Chinese society has much less room for individualism than American society. As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of Ma’s worst threats to my daughters, when they engaged in inappropriate behavior, was “Everyone will talk about you.” The absolute worst punishment in the Liu family was for Pa and Ma to give one of their children or grandchildren the silent treatment. They would make a big show of turning their backs on the person, refusing to look at them, and when the parents were shunning a person, no one else in the household could speak to that person in their presence. Usually the culprit repented quickly with tears and gifts for the parents, and then, after Pa and Ma had harangued them sufficiently, life returned to normal.
One of my Chinese roommates before I was married lived in a single-parent household, which was quite rare in Taiwan in the 1980s. She told me that her father had taken up with a mistress despite the fact that her mother had two sons and was quite good to her parents-in-law. This woman’s father was taking family resources and giving them to his mistress despite his own parents’ admonitions. In the end, my friend’s paternal grandfather had gone to court and disowned his son for being unfilial. He had transferred title to the son’s share of the family’s wealth to his grandsons and given my friend’s mother trusteeship over her sons’ assets. My friend’s paternal grandparents lived in the household with her mother until their deaths, and her father was barred from attending their funerals. This sounds quite extreme, but a few other examples suggest that it was common practice during the previous generation in Taiwan.
Yuni’s Eldest Maternal Uncle lived in Taoyouan far away from the rest of the family in Toufen. Ma told me that he and his wife had been banished from the family home by Grandpa Chu because his wife had been unfilial to Grandma Chu. Eldest Maternal Uncle’s Wife had spread lies about Grandma Chu that had caused Grandpa Chu to beat his wife in front of the clan in order to regain face. When the lie was exposed, Grandpa Chu was furious. He banished his eldest son and daughter-in-law from the combined family household. Because their son was the eldest grandson, he did not totally ostracize them from the family, but they were forced to make their own living without family resources. Upon Grandpa Chu’s death, control of the family property went first to Second Maternal Uncle and then passed to Third Maternal Uncle when Second Maternal Uncle passed away unexpectedly in his early forties. Third Maternal Uncle helped raise his youngest brothers who were still teenagers when Grandpa Chu and Second Maternal Uncle passed away. Third Maternal Uncle held the real power of top family elder, even though Eldest Maternal Uncle and his eldest son still performed their ceremonial roles at funerals, death anniversaries, and weddings.
Our foster daughters from Fuzhou, China, also lived in great fear of being labeled unfilial. Their brother and parents got into debt from a failed business, and their mother forced the girls to drop out of school to work and help pay off the family’s debts. I suggested that since the girls were living with us in California and their parents were in New York, there was nothing their parents could do to force them. But the girls told me that if they got a reputation for being unfilial in the Fuzhou Chinese-American community, they would not be able to get jobs or even marry respectable husbands. They did manage to work out an arrangement with their father (the only person who could trump their mother) to keep themselves from being forced into marriages with older men willing to pay high bride prices, but they had to drop out of college to work for their parents until they could find acceptable husbands, who would then let them finish college after they married.
When Yuni branded my father as unfilial to the point of causing his mother to die of a broken heart, he fully expected that the girls and I would cut ourselves off from having any further relationship with my father.
While I had been living long enough in the Chinese culture to understand at a gut level why he felt this way, I could not accept his attempt to impose Chinese culture on our relationships with my American relatives. And I told him that he was being unreasonable because Americans did not live by Confucian ethics. I said that my father’s actions were not wrong according to the American culture.
Well, that certainly was the wrong answer…