Sunday, January 31, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Video on

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity Video on

Inspiring Video

My aunt has been in town for the past week. I have been busy with the first week of school and spending time catching up with one of my favorite people. So I did not get a post written as I had wished. But a friend from high school shared this video. Its sentiments resonated, and I offer it to my readers for their reflection and consideration.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Alone in a Crowd

Warning: Depressing reality post to balance the fairy tale bubble impressions I may have given... Every rose has some thorns.

By the time of their first birthday Truth and Love were beginning to talk. They had learned to walk just around 11 months, and Truth was babbling out words even before then. We had decided to make them trilingual, so I doggedly spoke to them in English. Their grandparents and father spoke to them in Hakka, and their aunts and uncles spoke to them in Mandarin. Most of the neighbors spoke Hakka, and that is the language they began to speak. The first word for both of them was “Po” or “Grandmother” in Hakka. From there they went to “mam” or “eat,” “ap” or “duck,” and any number of Hakka words for the myriad things discussed in Ma’s steady patter with them. Truth would react when I spoke to her in English, but she did not speak. Love took English as an excuse to blithely continue doing whatever it was that she wanted to do.

It is one thing to read in books that the children will speak one language faster but by the age of three will be fluent in all of them, and it is another thing to live through the experience of losing that connection with your children. Some days I was ready to quit, but I also knew that in the long run of their lives, speaking English would be more useful to them than speaking Hakka, so I persevered. I did not want them to feel I was angry at something they could not help, so I released the sorrow and the frustration and chose to rejoice that they were intelligent, articulate, and growing up in a loving environment with lots of adult attention.

With the constant use of Hakka in the home, Yuni’s return from the army, and the newness of my being American wearing off, there was a subtle shift in the family dynamics. Of course, the presence of babies also changed the family’s focus. Most rural Chinese families automatically center in on the youngest members. Everyone nurtures, pets, and plays with them. But also, since Yuni was home from the army, Pa no longer felt entirely responsible for me. I was, after all, his son’s wife. Since Pa had insisted that Ma learn Mandarin to accommodate me, Yuni decided that I needed to learn Hakka with the children to accommodate her. This meant that no one in the family would translate for me any more when they were speaking in Hakka. And this is the way that multi-generational families survive. Couples are given psychic space to work things out between themselves. People keep their opinions to themselves and take things at face value. Because I worked nights, it was easy to forget me. I was out when the family would sit in the living room chatting, so on the evenings that I was home, it was easiest for them to continue in their usual pattern, a pattern that had been established long before I was part of the household. The only conversations I had were “women’s talk” in the kitchen or while changing the babies. When we were away from the men, Ma and the sisters still spoke to me in Mandarin. And I began to learn the family’s women’s stories. Now political discussions were only held in Hakka between Yuni and Pa. So were the discussions of the family business and family fortunes.

I was hurt and puzzled, but when I asked Yuni, he got offended and said that this was the way they always did things. And so I cared for the babies in the morning, went off to work in the afternoons and evenings, earned more than the rest of the family put together every month, paid about two thirds of the combined household expenses plus all my personal expenses and those of my children, and as eldest daughter-in-law, I was my mother-in-law’s right hand in the women’s court. Any time my sisters-in-law had a problem, I would help my mother-in-law solve it before the men could be involved. We handled unwanted pregnancies, a daughter who got tricked and was being held against her will working as a hostess in a nightclub in Japan, minor marital disputes, and health problems. The only times things were taken out of our hands were when a daughter and son-in-law needed to move in with us temporarily because the son-in-law was fighting with his parents over the division of family property and when one of the sisters got married, and the men had to negotiate the marriage.

Last semester I took a course in Asian women’s history, and I learned that this pattern is very common among rural families all over China. Over winter break I read two books recommended by a professor that helped me understand the situation even better. I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to understand what it feels like to be a woman in such a household. The first book is On Chinese Women by Julia Kristeva, and the second is Organizing Silence by Robin Patric Clair.

In the first chapter of On Chinese Women, Julia Kristeva describes how in Chinese peasant families there are vestiges of a pre-Confucian family system. It is so deep that it is almost in the blood. Before the Common Era, and especially in pre-historic times, most Asian family structures were probably matriarchal. This can be seen in the Shang Dynasty tombs where they found the oracle bones. There is a large tomb honoring a warrior queen who ruled jointly with her husband and led the armies into battle. In the very ancient family structure, marriages were still negotiated, but the woman kept her dowry property and lived in her husband’s home almost as an adversary. If she divorced, she got her brothers to help her and she took her dowry back with her, so she could remarry. Relations between husband and wife were necessarily strained, and women and their sons allied to undermine the husband/father’s patriarchal authority. Until a woman had a son, she was an alien in the man’s home, and even when the baby was born, she had to mold him into her ally. Yuni had been molded this way by his mother, and he had unwittingly inherited this kind of attitude towards marriage from her influence. The fact that I was so successful came across as a threat to him, and he spontaneously responded by attempting to isolate me from all but the most mundane of conversations, which as a male, he did not even know existed.

In this primitive system, a woman’s greatest protection against predation by her husband’s family is support from her natal family. I did not know about this. The Neo-Confucians in the Han Dynasty were the first to try to eradicate this support for women and make men the total lords and masters of the homes. But among the illiterate and the rural families, this prehistoric dynamic lives on like a coelacanth. Pa, Ma, and Yuni spend much time and energy keeping the married daughters of the family in a good position in their husband’s households. I helped them in these endeavors without understanding that I also needed to enlist my mother, father, and brother to play these kinds of games for me. Instead, I just gave in to their oftentimes unreasonable requests. For example, my wedding gifts went in their original sealed boxes to my various sisters-in-law. Pa would try to protest, but Ma and Yuni would override his objections, and I just wanted to keep the family in harmony. They always used the excuse that I had grown up rich in America, and they had known such great privation, so I should let the sisters enjoy my nice things. To me, good relationships are ever so much more important than mere things, so I always agreed to the requests. And to this day, I have great relationships with my sisters-in-law. Those relationships are much more important than a brand new rice cooker or a small refrigerator for the bedroom or a hot plate or whatever.

The second book, Organizing Silence, does not speak of Chinese women, but it does summarize women’s studies theorists from a wide range of disciplines to show how patriarchal societies organize their structures to silence women and ignore them. When I read the book, it was like a light bulb exploding in my brain as to why Yuni knew none of the details of his birth without a midwife or of how his mother had had to beg the doctor to treat her children when the family was short of cash. Those were women’s stories, and even if a man was in hearing range, the content of a woman’s speaking did not register on his radar.

I began discussing my revelations with a close Chinese friend of mine, who is highly educated and just a few years older than I. She agreed with my assessment. She also told me that Chinese men of our generation mark the beginning of what Chinese social scientists are calling the “yinification” of males. Both China and Taiwan promoted family planning in their attempts to raise standards of living. The result was that family-sizes were reduced drastically, and males became scarcer and scarcer. Chinese tradition demands that each generation produce at least one son. In families with only one or two sons, the boys were traditionally coddled and spoiled and never forced to take responsibility for their actions, lest they die young. With smaller families, most men today grew up in such an atmosphere, and the result is that as adults they are unable to stand being contradicted, they are petty, they are lazy, they take the easy way out, and they cannot stand to be shown up by women. If a wife outshines such a husband, she can expect that her excellence will be taken as a sign of aggression in the battle between husband and wife, and the husband will retaliate. My friend told me that there is a real problem now in China because many spoiled men would rather have the two die together than suffer the ignominy of having his highly competent wife succeed outside the home. Unfortunately, all across Asia education and modernization have produced many highly competent women, who are succeeding in all professions.

None of this really happens consciously. The families with these problems are usually not highly educated. They take these behaviors for granted and do not know any other way. After all, who has time for psychology when you are trying to make ends meet?

So what is a woman to do? I have observed a number of different strategies: 1) fight, scream, kick, punch, pull hair, cry, and live in a nearly constant state of open warfare; 2) go along with things on the surface, but then use devious underhanded strategies involving one’s children and natal family to keep the upper hand in the war between husband and wife; 3) give in and give in and give in until the strain and stress of going against her nature causes illness, and the woman either becomes a chronic invalid or dies prematurely young. Very few women voluntarily leave. They stay with their husbands for the sake of their children. Divorced women are highly stigmatized in this stratum of the population, and it is hard for them to hold their head up at family gatherings or even to make a living. Most of these women have a junior high education or less, so they have difficulty finding jobs that pay enough for even one person to live on.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Only Pictures I Could Upload

Twins' first Chinese New Year

Twins and mom

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Potty Training Peasant-style

Note: My computer is still acting up and unable to post pictures. I should get my new computer on 1/25, and I will then post a photo collage with the pictures I have wanted to include with these posts.
In previous posts I described a few of the differences between my American concepts about child-raising and my Chinese peasant in-law’s practices. One of the biggest differences that I noticed was in the matter of potty training. In America, it often seems to be a big horrendous ordeal for both mother and child. When I was in Taipei, some families seemed to have an easier time of it, and others had their struggles. The Liu family was expert at it.

I think their success came from a number of different outlooks on life. First of all, they are more relationship oriented, and they seemed to expect that the babies were communicating with them by body language long before they could talk. They responded with words and actions to meet the babies’ expressed needs. Second, bodily functions are normal and natural to them. (One American stereotype is that Chinese manners insist the guests belch at the end of a banquet. I don’t think that is the case, so much as any kind of passing gas is considered natural and is not remarked upon. After you stuff yourself at a twenty-course feast, the natural response is to belch, so they do, very loudly.) Because bodily functions are normal, there is much less fuss about potty training and the inevitable mistakes children make on their way to being trained. Third, most rural families have a higher tolerance for dirt. Houses frequently have tiled floors. There are drains in the middle of the kitchen and bathroom floors, and it is much easier to deal with any kind of mess. And finally, there is a slower rhythm of time for grandparents at home with the grandchildren. No one is rushing off to work; no one is worried about being late for anything. So the children are freer to live and learn.

Having said all that, the hot, humid weather in Taiwan gave most babies horrific heat and diaper rashes during the summer months from mid-March to mid-November. The houses were not heated, so cold, wet diapers in the winter created other problems. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, air conditioning was not as prevalent as it is now, and the weather was a huge impetus for early potty training. Most families of my acquaintance began potty training as soon as the babies could sit up around the age of four months. My friends in Taipei who had to get to work or rush off to scheduled appointments would try to get their children on a schedule and would put them on little potty seats at the door of the kitchen either while the mother was making breakfast or while she was making dinner. Because a schedule was involved, this method of potty training was not much happier for either parent or child than the American version.

My mother-in-law was home with the grandkids all day, and they were her career. She looked for body language to determine if they needed to go. Babies usually cross their eyes or grimace or do something when their intestines start moving. If Ma and the babies were at home, she would immediately grab the baby making the face, whip off her shorts and hold her firmly in her arms over the toilet while making encouraging noises. When the girl had finished, she was praised for going in the toilet like a big girl, and the diaper and shorts were put back on. If they were on a walk, of course, nothing would be said at this point in the process. Soon the girls would fuss briefly when they felt an urge, and they were whisked off to be held over the toilet.

At about six months, they were big enough to sit on potty seats, and sometimes I would come downstairs to find Ma and the twins in the bathroom. Ma would be perched on the edge of the bathtub, and the twins would be facing her in a row on their potty seats. They would all be talking and singing and laughing. Potty time was fun. At this point, Ma was able to catch things about 80% of the time. September and October are particularly hot in Taiwan, and the girls did not need to wear diapers when they were at home. If they made a mess, it was easy to wash the tile floor, and they were told that they would do better next time. The girls sometimes got more upset than their grandmother.

By the time they were walking, things got a bit more difficult because the girls would not always want to stop their playing to go in to the bathroom. But their views were respected. The Lius had no problem spreading out newspaper on the living room floor and holding the child right beside her toys or where she could continue watching TV, so that her bodily needs and her psychological needs could be taken care of. I used to joke that they were paper training my kids like puppies, but I think it was really a good way to handle it. The children were not allowed to soil their pants, but there was a compromise that kept them near their projects. They learned a little about negotiation and holding their own in a relationship. And the newspaper was very easy to clean up. In any event, the twins were pretty much potty (or paper) trained before the age of two without any huge scenes or crying or fuss or muss. To me it was an amazing feat after all the scare stories I had heard from my American friends and relatives.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Home for the Holidays

I have pictures to go with this post, but my internet connection is not cooperating. Maybe tomorrow or in the still of the night...
Not long after I learned that I had a joyous flu, little Love got really sick. She had the real flu, and it was the first of many. The pediatrician said that it was common with twins that one would have a weaker immune system than the other. So Love caught every cold and flu that came around at least once. And when she got sick, she would get a high fever with convulsions and basically scare the living daylights out of all the adults in the household. About once every six weeks or so, we made late night visits to the emergency room because her fevers always seemed to spike the highest around 3 or 4 in the morning.

Taiwanese hospitals outside Taipei were not bad, considering that Taiwan was till a developing country, but they lacked a lot of amenities. Despite her frequent illnesses, Love was “well-nourished” with muscles like her dad’s. The doctors and nurses could not find veins to insert the IV needles any place except into the top of her forehead. So they would put the two of us into a chair. I would hold Love on my lap while the magic medicine trickled into her system through the IV needle. We were not curtained off, and neither were any of the other patients. As her fever came down, she became interested in the world. We watched a person getting his hand reattached. We watched several people die and their families start wailing and mourning. We watched people coming in covered with blood from being in motorcycle accidents. And to this day, we both have a healthy fear of hospitals and doctors in white coats. Usually the fever would break around 6, and we would go home with a raft of medicines for Ma to give Love throughout the day. Yuni and I would just go on to work. By the time we got home in the evening, Love would be fine.

And so summer turned to autumn, and autumn turned to winter. It was Christmas in America. By this time, many people in Taipei celebrated Christmas, and department stores would put up Christmas decorations. But in the Liu family’s circle of acquaintances, Christmas was not a big thing. My dad did not want the girls to miss out on the American side of their heritage, so he sent a huge box containing Christmas. It had a little 18 inch fake tree, ornaments, presents, and even boxed and canned food for a Christmas feast. Christmas Day was a holiday because it was the day that Sun Yat-sen’s constitution went into effect in 1911. So we set up the tree on the living room cabinets beside the TV, and I made the dishes from the boxes and things. I couldn’t always find exactly the right ingredients to put with the boxed things. For example, at that time in Taiwan, the butter outside the “foreigners’ district” in Taipei was usually sweetened with sugar and used only on toast. Both our boxes of mashed potatoes and of stuffing called for butter or margarine. I could not find margarine anywhere in Chungli, and the only butter to be had was sweetened. So we ate very sweet mashed potatoes and stuffing. I couldn’t get a turkey, so I bought a roasted duck, but as it was a family favorite, no one objected. There was also a canned ham, and we stir-fried up local vegetables. Everyone felt the dinner was delicious, although Pa proclaimed that Americans had a terrible sweet tooth since even the potatoes were sweet. He has a sweet-tooth himself, so he was gobbling them down, and I didn’t disabuse him of his notions. After dinner we opened presents and took pictures to send back to my family. Pa had bought a big bag of candy because to his mind, you can’t celebrate a holiday without candy. So we had a quasi-American style Christmas.

Of course, the family’s big focus was Chinese New Year. Two weeks before the Chinese New Year, Love got a chest cold. We did the usual emergency room run, but this time she didn’t get better as fast. Several days later, her temperature was up again, and she was having convulsions. This time the doctors said it was pneumonia and checked us directly into the hospital. We were put in the pediatric ward. Yuni went home to work and to tell the English school to find a substitute for my classes. Fortunately, the university was already on winter break. He returned at night to spend the night in the hospital with us. In Taiwan, each patient’s bed has a cot or a couch under it or beside it for a family member to spend the night. A baby had died in the crib next to Love’s, and no one wanted to put their baby in that crib or use its cot in case the bad luck rubbed off on them. We were not so superstitious, and we each took a cot.

Love was seriously ill and almost comatose for three days. Finally, the doctors changed her medicine, and she began standing up in the crib and moving around. Now my life was really difficult. She did not like being hampered by the tube in her head, so she would pull out her IV every chance she got. She would even pull it out in her sleep. It was nice to see her with energy, but it was a definite challenge. Some one had to hold her hands pretty much every minute of the day. I was already five months pregnant, but at night I would climb into the crib with her and sleep with her hands held firmly in mine. She slept very well; I slept very little. Three or four times a day, I had to take her to the special room where they gave her medicine through an atomizer. Then I had to pound her back for ten minutes and let the nurse suck the fluids out of her lungs. Ma and Pa would bring Truth to visit almost every day after Love’s fever broke. They were very worried that the family would not be all together on the twins’ first Chinese New Year. We spoke with the doctor, but he refused to promise anything because Love had been so sick when they checked her in.

Finally, at one in the afternoon of Chinese New Year’s eve, the doctor determined that Love’s lungs were clear enough and that she could go home for the traditional New Year’s Eve family dinner. We went home with packets and packets of medicines and instructions to bring her to the emergency room if her fever went back up or if her chest sounded congested. Ma did not allow the twins to go out on any of the family trips that vacation, but they had their grandchildren home for the family celebrations. Everyone had a good time.

After the holiday, Ma and Pa asked around to find the best pediatric Chinese medicine doctor. We started taking Love to get medicine to boost her immune system. It was nasty, bitter stuff, and even after boiling and straining it, there were still bits of bark in it that she was supposed to ingest. It usually took three or four adults to get it down her, but Pa and Ma were determined that she would not go back to the hospital again. We persevered with the regimen, and her fevers decreased. When she did get sick, she did not need to go to the emergency room. A couple of Panadol or Tylenol were usually enough to break her fevers.