To view a slide show featuring images of the author's Mid-Autumn Festival meal, click here.
Yipo stormed through the front door as she always does. Her sturdy hands gripped two bulging bags of produce, and she panted from the weight of the food. She smiled and squinted, examining us from head to foot. Then she shouted, as if we were standing on opposite sides of a busy Shanghai street:
"You've gotten fat!"
"Really, you've gotten really fat!" she repeated, in her throaty dialect.
Coming from Yipo--my wife's great aunt--this is a compliment. In the past, we both have been sternly reprimanded for our thinness. When we used to live in Shanghai, our freezer overflowed with her food. She always delivered it, unannounced and far too early, on weekends. Yipo refuses to own a phone.
This year marks the second Mid-Autumn festival that these sisters have celebrated together since 1948. Last year was the first.
Last week I was in Shanghai, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. This year the Mid-Autumn Festival, which celebrates the autumn equinox and the harvest, happened to fall on the same weekend. So, strangely, the political and the traditional came together.
We had come to China to visit my grandmother-in-law, whom I'll refer to as Waipo (why-poh), which means "mother's mother". She is 83 and recently returned to China to live out the rest of her life. After decades in Taiwan and Houston she wanted to be surrounded by family like Yipo, the one who just barged in to her apartment and called us fat.
Waipo and Yipo were born into a landowning family, and were raised by their father's second wife (he had two). They lived in Qingpu, a rural town that is now enmeshed in Shanghai's suburban sprawl. This year marks the second Mid-Autumn festival that these sisters have celebrated together since 1948. Last year was the first.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
In 1948, the Guomindang (KMT) forces began to lose their shaky grip on Shanghai. The Communists were gaining strength, and China was tearing itself in two. One night Waipo, her husband, and their 9-month-old son boarded a ship that sailed to Taiwan, because he was working in the KMT News Service. But her little sister, who was then only 9, remained with her parents in Shanghai. Today, they have different accents, different clothes, and different ways of stewing a duck.
"Yipo thinks she is a better cook than me, because she stayed here with my mother, who was very famous for her cooking," said Waipo, as her younger sister whirled round the small kitchen, scrubbing the muck off of hairy crabs and giving orders. Waipo rolled her eyes conspiratorially and whispered to me. "She thinks she's the boss!"
Yipo, who is very superstitious, would not let me take her photo. She also wouldn't eat with us. She almost never eats with her returned family, preferring to lug food to Shanghai, spend hours preparing it, and then head home.
On that clear day, after a methodical afternoon spent stuffing dumplings and picking the meat from a dozen small crabs, Yipo left abruptly. She said she had to make the free seniors' bus back to Qingpu, where she lives in a state-subsidized apartment. We all knew she would say that.
Later that afternoon, the television was turned to the triumphant parade in Beijing, which would play on China Central Television throughout the week. The full autumn moon was already starting rise over the skyline, and firecrackers snapped on the street. It felt like a holiday.
Waipo was busy cooking crabmeat tofu, stir-fried vegetables, braised fish, and steamed rice in the kitchen. Her apartment smelled of Shaoxing wine and soy sauce and freshwater fish, just like Shanghai apartments should.
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