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New Family


Lucy Zhang

It’s the napa cabbage apocalypse. You see them everywhere: sunbathing on the street, flush against the pavement, being rolled around in carts, dangling off balconies. Napa cabbages and green onions are dirt cheap this year. Most folks in Zhuanghe—in northern China, where my father-in-law grew up—work in agriculture. This is a town of elders, where the apartment buildings have slowly emptied out as younger generations have fled to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. My husband’s nainai has lived here since her son, my father-in-law, was a child. My father-in-law goes on and on about how cheap food is here: “You can’t get this in the United States for such a price, can you?” We nod along because it is true, we can’t, although food prices alone won’t compel us to move to China anytime soon. 

Napa cabbage keeps well. It was the perfect winter vegetable for a time when homes lacked fridges, when all our grandparents ate was the classic suan cai stew containing shredded sour cabbage and tiny slices of pork belly studded with pig’s blood. Today my own nainai owns a fridge; the vegetables we consume are served fresh from the wok, greased and salted and spiced the way proper Dongbei cuisine should be. 

This winter, I’ve seen napa cabbage fall to $0.33 per pound at my local 99 Ranch Market. I suppose napa cabbage’s ability to stay fresh extends across continents. “See? Vegetables can be cheap,” I’d like to tell my father-in-law. He marvels that chicken and eggs can be cheaper than vegetables at Shoprite, an anomaly you’d never have seen in his childhood, when he and his hungry siblings jabbed chopsticks like spears at slivers of pig’s ears, fighting for the fattest pieces.



Lucy Zhang

My mother-in-law’s hometown, Shenyang, is just north of Zhuanghe. Tall, brightly lit stores border Zhongjie, a pedestrian zone where young people hold their smartphones up to take pictures of flashing billboards and shop signs. In its narrower corners, off the main road, you’ll find stalls of street food manned by deft salespeople doubling as cooks. 

Cash is useless here. They only accept payment through WeChat. Scan a QR code, collect what’s due. Even street-food stalls provide Wi-Fi, which is especially useful for phones with subpar international SIM cards that require an eternity to load the WeChat app. For vendors and customers alike, it’s a crazy-easy way to do business, so long as your phone has a battery life that can withstand WeChat’s heavy lifting. Still, twenty-five yuan for a lamb skewer is a good deal, relatively speaking—enough meat to leave you full rather than hungry for more. 

We are here in Zhongjie with my mother-in-law so she can get gold ingots made into bracelet cuffs for me as a newlywed present. As lunch rolls around, she opts out of a street food visit with us, choosing instead to oversee the young craftsman melt and weld the gold. You never know if someone might mix the gold with indistinguishable impurities. No bathroom or meal breaks, not until the four gold bands are complete. She spends more than four hours staring through the clear, plastic window.

Meanwhile, my husband and I stroll the streets, trying skewers of wheat gluten that bounce in my mouth like rubber, and cups of black tripe doused in sesame sauce and hot oil. Fortunately, only my feet and ankles bloat from sodium. When we return to the jeweler, the bracelets fit as intended: dangling low enough on my wrist so even with a long-sleeved jacket, you’ll catch the scintillating reflection, and tight enough you’d either have to bruise three fingers or chop my hand off entirely to pry the bangle free. 



Lucy Zhang

I spend a long time trying to find the chickens on Nainai’s farm. Even the lone cat prowling under the sun is louder than they are. It mews and hisses and, when Nainai approaches, pads behind her, hoping for food. I have nothing to offer it; the dog already devoured the stale, leftover mantou we’d brought from a grave offering. 

Except for my husband’s nainai, his entire side of the family consists of men, each as heavy a smoker as the next, not a single wife or daughter between them—at least none that join the family reunion. They line up in front of the farmland to capture photo after photo with my husband, the success story who catapulted across the world and married me, the non-smoking American-born Chinese. My father-in-law claims that passing down his smarts to my husband and preserving his genetic pool are some of his greatest achievements. Yet it was my mother-in-law who carried most of the financial burden, paying for my husband’s schooling in Beijing and university in the States. He is the precious only child who lives with me in California, where we don’t need to walk over vines and variants of squash and broken corn stalks to find somewhere private to squat and pee. Sometimes we wonder what will happen when my in-laws grow old, how we’ll care for them the way Nainai is cared for by her sons just a car ride away. 

I can’t understand Nainai’s northern accent, so my mother-in-law and I stand by and watch the photo shoot, eyeing the cat that scampers away every time I approach and the dog who growls and yelps at the end of its leash. The pets prefer their rightful family owners. Mother-in-law and I married into this group of northern Chinese men, the two of us born without blood capable of absorbing the fiery punch of a shot of baijiu. 

“They really do all have the same eyebrows,” I say to her as the men take turns with the camera. Stubby, fat, almost triangular eyebrows like someone took a blunted crayon and smeared its wax onto their foreheads. My mother-in-law laughs. “My son’s eyebrows aren’t like that.” She’s right: His probably came from her.

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Published: June 6, 2024