recently ran the numbers, and I realized I’ll never be able to retire. My best hope? My baby daughter becoming a TikTok dance star and buying me a house. This, in short, is my retirement plan.
So I’ve decided to turn things around and become frugal. I’ve purchased a slow cooker, and I’m experimenting with making turkey legs and beef stews. I’m wearing used clothes and second-hand shoes.
You’d think my wife would applaud this effort. After all, frugality or jian is an ancient Chinese concept at the core of Confucianism and Taoism. The current focus on frugality among government officials is not new. Rulers such as Cao Cao of the Wei Kingdom implemented strict measures to limit extravagant spending and encouraged their subjects to conserve resources.
However, my wife responds to my slow-cooked turkey legs with fast food – KFC, to be exact. Followed by ice cream.
My wife’s family expresses love through food. Or they're just gluttons trying to sugarcoat it – I’m still uncertain. At any rate, at an age when most babies are eating baby cereal, our child is getting five course meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our baby is eating food that I didn’t even know existed until I was in my 20s. Foods like avocado, mango, smoked salmon, eggs with Pecorino Romano grated on top.
As soon as our child was born, my wife stopped cooking for anyone but the baby. A meal might include a piece of gouda, some yogurt, berries, melon, banana, sweet potato and salmon. Meanwhile, mom and dad eat turkey leg. When mom is sneaking out the KFC, I am eating the baby’s leftovers from her bowl, the highchair and the floor.
After the baby was born, my wife not only stopped cooking for us. She ceased doing my laundry and cleaning our room, which has now become my room as she shares her nights with the baby. If we have guests, I do the cooking. She says motherhood is a full-time job. That is certainly true, but having a full-time job is also a full-time job, I reply. She shrugs and puts a slice of ribeye steak in the baby’s mouth.
Our Chinese friends have a baby who is four months younger than our little girl. They recently visited and I presented them with a few boxes of washed, folded clothes our baby had outgrown. They turned red and politely refused, without even opening the boxes.
Apparently, to the Chinese, wearing used clothes is akin to donning someone else’s leftovers. And my wife won’t even eat leftovers, let alone smear them all over her body.
This aversion is partly due to hygiene, has an ineffable connection to ghosts, and has a lot to do with mianzi, or the concept of face. If jian is the white half of the yin-yang Taoist symbol, mianzi is the dark side.
If you’ve lived in China, you know mianzi. It’s time to pay the bill at a restaurant, and a fight erupts over who gets the honor. Amid the chaos, one sly soul slips cash into the waiter’s hand, heralding their triumph and everyone else’s downfall.
Mianzi is the force that makes farmers in rural villages give their daughters new Volkswagens as a wedding gift. It is the force that causes a single bottle of premium Chinese liquor to cost the same as a case of good Scotch or wine.
I’ve often asked my wife what her favorite meals are so I can cook them for her. She tells me, “Oh, everything you cook is good.” This is another example of mianzi – she does not have the heart to say that no matter what I make, she won’t like it.
My wife and mother-in-law are both nervous people. Over the course of a day, they probably fret over scores of questions, from minor things like, “My husband is frowning. I wonder what he is thinking about,” to more existential issues like, “How will I feed myself after retirement?”
I recently expressed to my wife my sympathy for her mother, whose life is dictated by fear and anxiety. I speculated that the reason her mother married her father, and the reason my wife married me, is because we are calm, centered people who help put them at ease.
My wife laughed and said, “The reason my mother and I are so nervous is that our husbands don’t make enough money!”
So much for mianzi. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go dance with my daughter.