How (not) to win over your partner’s parents

I visited the small country town where Darcy grew up over Christmas.

To be clear, calling Moonambel a ‘town’ is incredibly generous. There’s only 167 residents (according to the 2016 census) – it’s no wonder not a single colleague or friend could place it on a map when I shared my holiday plans!

Of course, this did not dampen my excitement for this ‘suburban girl goes country’ adventure. Not only would it be the furthest I’d have travelled since the pandemic, this was the perfect opportunity for me to meet and (obviously) win over Darcy’s parents.

What do I mean by “suburban girl” anyway?

Growing up in Auckland, New Zealand, I spent my formative years within a 30 minute walking radius from the suburbia starter kit: gorgeous beach, shopping centre and local public school.

All my basic needs and more were fulfilled in that bubble.

I’ve always assumed most kids lucky enough to live in this part of the world (with a few key caveats) would have had a similar experience. I had no idea how unrelatable my upbringing was to Darcy and vice versa until we began sharing childhood stories with each other.

What do you mean Linda had to gather firewood and heat up water for you to have a hot shower? Are your fond childhood memories really throwing piles of bricks at the wall and sticking your leg into the river as leech bait? Did you and your best friend spend an entire weekend cycling back and forth (thrice) through the mountains because a girl he had a crush on lived in the town on the other side?

How strange, how fun, how exciting!

As soon as I arrived in Moonambel, I begin experiencing the ‘foreignness’ of it all for myself.

First stop was the winery Linda works at.

All is normal as we wait patiently for her to close up shop… except for the delicious smell of turkey wafting through the building on Christmas Eve. Understandably out of place, particularly after everyone else has gone home.

Why could we smell a turkey being roasted in a winery out of hours, you might be wondering?

Well with no oven in her house and having built up excellent rapport with the chef, it made perfect sense to Linda to call on a few favours for our visit.

A few hours later, with delicious turkey in belly and mission top of mind (to make Linda love me more than she loves her son), I offer to do the dishes to show my gratitude for the feast she made.

I could tell Linda was a bit uncomfortable with the idea at first but I insisted and she relented. She ends up hovering over my shoulder the entire time as I scrubbed turkey stuffing off one plate after another. I didn’t think much of it, chalking it up to the almost obligatory polite dance around guests helping out with the clean up or perhaps she was quite particular and she wanted to make sure I was cleaning the plates up to her standard but too nice to say so? I make sure to take extra care to ensure every dish is spotless.

In my mind, I did a decent job. Linda didn’t really say anything to the contrary either except a gentle reminder for me to turn off the running water when I wasn’t actively rinsing a plate, fair enough.

After she goes to bed, Darcy and I debrief and perhaps we were both being paranoid, but just in case we were committing a heinous faux pas without realising through our insistence of doing the dishes, we decide to take a step back and gather some intel the next day.

As we polish off exorbitant amounts of leftovers on the evening of day two, our eyes meet across the table. A subtle nod and our plan is set to motion.

Soon, with drying towel in hand, I am taking mental notes of Linda’s every move as she begins the clean up process.

Immediately, I notice that she opts for an entirely different method of dishwashing than I do.

She fills the sink with warm soapy water like a ‘bath’ for the cutlery and plates. After the items are cleaned, they are removed from the soap-sudded and scrap-filled water and are immediately air or towel dried.

Whilst not exactly a revolutionary way of doing dishes, particularly for my Caucasian friends, I remember discovering this style of cleaning when I was 11 years old.

At the end of our first soft-tech (cooking) class in school, all the teams are cleaning up their workstations. What would have otherwise been an uneventful day is turned on it’s head when I scan the room to compare our progress and freeze in horror at what I was seeing.

“How can they not rinse the soap off the dishes? There’s bits of food in the water they just pulled that out of…why does the teacher not care? This is so gross!” I whisper to my fellow Asian-New Zealander friend.

“I know, I don’t get it either, but just do it like we’re told.” She replies, clearly embarrassed by how uncool I was acting.

As dramatic as it sounds, it felt like a key tenet of my upbringing, identity and world view was being challenged in that moment and I have never backed away from an opportunity to explain the ‘superior’ dishwashing method since to anyone I happened to share a sink with.

At this point, I should probably explain how I do the dishes. You may read my description and think “duh”, much like what I expected of my classmates and teacher on that fateful day 12 years ago. In the time since, I’ve learnt many life lessons including to never assume anything about anyone – not their experiences and definitely not the way they go about doing their chores.

Maggy’s guide to dishwashing

  1. Fill a bowl with warm soapy water, this is your “main bowl”
  2. Take dish sponge, and clean all your plates/pots/cultery, dipping into the main bowl for more soapy water as needed
  3. Run everything under running water to wash off soap and air dry

In my mind, step three does not add much more time to the dishwashing process and is critical to completion.

But in in Moonambel, as I watch Linda do dishes in this ‘wrong way’ that I never really fully understood, I realise it’s not because she’s trying to save time or that she is lazy, far from it.

She’s saving water.

That’s when the shame starts to creep in, deep in my gut, at a privilege I haven’t examined before as all the pieces come together.

I think back to her watching me take my time under the running water yesterday to ensure the dishes were absolutely spotless and cringe.

How in the tour of the property, Linda and her husband Ron showed me the rainwater tank and well in the backyard and all I was thinking about was how “cool” and “country” that was. How they were halfway through building an underground bushfire shelter that they might actually need to use it in the near future.

Linda likes to keep a bucket under the tap to catch any drips of water through the day for her vegetable patch. I thought it was a frugal quirk but it all makes sense now.

Earlier in the day, Ron mentioned that water was like ‘liquid gold’ in the town.

And I feel like a total idiot.

How much gold did I pour down the drain and what grace and restraint did Darcy’s family have to not point this out to me?

I have always considered myself as someone who tries to consume consciously and live ethically and as part of that, I do have a broad understanding of the scarcity of water in a global context but I have never thought about it as a serious issue at home.

Sure I read the news about worried farmers over the drought but it seemed so far away from my every day. Even as it confronted me, as I lived through the black summer of 2020, breathing in the smoke that became city air, felt it cling to my clothes and hair for days, now that the skies are blue and my wardrobe is back to smelling faintly of the sun, that has faded to a distant memory.

I’ve definitely tried to reduce my shower times like a good, green citizen a few times before but usually straight after I see a targeted ad or campaign about it before I slowly revert to my 30 min+ routine of zoning out or contemplating life during my evening ‘quick shower’.

I didn’t say anything to Linda that day. I’ve found in moments like these, there often isn’t much to say, and so much to do. I didn’t wake up the next day as a brand new person either but I found myself turning off the tap between splashing my face with water and applying cleanser.

Now, after I lather my hands with soap, I make sure I am not drowning out my 20 second song with the background noise of running water.

I don’t think that even gets me close to the level of water consciousness that Linda and Ron live by but I’m so glad it’s been a moment of significance that went beyond shame to influencing some tiny change.

Before we left Moonambel, I was cleaning up the kitchen for the very last time and I realise Linda’s tap bucket is nowhere to be found. I ended up using a clean bowl as a replacement.

It wasn’t about winning anybody over anymore, I didn’t even mention it to her. As I heard the water hit the sink, it just felt like the only reasonable thing to do.

(Hopefully she didn’t get home and assume the very unhelpful, water-wasting girl has just left her another dish to clean!)

Post Script: Hey what’s up, Darcy here. We won’t leave you with a cliffhanger. I personally found said bowl and promptly washed, dried, and put it away. Oops.

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