chinese resort island," my wife says.

My father-in-law taps his fingers on the La-Z-Boy, awaiting my response. I glance out the kitchen window and see that the neighbor has let down the thin cloth pinned above the window to his apartment.

My wife repeats her father’s question, "Do you really think that Jiang Zemin would send a Chinese spy plane over Disneyland?"

My wife looks at me, hoping for me to say something. But there is nothing that I can do to restore the balance. There is no going back, any apology I make would be interpreted as weakness; my grin would be seen as hiding shadowy intentions.

I bare my teeth slightly and blurt out that Zemin is scrupulously honest in his affairs and would never consider paying less than the full price of admission. My wife smiles in her father’s direction and, while digging her nails into my wrist, translates my response.

 

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