Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chinese Daughter-in-Law Training

Teresa, Susanna, Beatrice, Miss Yan, and Melanie
at Beatrice's Wedding to a Chinese Businessman

The longer we spent with Teacher, the more she worked to make us proper Chinese daughters-in-law. When Beatrice announced her engagement to a Taiwanese businessman and Miss Yan told Teacher she would be going back to Thailand to get married, our Chinese daughter-in-law training went into high gear. Most of every class was spent discussing families and marriage.

The first theme was that arranged marriages were good because they were not based on hormones. Teacher went to great lengths to demonstrate that the Western fixation on romance does not lead to a stable family life. She was very anti-divorce, especially when there are children involved. (This may have been due in part to her experience growing up in her aunt’s home.) She said that in an arranged marriage, the parents used rational thought, life experience, and deep knowledge of their children to find spouses and households who were true matches for their children’s temperaments. Even though there was no love at the beginning, because the matches were well-thought out, the relationships blossomed and deepened over time, making them more stable. One of Teacher’s favorite maxims was, “Love in a relationship must be nurtured.” She exhorted us to get beyond our hormones when picking a mate by looking for someone who had similar background and interests, and then she told us that we needed to work for our entire life at nurturing our marriage. I have to say that after listening to this speech at least once a week for more than a year, my thinking about marriage changed.

In addition to the “pick your mate well, so you do not need a divorce” speech, Teacher taught us about how to live in a multi-generational household. The first rule of a Chinese family is to know your position. If you are the eldest, you have more say in what the family does, but you also have more responsibility to make things go right. As a Chinese daughter-in-law, you gain your position from your husband’s birth order. If you marry an eldest son, your words will carry much weight with your in-laws, but you will also be expected to help with all the younger siblings. If you marry a second or third son (but not the youngest), your position will depend more on how competent your husband is at his work. If you marry the youngest son, resign yourself to not having any say in the running of the family, but you can also be assured that no one will expect you to bear much responsibility for anyone but your own children.

In the past, women in Chinese families gained status by the number of sons they bore. This still holds true to some extent, but younger generations, who have studied biology, now know that this is not the woman’s responsibility, so the onus of not bearing sons is waning to some extent. Because traditional Chinese worship their ancestors through the paternal line, a man needs a son to feed his ghost and to carry on the family line. If the first wife does not produce a son, it is still not uncommon for the man to try with someone else. Since Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution and the abolition of polygamy, this means that some Chinese men divorce their wives for failing to give them a son.

In addition to bearing sons, women in Chinese families gain status by their sufferings for the family. The Chinese have a saying that a woman is “pressure-cooked into a mother-in-law.” It refers to the process that when a woman marries into the family, the other women haze her until she learns her place. The hazing stops when she bears a son and / or makes a significant contribution to the family’s fortunes. As long as her mother-in-law is alive, this hazing can start up again at any time. If a woman has borne a son, but fails to contribute anything more to the general well-being of the family, the hazing will start again to train her to be a good matriarch. A woman without a son, who nevertheless has been loyal to and suffered for her husband’s family, is frequently accorded much honor, and her words hold much weight. The Chinese are a very practical society, and they honor good results. The hazing is for the most part verbal, although I know one woman who married into a very rich Chinese family in the Philippines in 1984. She ate and worked with the servants until she had given birth to a son. Then she was allowed to eat with her mother-in-law and other sisters-in-law. Once she was in that circle, her worth to the family was gauged by how well she trained her son and supported her husband in his business. The men of the family always ate at a separate table from the women.

Many multi-generational families engage in one business. Joshua’s third maternal uncle had five sons who all worked in his business making banisters. When they married, the daughters-in-law quit their outside jobs and worked with their husbands in the family business. The whole family lived together in one household until all five sons were married and had children. At their height, there were twenty-one people in three generations under one roof. The daughters-in-law rotated cooking and cleaning chores by the week. Joshua’s uncle controlled all the money and gave each of his progeny an allowance based on their needs. My father-in-law felt this was foolish in modern society because Joshua’s cousins never learned how to manage money when they were young. After the fifth son had children and the father had retired, they all split into five small households. The parents would rotate eating with each son’s household for a week. Some sons have done well managing on their own; others have had trouble adjusting to bearing so much responsibility.

The final point our teacher made about Chinese marriage is that the woman joins the man’s family, leaving her own. Whatever you were in your birth family no longer exists; if you “marry a dog, you follow a dog, marry a chicken, you follow a chicken.” Daughters are called “money-losing items” because parents raise them to contribute to someone else’s business. When a daughter marries, her parents throw a bowl of water after the car driving her away to show that she has been washed from the family. Her first priority is now her husband’s family. The married daughter who cares for her own parents over her in-laws is asking for more hazing until she learns her place. When traditional Chinese women expressed their loyalty to their husbands they would say: “I am your family member in life and your household’s ghost in death.”


Travis Erwin said...

Thanks for the eduction. Cultural differences always intrigue me.

I'm curious, how did your family take to the notion of being second?

Teresa said...

Hi Travis,

In the beginning, they didn't know what I had signed on for. After we moved back to the States, we have had differences of opinion about what I should and shouldn't do or what is reasonable for my in-laws to expect of me. I had not realized how much my concepts had changed for a long while. It has not always been easy for any of us. But I have to say, my life has never been boring...

Barrie said...

Your posts are always so so interesting. I think your teacher might have thrown her hands up in despair at me!

Teresa said...

Hi Barrie,

Actually, I was pretty vociferous against all her ideas, and all she said was that my classmates needed the information and it wouldn't hurt me to consider another viewpoint on life. That shut me up, and of course, she tested us on the theory whether or not we believed in it. I was competitive, and her standard to keep me in line was 100, 50 or 0, so I only got two mistakes before totally failing a quiz (I don't think she reported the grades like that, but that's how she returned them to me...). So I shut up and learned the material. It really stretched my brain to consider that so many millions of people had been successfully using this model of marriage for so many thousands of years.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Fascinating insight into another culture. I'd have had a hard time deliberately putting my husband's parents ahead of my own since I was so close to my folks. Still, there were times when they had to take second place and it was very difficult. Holidays were tough since both sets of in-laws lived close by. Working at nurturing one's marriage is a good idea, whether or not you believe in arranged marriages.

Teresa said...

Hi Linda,

Actually, women are not required to totally give up their families. Every year there are specific holidays on which husbands MUST take their wives to visit the wives' mothers. I think that the culture just spells out which family takes precedence in claiming time and energy. Certainly, my married sisters-in-law visit my parents-in-law frequently and do a lot for them. But they do this after their husbands' parents are taken care of.

One time my eldest sister-in-law was widowed and injured in a rock slide. Because that slide killed four members of her husband's family, no one was able to stay with her in the hospital (a requirement pretty much in Taiwanese hospitals--the family member does the CNA work). The other married sisters-in-law took turns staying with her until I was able to get back to Taiwan to help. Then my mother-in-law took my kids, and I stayed with her in the hospital. Under normal circumstances, the husband's family would have been responsible, and they did bring special food for her every week, but since they were dealing with four funerals, and the grandmother had a stroke from the shock of the accident, my sister-in-law's birth family was called upon to care for her. Her married sisters were temporarily released from their obligations to their husbands' families for the first week until we could get back to Taiwan from the States. My mother-in-law would have taken turns with me, but she doesn't read, and actually the charts were all in English, so I was best equipped to deal with the hospital personnel. The whole situation was cared for smoothly; my sister-in-law's five children were with their dad's younger brother. My preschool-age children were with my parents-in-law, and everything was done with order. Custom provided the blueprint for the division of resources in dealing with this tragedy.

murat11 said...

My feminism began to puff up during this patch here, Teresa. You get a clear sense of a deep-rooted tribal/group ethos. Still, especially in your comments here, you get a clear sense of the deep value of the organization of traditional families and their commitments to one another.

I know an answer to this could be a blog post in itself, but I'm curious what parts of the ethos you've felt worth preserving in your own life, and what you felt you could (needed to) let go of. What have you taken into yourself that a younger Teresa would have never thought possible?

Teresa said...

Murat: Once I get into my life as the eldest Chinese daughter-in-law in a very traditional Chinese family, I think your question will be answered. Of course, there will be things that I can't say on the blog. If you ever want to e-mail a question to one of the e-mail addresses in my profile, for you, I would give a fuller answer with more specific information.