Monday, August 31, 2009

PART FIVE: White Chinese Daughter-in-Law

With our washer and dryer, notice that they're made of plastic to minimize rusting. The washer has a spinner on one side that is separate from the washing drum.

On the East Coast of Taiwan with ship in background

Life with the Lius was very different from anything I had ever experienced. Their family structure was much more traditional than the families I had lived with in Taipei. They were a real country family, who had just moved to the city less than ten years before our marriage. All the children and Pa Liu knew Mandarin, but Ma Liu only spoke Hakka, and most of the time the family spoke Hakka at home. I was back in an environment where I understood nothing, and I did not have a Teacher Chin to help me out.

Pa Liu had decided that since I had already learned Mandarin from English, which was a harder task, Ma Liu would learn Mandarin from Hakka. Hsiu-chiu, Yuntian, and I set to work teaching her. Ma Liu is extremely bright, and despite the fact that she was over 50, she quickly picked up the language. She had been with her own mother in the hospital when her mother had had surgery. Neither of them spoke Mandarin, so they could not communicate with the doctors and nurses. It had been a terrible, frightening time for Ma, and she was determined to learn the national language.

I continued to work at the publishing company and an evening English school in Taipei for the first few months of my marriage. I would take the bus to the train station in the mornings, but at night, I was often coming home around eleven, so Pa Liu or Yuntian would be waiting at the train station to pick me up.

Usually there is a certain amount of hazing that goes on when a new woman joins a traditional family. The younger sisters did that a little. I would come home late at night to a sink full of dishes or have to spend my weekends doing all the cleaning. But since I was contributing more money to the family coffers than they were, Ma and Pa Liu quickly put a stop to that. The girls resented it a little, but I determined to pull my weight with the household chores on the days that I didn’t go to Taipei. When they saw that I was not lazy or snooty, they warmed up to me, and we all got along quite well. My sisters-in-law took turns translating family conversations for me, so I would understand the Hakka.

Life was pretty good in the nuclear family, but when we had events with the whole clan, things were a little bit more complicated. We moved into the new house just before the Chinese New Year in 1987. So of course, we had to have a big feast. This time, Ma Liu and her daughters and I made all the food for just a small intimate gathering of their closest relatives, about forty guests. Then for the next few months, other family members who had not attended the feast would drop in for dinner bearing housewarming gifts. And they all wanted to know when my baby was due.

This made things a little awkward because there was a missile crisis with mainland China, and Liu Yuni didn’t get any leave for five months after the wedding. The old aunties kept coming and prodding my stomach to feel the baby inside, which wasn’t there… Finally, one day I lost it and told my sister-in-law to tell them in Hakka that we hadn’t had a proper wedding night, we had “lightbulbs” along on the honeymoon, and Liu Yuni hadn’t been home since. If there was a baby in there, then the Liu family should be worried because I wasn’t pregnant at the wedding. Well, that direct little American outburst shocked them into silence. Then I got a reputation among the women of having a bad temper. I guess that wasn’t a bad thing. They stopped poking my stomach and started going to temples to pray that Liu Yuni would get leave so my mother-in-law would have a grandbaby soon. One day when we were alone in the kitchen with my mother-in-law’s favorite daughter, she told me via translation that most of Liu Yuni’s cousins had been pregnant before their wedding nights. So the old aunties just assumed that it was the same for me. After all, if you weren’t pregnant, why would you possibly want to get married? The pressure on me to produce an heir was tremendous.


murat11 said...

Ah, the iconic washer/dryer, easily as pantheonic as weedeaters in our lives as married-somethings.

After all, if you weren’t pregnant, why would you possibly want to get married? An interestingly utilitarian approach to marriage. The aunties must have been very happy once the babes came in their less than two year avalanche.

Teresa said...

Ah Murat, your American sensibilities are bleeding through. The significance of the washer and dryer is that they were the first in the Liu family, ever. So hardly iconic or pantheonic, more like novelty and a feeling of having arrived. No longer did they need to slap clothes against stones in the creek behind the house or scrub them on wash boards in the bathtub.

I think that the last sentence says a lot about female views of marriage among the elder generation of the Liu clan (and the Chus, my mother-in-law's relatives). Most of them had been married off in arranged marriages. Most of the husbands were unfaithful. Prior to marriage, life had been hard because they were poor, but their parents had loved and protected them. After marriage, they had to grow up fast and hold their own in a frequently hostile environment. In arranged marriages, they had had no choice. Under the new-fangled morality of Yuni's generation, people started sleeping together openly after the engagement, and then the wedding date was set when the bride was confirmed to be pregnant. In that way at least, the woman had some modicum of control over when she would lose her freedom.

Many of the old aunties had not even been to Taipei, much less have a passport and travel abroad, so to them "renewing a passport" was probably just some quaint American euphemism for pregnancy. In Hakka they say, "She has it now," so why wouldn't English have some equally cryptic expression?

murat11 said...

Sister T, you cain't tell me them stoneslappers weren't thinking gods and pantheons when Goddess Lavanderia graced their lives!

A poignant, hardscrabble commentary on the marrying ways in your second paragraph, the syncretism of old and new "moralities."

You know "renewing a passport" is worthy a poem...

Teresa said...

I will look forward to the Muravian verse on "passport renewals"! It should be fun.

Teresa said...

Here's the link to Murat's passport poem:

It's great!