Archive for the ‘Domestic Chores’ Category

Gao Yuanyuan in Shanghai Dreams

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.


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IroningManeditThe first thing Matthias noticed after he recovered from the ascent of the stairs was our TV digibox. He started asking questions about it. I suspected nothing, thinking that this was just standard geek talk. Matthias gets really excited about technology.

Then on Saturday Lanying called me. They had been to see “We Will Rock You” and now they were doing a bit of shopping. “He’s buying two slingboxes,” Lanying explained.

Luckily I was at my computer so I wasn’t completely nonplussed. I did a bit of googling and managed to decode Matthias’s next business plan.

So the idea is this. He attaches a mysterious black box to our digibox and runs a 15 metre cable from it to our wireless router (which took him less than 10 minutes to install, by the way – thumbs up for that!) He then types a special code and watches TV on his laptop. Or his phone. In Thailand. A service he then markets to ex-pats in Thailand who are missing British TV.

I wasn’t keen on this idea but Matthias is very adaptable. He was already working on Plan B. “I am going to make some photos of the social housing here and show it to my wife. She will be very excited when she sees the quality of the housing. Then I will bring her here and abandon her. Her children will learn perfect English. Perfect English. Oh yes! Maybe they will start her off in just a two bedroom apartment but after a while maybe something bigger. Yes, I am liking this idea very much.”

Meanwhile he would be renting out her house in Thailand.

He even had a business plan for me. He’s an irrepressible entrepreneur. “Did you iron these yourself?” he asked, admiring the crisp shirts hanging up on my bedroom door.


“Oh, the creases are very sharp. Very good, very good. They are just like if they are coming back from the laundry service.”

“It takes years of practice,” I told him. “My colleagues would kill to be able to iron like that.”

“Well, there is your insurance for the credit crunch,” he said. “If you lose your job at the bank you can offer a laundry service.”

I resisted the obvious quips about laundering his dirty money. These days people who work in banks can no longer take the moral high ground.

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essential thorThey charge for rubbish by the yard. I was told I can get rid of 6 yards for £190 or 8 yards for £250.

In the end the men charged me £190 “because of the weight,” whatever that meant.

“This is a very heavy load,” they kept saying. “A very heavy load.”

I certainly feel easier in my mind now it’s gone.

There were two men. The one who drove the lorry was in charge. The other one was his younger brother. The young one was huge but flabby and did all the grunt work moving things up to the lorry. The older one was more muscular and smashed things to pieces before packing them flat. He was very impressed by my cupboards.

“These were built to last, weren’t they?” he said. He was swinging a mallet at the first one while his younger brother looked on attentively. “I’ve smashed up a lot of things,” he said. “But nothing as good as this.”

“My brother-in-law made it,” I said. The brother-in-law of my ex-wife I probably should have said. The two cupboards were the ends of a huge construction that originally held my daughter’s bed suspended four feet off the floor.

“He must have been trying to impress you,” the man said.

“He’s a woodworker,” I explained. That’s an upmarket carpenter. “They weren’t cheap.”

Eventually he broke the joints and knocked it flat. The younger one tried to smash up the second cupboard but he didn’t have his brother’s finesse. It takes more than brute force to flatten a well made piece of furniture. The more experienced brother showed him how.

After that he had to have a bit of a breather. He ripped open one of my rubbish bags. “What kind of books are these?”

“Literary stuff.”

“Oh!” He lost interest immediately. If he’d persisted he might have found my big book of the mighty Thor. But like Thor, he didn’t need much rest. He was back swinging his hammer at my chest of drawers.

When everything was all smashed up and loaded onto the lorry he shook my hand.

“Pass on my compliments to your brother-in-law,” he said. “Those cupboards were certainly something.”

“I will.”

His eyes still glowed with admiration. It was a poignant moment for all of us as we each paid our respects in our own way to something that was now gone forever.

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Since I was writing all weekend I didn’t have time to get rid of our old washing machine.

“You’re a caveman,” Lanying told me.

I think a caveman would probably be a little bit more practical. He would probably be able to drag the washing machine away and hurl it into an abyss.

“Because I don’t nag you, you do nothing,” she continued. “You take advantage of me.”

I have to admit that the old washing machine has been in the kitchen for a few weeks. You’d have thought the people who brought the new one would have taken it away, wouldn’t you? I did ask them but they refused. I’m not very good with tradesmen. They always get the better of me.

I tried to get rid of half my books a few weeks ago. I put all the ones I wanted to keep on the floor and put all the ones I was prepared to part with in our biggest bookcase in the front room. I thought that way a prospective buyer would be able to see all the titles easily and give me a fair price. There are six first editions there, worth at least £100 each on ebay.

“I’ll take the lot away for £50,” my buyer told me.

“Fifty pounds! I’d rather donate them to a worthy cause.”

But they’re still there. And the books I want to keep are still on the floor.

“You’re a caveman!” Lanying repeated.

Do cavemen read?

“You’ve got to do something before next weekend,” she told me.

The reason next weekend is so important is that her ex-husband is coming to stay. She’s written to the neighbours to plead with them to stop arguing after midnight. She’s booked tickets for “We Will Rock You” for the two of them at the Dominion Theatre. Now she’s on a quest to make the house habitable.

“Most husbands wouldn’t want their wife’s ex in the house,” I suggested.

“Don’t be so uptight. You know he and I are still good friends.”

Can a caveman be uptight?

For a caveman I thought I was pretty relaxed. I was standing behind her chair in her cramped little study and, although her ponytail was arched towards me provocatively, I was not in the least tempted to grab her by it and drag her downstairs.

“I’ll ring up some rubbish clearance people on Monday,” I said.

I suppose I’d better hoover everywhere too. I can’t expect Lanying to do it. She has a weak spine. Even a caveman wouldn’t expect that.

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