Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Life in a Multi-generational Household

The first day of Chinese New Year, 1987
(notice the sausages drying on the 2nd floor)

Ma and Pa Liu and Hsiu-chen in the new living room

In the library/tatami alcove of our third floor bedroom

Ma Liu and Yuntian out on a New Year's excursion

The modern kitchen in our new house.

Liu Yuni was in the army, and he did not have leave after our honeymoon for about five months, except for the first day of the Chinese New Year. After that the most his unit got was “movie nights,” when their officers walked them to a movie theater off-base and took them to the movies. Sometimes the assistant commander would let Liu Yuni take the bus home, as long as he was back in the movie theater before the end of the show. So we got an hour here and there together. I did go to visit him, and since I was now his legal wife, visiting was much easier than it had been. Every Wednesday night, I would take the bus to the base, and his commander would take us to another officer’s house where I would teach four unit commanders English. Liu Yuni was supposed to be learning, too, but I think he was too nervous. The officers had to learn basic conversation because they were taking a language test to be eligible for further military training in the US. Two of the members of my little class passed the test and came to the US for two years training.

Despite the fact that my husband was not home, I was never alone or really lonely. My brother-in-law, Yuntian was in ninth grade. He was fifteen years old. Only two of Liu Yuni’s five sisters were married at that time; Eldest Sister had four daughters and lived with her husband in the town of Toufen. She came up to visit her parents on Sundays once or twice a month. Sometimes Pa Liu would take us all down to Toufen to visit the uncles, and we would wind up at Eldest Sister’s house for dinner. Youngest Sister had been married just a month before our wedding. She was living in the town just north of Chung-li near the airport. She was pregnant and had a broken leg, so we did not see much of her. Furthermore, there was a traditional prohibition that brides could not see one another for the first four months of their marriages. I suspect that this was to prevent jealousy over who was being treated better by their in-laws. When Youngest Sister came home, I would hide upstairs in my apartment on the third floor until she left. After she broke her leg, her husband brought her home for an overnight stay during the Chinese New Year holiday to reassure her parents that everything was all right. Yuntian was charged with bringing me food and renting video tapes for me to watch so I didn’t get bored. Fortunately, my grandmother and aunt had added quite a few of their old paperback bestsellers to my library before I shipped it to Taiwan. One of the books was Hawaii by James Michener. Youngest Sister’s stay was only supposed to be one night and two days, but she was so sad and lonely (and she was barely sixteen) that she wound up staying for three nights and four days. She would have stayed on with us indefinitely, but Pa and Ma Liu told her that she was not being fair to me. They shipped her back to her in-law’s place, and I was released from my rooms on the third floor.

Second Sister Hsiu-Mei worked in Eldest Sister’s lampshade factory. She was home on holidays, but for the most part she lived with Eldest Sister in Toufen. Third Sister Hsiu-chiu worked for Pa Liu’s construction company by day and went to night high school in the evenings. Fourth Sister Hsiu-chen worked in a factory at the nearby industrial park. She had a space in the company dormitory and usually only came home on her days off or on holidays or when she wanted to do laundry.

In a typical day, we all got up early. Ma Liu made a full Chinese meal with meat and vegetables and rice for breakfast because three of them did construction work. She cooked in pork lard, and my stomach could not take it. I started getting sick in the mornings until I began buying buns for my breakfast near the train station. We would all go to work or school in the mornings. Yuntian came home first in the afternoons. In the old house, he would split kindling for the wood-burning water heater. In the new house, he did not have to do this chore because all the water heaters were gas burning. He did his homework in front of the tv. Because I taught evening classes, Ma Liu and Hsiu-chiu cooked dinner on week nights. I cooked and cleaned the house on the weekends. After dinner, Ma and Hsiu-chiu did the laundry. I would do the dishes and clean up the kitchen on week nights after I ate a late dinner when I got home.

Every pay day, the unmarried girls, who worked outside the family business, would bring money home to Ma for groceries and household use. All the proceeds from Ma and Hsiu-chiu’s labor went to paying off the debts. I was responsible for paying the mortgage and giving a certain amount to Ma for groceries. Not long into the marriage, I realized that I needed to find higher paying jobs. The budget was so tight that Ma had to ask me for money so Yuntian could pay his fees for school spring semester. That first year of the marriage, everyone was entirely focused on paying off the family’s debt. I asked around among friends from church in Chung-li and found a job teaching English at a “cram” school there. It paid very well, better than the schools in Taipei, and I got home much earlier. In the spring, I was referred to the local university to teach English conversation in their College of Business. That job didn’t start until fall, but I was given a position as part-time English secretary to the President that started over the summer. Eventually, I stopped going to Taipei and worked only near my home in Chung-li. Within six or seven months, I was earning as much as my father-in-law’s contracting business every month. I took over paying most of the household expenses, allowing the rest of the family to dedicate almost all their earnings to paying off the debt. We all worked six days a week. I usually taught classes in the evenings, so I was not at home too much.

Sunday afternoon was free time. Pa would take us out to a park or to hike in nearby mountains on nice days. Or sometimes he would just sit in the living room eating watermelon seeds while he and Ma told us stories about their life before modern conveniences. It was fascinating for me to learn all the changes that they had seen in a life-time. They would ask me about life in America. When Ma could not understand me or when I could not understand her, Pa and his children would translate between Hakka and Mandarin. Liu Yuntian liked to watch kung-fu movies, so we would usually rent videos on the weekend and watch them.

We got along quite well for several reasons. First, we had a focus; we were working as a team to get the family out of debt. Second, we knew that we were coming from very different backgrounds, so we cut each other a lot of slack in our day-to-day dealings with each other. I did some things that were normal for Americans but were very rude in the traditional culture. The Lius didn’t say anything because they knew I was not doing them out of spite, but out of ignorance. After a long while had past, when no one was angry any more, Hsiu-chiu would explain to me the Hakka way of doing things. I tried to adjust myself. If it was something I really couldn’t do, I would talk to Pa and explain my point of view. He would consider things, and usually we found a position of compromise. In general, everyone treated everyone else with courtesy and respect.


murat11 said...

Teresa: What continues to interest me is all the behavioral guidance, the behavioral codes that seem to have come from centuries of observing human interaction: it's as if all possible situations have been cataloged, and the responses are quite rational. Of course, this cannot be the case, but the attempt is fascinating. There are things - rules, customs, rites - in our own worlds that do not seem to have the mind behind them that these "codes" do.

And yet, there is a flexibility, a pragmatism that comes through in the Liu's syncretic approach to your joining them.

Teresa said...

I am impressed by your insight, Murat. These behavior codes were used with varying intensity for thousands of years. They seem to have become very ingrained, especially in people who still have contact with farming or rural life. They do seem to fall apart in urban settings and in upper classes, but yet, there are still traces, even among Chinese living in the US.

But even in the earliest times, the Chinese culture has always had flexibility and pragmatism. I think it comes from the combination of Confucianism with Taoism. You get a very rigid system practiced simultaneously with a very fluid system. The two seem to balance each other out to produce an enduring culture.

Barrie said...

I can certainly understand why you weren't lonely. ;)

Teresa said...

Hi Barrie,

I usually was more hungry for solitude than companionship. My own family was small, so I was not used to so many people under one roof. But it was nice. I have one younger brother, so having sisters was a real treat.