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.


Teresa said...

I wrote this post because I've gotten e-mails from Chinese-American women married to Chinese men who are having real problems with rural Chinese in-laws. I wanted them to understand the family dynamics.

For me, things were not quite so bad. The Lius knew I was from a different paradigm, and I always tried to create harmony in the family and build community. When things were good, everyone chose the community-building route. But always, when life got tough or stress levels were high, the ingrained social-conditioning of "wife/daughter-in-law as enemy" was the default mode. After the episode, there were tears and apologies, and life went on. It took me several years, though, to elevate the family's awareness and get them to even consider community building. And much of the time, the rhetoric is community-building, but the innate actions are more aggressive. My experience can best be described as if the people around me are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde types. I could never figure out what I had done to cause so many Mr. Hydes to appear sometimes, but after reading Kristeva's book, I realized that in default mode, I am seen as an enemy.

The Neo-Confucian model of marriage is different in that women are suppressed so far down, they are not considered a threat. They have no power or resources, and a good man does not fight with women. Women are cared for as fragile flowers or cherished possessions, and the men are expected to adhere to certain standards of behavior towards them.

Peasant marriages that mirror the ancient forms can best be described as a "battle of the sexes." And then after millennia of Neo-Confucianism, the battle of the sexes has developed a heavy patina of male chauvinism. The most successful women are the women who use strategy number 2. The women who use strategy number 3 tend to have enough education that they have internalized the Neo-Confucian theories about women. And there are plenty of women who thoroughly enjoy living in the rough and tumble world of strategy number 1.

Cloudia said...

Thanks for sharing this valuable info, Teresa.

New Year is around the corner!

Aloha, Sister Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Aloha to you Cloudia! It will soon be the Year of the Tiger!! My brother's year to shine.

murat11 said...

Teresa: I am not done absorbing this one: a wonderful piece, chock full of acute observations. What with my fuzzy brain of late, I'm not tracking it the way I want to, so I'll be back later for more response. Nice and meaty.

murat11 said...

Part of the difficulty in responding earlier has to do with the breadth of your discussion, all of which is fascinating.

I can't remember how the tri-lingual experiment ended up with the babies. How are their original languages now?

It was quite poignant to read of releasing your "sorrow and frustration." As verbal (and multilingual) as you are, it must have been heartbreaking to hew to the language lines drawn.

Short of your natal family's protection, it seems that, for a time, Pa played the protector, though this may be an oversimplification on my part.

Organizing Silence seemed applicable to a variety of contexts, including some recent conversations Tina and I have had about the Episcopal Church (more specifically, our diocese) and its own lingering silencing structures.

Thanks for you wonderfully abundant ramble.

Teresa said...

Hi Murat, this was one that had to be written all in one fell swoop or too much would be lost. So far much of the blog has been experience only, but these experiences are hard to describe without the theory as a guidepost.

I think you are correct in saying that Pa did act as my protector in the family. He is a basically decent human being, and he has a well-developed sense of fair play. I was contributing to the family--saving their bacon, and he didn't think it fair that anyone treat me as an enemy. He promised my parents when we got married that he would treat me like a daughter since they were so far away. To this day, he still tries to keep that promise.

The kids are pretty much trilingual. Their English did become the dominant language after we moved to the US when the twins were 2 1/2 and the baby was 15 months, but they can speak Hakka with all the relatives, and they also do quite well in Mandarin, including reading and writing. We did work out a gap year between high school and college when they went back to Taiwan for a year of intensive Mandarin study. That year pretty much capped off their language abilities. I would say though that my Mandarin is better than theirs, but especially the twins are more in-grained Chinese from the Hakka dialect. Love is Chinese at her core with some very lovely streaks of American. It is quite interesting to watch them develop into adults.

"Organizing Silence" is a very all-inclusive book. The end of it talks about how women can turn silence upside-down and use it as a weapon of resistance and then it talks about the use of silence in aesthetics. The beginning chapters on how women are organized into silence spoke the most to me. The middle of the book is about the silence of abused women and the stigmas society places on victims of assault that make it difficult for them to speak up. It is a powerful and disturbing book.

Nishant said...

I wanted them to understand the family dynamics.

Work from home India

Barrie said...

Not sure how I missed this post. And I'll have to come back to read it again. There's a lot of information in there. I'm trying to see how it fits in with the book I just finished on North Korea. Thank you for sharing, Teresa. And Happy Chinese New Year!

Teresa said...

Hi Barrie,
I think I posted this one when you had book signings and promotions and then went on a writers' retreat in a monastery. I hope to get another post up today. The more theory I learn, the harder it gets to maintain the simplicity of the blog narrative...