Saturday, July 25, 2009

Our Dads Negotiate THEIR Terms for the Marriage

The announcement sticker from one of the boxes of engagement cakes.

The day after the formal engagement, my dad, brother, and I got onto a 40 passenger bus with several days worth of clothes and all the Liu relatives. Mr. Liu again hosted my relatives on tour of the island, except we went along and picked up still more Liu relatives in Chung-li and Toufen as we worked our way around the island. There was not an empty seat on the bus, and most of the adults were holding children on their laps. My dad, brother, and I had three seats in the front. I sat next to Mr. Liu. Behind us, it was a constant roar of noise. We went to the military base to see Liu Yuni. The commander of the NCO training unit was quite friendly, and when he saw three Americans with the entourage of relatives, he tried to give Liu Yuni several days of leave to get to know his fiancĂ©e’s family. But the training camp was ending the following day, and Liu Yuni was afraid he would get in trouble with his main commander, if he didn’t finish the course. So we met him after the tour for a meal together.

On this tour we went south to Kaohsiung and the southernmost part of the island in the tropic zone. Then we came up the eastern coast from the South and back home through the Taroko Gorge. My dad enjoyed every minute of it. He was fascinated by watching the interactions of the family in such close quarters on a three-day trip. He saw that the children were all well-behaved. There was no crying or fussing, and there were no arguments or fights. Everyone was just happy. For the most part, his assessment was correct. The entire clan was having a wonderful celebration, and no one was going to argue to break the lucky streak. My brother had trouble adjusting to the stir-fried food, but he did fine with white rice, soy sauce, and beer. The uncles made sure he got plenty of beer.

When the uncles saw that my brother Tom could drink them all under the table any time day or night and did not seem to be worse for the wear, they plotted their revenge. Most working-class men and farmers in Taiwan at the time chewed betel nut as a stimulant to keep themselves going. Liu Yuni’s relatives were no exception. Every time the bus made a stop, the men would make a beeline for the betel nut kiosks to get a fresh supply. They would stuff a betel nut lined with lime paste and wrapped in a leaf into their cheeks and suck and chew it until the red juice came out. Then they would spit the juice on the ground (or out the windows of the bus). Tom was curious as to what it was, and when he got me to ask them about it, the uncles had their chance. They bought him a large juicy individual nut and told him to bite down. He popped it in his mouth before I could caution him about not swallowing the juice. It almost made him vomit. He had one more to perfect his technique, but after that, he left the betel chewing to the Liu relatives. He much preferred the beer.

After the three-day trip, my dad and brother had a few more days with just me in Taipei. Mr. Liu insisted on inviting them back to his home for dinner because he wanted to discuss the details of the marriage contract with Liu Yuni present. It was backwards in the time frame and should have been done before the engagement, but he was not going to let this conversation drop. And so I had to translate the most embarrassing conversation of my life. I had to explain to my father about the Liu family’s financial situation. I had to make sure he knew the limits of their literacy. I had to tell my dad that they would treat me like their own daughter after the marriage. Then I had to ask my father how much money he wanted to sell me for so I could be the Liu family’s bride. And I had to help him come up with an appropriate answer.

Personally, I was totally upset that this conversation was even going on. Liu Yuni and I thought that we had eliminated the need for this discussion, but his dad was not to be deterred. Mr. Liu informed my dad that despite the bankruptcy, the family had a certain amount of money in their daughter’s name that was earmarked for obtaining a bride for their eldest son. I believe that they had NT$150,000, which was less than the going rate in those days of NT$250,000 to NT$300,000. Since I was a college graduate, I should have commanded a high bride price, but I really did not want to be sold as chattel. I expressed my discomfort to my dad, but he responded that we needed to consider their customs. If I married without them paying anything, it might mean that I was worthless or that my family thought I was worthless. Finally, my dad looked around the house and asked me about it. I told him that it was a rental with three rooms, so after our marriage, Liu Yuntian would be sleeping on the living room couch. That gave my dad an idea. He told Mr. Liu that he didn’t need the money and that once NT dollars were converted into US dollars, they wouldn’t be worth much anyway. He suggested that the money be used as a down payment for a new house with enough rooms for the entire family. Mr. Liu promised that since my bride price was going into the house, I would be part owner, even though as a US citizen I could not own property in Taiwan. He assured my dad that he would make sure I got my fair share of the profits when and if the house was sold. And he kept that promise several years later.

Then Mr. Liu asked my dad how many engagement cakes he needed to take back to US relatives to announce the engagement. He had made the traditional lard and raisin engagement cakes and had handed them out to all the Liu relatives. He did not think that American taste buds would enjoy that kind of cake, so he was ordering special sponge cake rolls for the members of my family. This, of course, was part of the typical engagement negotiations. Whoever received an engagement cake was expected to give a wedding gift. My dad took cakes back for my grandparents and a few other close relatives. Mr. Liu also gave gifts of rice wine in commemorative porcelain containers for my grandparents and parents. If we had been Chinese, we would have also demanded a certain amount of gold jewelry to be given to me at the wedding beyond my mother-in-law’s old gold necklace that had been given at my engagement. Mrs. Liu’s mother, Grandma Chu, took it upon herself to give me rings and gold ear rings for my wedding since I had not asked for anything, and my bride price was being used to buy a nice house (which they should have provided anyway). And the negotiations were done. All the men toasted each other with beer to seal the deal, and Eldest Brother-in-Law took his turn trying to drink Tom under the table. He was more successful than the uncles, but that is still not saying much.

Two days after this dinner, Tom and my dad left for the States. The entire Liu family went to the airport to see them off, and Mr. Liu delivered the boxes of engagement cakes fresh from the bakery to the airport. Now that I was engaged, I was expected to call Mr. and Mrs. Liu, Ma and Pa. When the family had parties or social engagements, one of the sisters would call, and I would be expected to go with them. I got to meet more of the very large extended clan in this way. Whenever Liu Yuni had leave, the two of us went house hunting for something large enough to house nine comfortably. There would be no wedding until we had found a house. And without the wedding, I would not be able to get a residence certificate, and without a residence certificate, I could not renew my passport in Taiwan. I had seven months left.


murat11 said...

Teresa: Ah, now we come to the most embarrassing conversation! There's a sweetness mixed in with the understandable outrage about your sale: your dad's graciousness in wanting to honor the custom in some way (as well as his intuitive sense of what signals not honoring the custom might send) and, again, Mr. Liu's utter integrity regarding the house. The large family bus trip was fascinating. Imagine something like that in this country!

Tom's betel nut adventure reminded me of my one and only adventure with chewing tobacco. I was out at my grandparents' ranch (late teens, I think), standing around in a typical bullshitting circle, when of the visiting cowboys pulled out a compact brown brick and carved himself a piece. He saw me watching and asked if I wanted a piece, too. More fool than I am even now, I thought it was beef jerky and said, sure, missing - no doubt - the gleam in his eye.

I nearly dropped to my knees once the juice hit my stomach.

Teresa said...

I did appreciate my dad's intuitions later. I didn't too much of his plan at the time. I think he first asked me something like, "How much do you think I can get for you?" as a joke. I was not amused. But when he mentioned that it could affect status and perceptions, I realized he might be right, especially since Mr. Liu was doing this after the formal engagement. So I gritted my teeth and translated everything.

So in your opinion, Tom was not faking it with the betel nut? He's always been a joker, and I have always wondered. He did take a box of five big fresh ones back to the States with him to "share" with his friends...

murat11 said...

Teresa: Funny you mention the followup to your dad's approach on your chattelage. I thought I detected some droll humor in his needing to consider their customs approach. Of course, with Mr. Liu's earnestness, it would have been hard to see the humor then, but in the right circles, it makes for a very funny story in the telling - particularly since you were having to translate all the doings.

I can't speak for Tom and the betel-juice: all I know is that I can still feel the taste of tobacco-juice.

Teresa said...

Glad to have provided you some humor on a lazy Saturday afternoon. If you know the right circles, feel free to tell my story. I am still not so sure that it is funny, but my dad sure had a good time. He does have an off-the-wall sense of humor. He is a punster to the nth degree.

I guess that I will give Tom the benefit of the doubt on the betel nut because he said it was worse than anything he had ever tasted or tried, and I believe at one time some kid in his Boy Scout troop got a hold of some chewing tabacco... I believe that boy was one of the friends he had in mind when he had my father-in-law get him a box of the biggest, juiciest betel nuts that he could the morning we left.

Cloudia said...


SO interesting, Teresa.

Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia,

Glad you're enjoying the story. It has been an exciting ride! Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing story. I was aware of some Eastern marriage customs among the Chinese but didn't realize it was this extensive or still practiced. I enjoyed the post.
Abraham Lincoln

Teresa said...

Dear Abe,

Welcome to my blog. These customs are even still practiced here among various Chinese communities. The going rate for a bride among the Chinese from Fuzhou who work in US restaurants is $33,000 (that's USD) plus solid gold jewelry, gifts to the bride's family members (including more cash) and a huge wedding feast complete with live entertainment in a fancy restaurant in New York's Chinatown. The bride's family also expects the groom's family to own either a house or a restaurant here (preferably both). I have several friends here in California who specially went to New York for their childrens' weddings--even when both nuclear families were living in California.