Friday, November 23, 2012

An Immigrant's Views on American Morality

After my paternal grandmother’s death, Yuni and I had a protracted disagreement about whether or not my father had been unfilial to his mother in her final days. We went back and forth on this; he was quite emotional and told story after story from his family lore about filial piety. I, on the other hand, was more legalistic, and I kept saying that it was not fair to judge Americans by Chinese cultural standards and that the situation was quite different from his reading of things, especially in an American cultural context. I would counter Yuni’s moral tales with an appeal to logic and say that it is not fair to condemn an American for something that is not immoral by American standards. One day something snapped in him.

Yuni responded to my arguments about American moral standards with a tirade against America and its hypocrisy. He said that America engages in false advertising. It promotes an American dream of equal opportunity for all, but then when foreigners come, they do not have the same opportunities to rise up the social ladder, no matter how hard they work. He said that America makes promises to allies that it will promote democracy around the world, but then, it abandons those allies when they become inconvenient, like when Nixon abandoned Taiwan and opened the door for normalizing relations with mainland China—a Communist country. He said that American society claims to be Christian and moral, but it is saturated with all kinds of blatant immorality.

Then, he started in on my family. He was upset that my family treated him as an “outsider” by demanding a written business plan before they would lend him money for his contracting business. He was upset that my grandmother discouraged us from “going on the dole.” Her word was law to him because she was a family elder, but her request made our lives exponentially harder. He was upset that my family members did not realize without being explicitly told how much we were struggling when we first came to the US and that we had had to rely on our neighbor’s contributions from the food bank to keep our children fed. (He contrasted this to his parents, who had figured out our food problem within hours of their first visit to us in the United States.) He was upset that my dad, as a college professor and university administrator, did not hold himself to a higher standard of morality (according to the Chinese yardstick) than the rest of society, so that he would be a proper example to his students, children, and grandchildren.

And finally, he began venting against all men who damage their homes by having affairs. He went on and on about the shame he and his parents had suffered at Elder Brother-in-law’s funeral. He began weeping at the thought of Elder Sister having to raise five children under the burden of so much debt, while Eldest Brother-in-Law’s former mistress held all of Elder Brother’s cash assets. And he finished by calling me a stupid, rich American who could never understand how most of the people in the world suffer in poverty while we complacently enjoy our luxurious, opulent lives. Then, he raised his hand as if to hit me, told me I could never speak to my father again, pushed me against the wall, and left the house for hours. When he came back, he refused to speak to me for days. After about a week, he would give the kids messages to relay to me, and he would only “hear” me, if I relayed messages back to him through the kids.

I was stunned by his outburst, and I really did not know how to respond. His rant against America was similar to complaints that I had heard when I was an exchange student in Costa Rica and Germany during high school. I also heard the same objections to American policies in Taiwan before I was married. I knew from my personal experience of adjusting to Chinese proprieties and sensibilities in Taiwan that certain cultural taboos are not universal practices and that it is hard to avoid having a visceral and strong reaction when your taboos are unwittingly trampled upon by the dominant culture. And our seven years of marriage had taught me how different our two families are. I believed that Yuni mainly needed psychic space to deal with his grief about his sister’s tragedy, and so I went on with my daily routine as though nothing had happened. It was hard, but that was what my Chinese mother-in-law and sisters-in-law would have done in the same situation.

Fortunately, Yuni had to return to California to continue his job there. His parting words were spoken directly to me: “Do not allow the children to see or speak to your father’s girl friend. Do not drive our new van (and our only car). If you do either of those two things, I will divorce you.”

1 comment:

Cloudia said...

How challenging for you - how revealing and interesting for us, and for students of Chinese culture.

Warm Aloha to YOU
from Honolulu
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