When Lanying was eight years old her parents made her cook the rice every day for dinner. She was also sent to get the tofu.
Tofu, like all food in China in the early 1980s, was rationed, so she had to take her bowl and her coupons to the tofu shop, which was some distance from her home, along a lane patrolled by a fierce dog.
She received some guidance from friends on what to do if the dog approached. Whatever you do, they told her, do not run. Instead she was to crouch down low as if picking up a rock. This would make the dog stop.
They didn’t have any advice for what to do if it didn’t stop. I suppose she could either give it some tofu or hit it with the empty bowl. Have you ever seen a dog eat tofu?
Anyway, she told me this after we’d spent the evening watching Shanghai Dreams, a film about life in China for two families who were moved to the countryside from Shanghai in order to strengthen China’s industrial base in the time of Chairman Mao. This was a political initiative known as the Third Front and it evoked in Lanying many memories of her childhood. Lanying herself was not moved to the countryside because her parents were army doctors and were treated differently but many of the domestic details were the same.
It was a very touching film but one detail touched me more than any other. Everyone in the family put on elasticated cotton sleeves when they were doing housework – mother, father, son and daughter. Lanying has a pair of these cotton sleeves which she keeps in a drawer in our kitchen. Her mother made them for her because she can’t get them here. She has got out of the habit of wearing them but when I first knew her she used to wear them all the time.
It is not often that we watch a serious film at home. Normally Lanying won’t watch serious programmes. She only wants to watch comedies and lightweight entertainment.
It’s not that she is shallow. She knows more about international politics than anyone I know and she recently scored higher than all my brainy colleagues in the BBC’s English vocabulary test. But when you’ve risked your life for tofu, you don’t want a diet of stodgy drama and bloated bulletins.
Next time she cooks me tofu I will try to be more appreciative. I must admit, it’s not something for which I would normally go the extra mile.