“Have you thought about buying a refrigerator?” I asked my aunt one day over lunch.
I was living in a smallish rural town in Shandong province, China, called Jiaxiang, conducting fieldwork. “Aunt” in this case was actually the mother of a friend, and she regularly asked me over to their home for lunch. I’d noticed that their family, despite being able to afford it, did not own a refrigerator. In fact, most households in the area didn’t have refrigerators, and it had begun to strike me as a little odd. Granted, this was not a wealthy area, and living standards were well behind those in cities like Beijing or Shanghai. But even so, familiar appliances like televisions and washing machines were common enough. Refrigerators, somehow, apparently hadn’t caught on.
“I thought about it,” Aunt replied. “But then I looked at my sisters, and they don't really use the refrigerators they bought. My oldest sister unplugged hers.”
Refrigerators are not an absolute necessity; most people in history have obviously gotten by without them. Still, the question isn’t really how so many people in Jiaxiang made do without them, but why. Consider this: According to census data, in the United States, the humble, utilitarian refrigerator is found in over 99 percent of households, making it the number-one appliance, more prevalent than cellphones, computers, washing machines, or even televisions. Some households in urban areas might manage without cars or washing machines, essentially outsourcing the functions of those things to public transportation or laundromats, but refrigerators seem to be so obviously convenient that people would be sure to buy them if they were available. Why would Aunt and so many others in Jiaxiang not bother to buy or use them, even if they had the means?