Sunday, December 30, 2012

Talking Around an Issue to Make a Point

After reading my last post, I expect many people are wondering how Yuni could get away with threatening to not support his parents and escape being censured for his own lack of filial piety. That is an art in Chinese family negotiations. I never heard Yuni threaten his parents outright. And yet, his parents felt that he had delivered an ultimatum regarding his support of them in their old age.

How did he do this? He talked around an issue until his point was taken.

Yuni couched everything in terms of how the older generations must be patterns of filial piety so that the younger generations will learn from them and continue on in the proper traditions. Yuni never mentioned himself. Instead, he talked about how our young daughters would be corrupted from the proper practice of filial piety, if they were to be allowed any contact with my father, especially unsupervised contact. He waxed eloquent about his fears of not being supported or cared for in his old age because he had allowed his children to be infected by the germs of American disregard for filial piety.

The most he said about himself was that he could not understand how a college professor like my father would not realize that his actions could corrupt his son-in-law, who might then follow in his footsteps.

Yuni used this line of discourse whenever my father was mentioned until finally, everyone in our household gave up broaching the subject to him. And when he failed to give his parents their usual fat red envelopes for the next Chinese New Year, he just said that we did not have the money. He gave them something but much less than usual, and much less than we had given them when we were really poor after just arriving in America. Those years he had taken extra work on the weekends to make sure his parents had enough. From what Ma told me later, those thin red envelopes spoke volumes and really frightened her.

After this experience Pa and Ma no longer supported me as much in the family for fear of losing their security in old age. I had passed a test with the clan in helping out Elder Sister, and now Yuni wanted me to be treated as if I were really Chinese. There would be much less slack cut for me because I am white. Even though we were living in America, I actually sank deeper into the family’s Chinese culture.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Resolving Family Conflict Chinese-style

That summer, Pa and Ma visited us in America after Yuni had returned to the Seattle area from his job in California. Pa was having problems with his eyes. They were sore, and sometimes he had trouble keeping them open. We got a referral from my grandmother to her ophthalmologist and took him for a number of exams. The ophthalmologist could not find anything wrong, except that he had dry eyes, so she prescribed eye drops and encouraged him to buy sunglasses to protect his eyes in Taiwan’s fierce sunlight. 

While the visit was ostensibly about Pa’s health problems, he also had two other reasons for wanting to speak with us. First, he wanted to see if he could persuade Yuni to allow me to see my father, and second, he wanted to talk to us about adopting Elder Sister’s daughters, Sheep and Monkey, because they were having trouble in school after the shock of losing their father. Since it was summer, Yuni had quite a bit of work. He was remodeling a bathroom for some friends and laying marble floor-tile in a large old house on Capitol Hill in Seattle. While he was gone, Pa asked me about the situation with my dad.

Pa was hoping to find someone in my family to work with him in traditional Chinese style. If you recall, when my sisters-in-law had problems with their in-laws, they moved back in with Pa for several months. Then Pa and Yuni negotiated with the in-laws to resolve the problems. Pa thought that if my dad’s brother and my brother would be willing to come out to broker a détente between my dad and Yuni, he and Ma could place pressure on Yuni to call off his “grandchild embargo.” Unfortunately, my uncle lived in California and my brother in New York. We decided that it would be too much to call on either of them to travel to Seattle for this purpose. As a back-up plan, Pa had brought gifts for my father, which he then demanded that Yuni allow me and the girls to deliver with him and Ma. Yuni said it would be okay as long as my dad’s girl friend was not present. My dad was not amenable to that condition and insisted that since they were getting married soon, his fiancée should be able to meet my in-laws. When Pa and Ma tried to force the issue with Yuni, he threatened to deny them monetary support during their retirement. And this ended their attempts to restore our relationship with my father. While Yuni was at work one day, Pa and Ma apologized to me for allowing Yuni to be spoiled as a child by his grandmother. They confessed to being unable to control him, and they baldly stated that they would need his support in their old age, so they were afraid of offending him more. I appreciated their efforts and told them not to worry about it. 

Yuni’s ox temper became more deeply entrenched. When we mentioned his sisters and reminded him how their relationship with Pa was so important to their marriages, he countered with the story of the Chinese friends whose bathroom he was remodeling. They were northern Chinese who had moved to Taiwan and then to the US. Their daughter-in-law had not been allowed to return to see her parents in Taiwan for the ten years that they had lived in the US, and she was only allowed one thirty-minute phone call with her parents every month. Pa said that the Liu family had no such rules, but Yuni just growled and glowered at him. 

In the end, Pa became quite depressed about the conflict with his son. Ma quickly suggested that we work on the applications to adopt Monkey and Sheep and that we stop discussing anything related to my “unfilial” father. I was doing a translation job for a client working with an immigration attorney in Seattle, and the attorney gave me the forms and instructions for adopting children as a professional courtesy. He also gave us a list of all the documents we would need, and my sisters-in-law sprang into action getting the documents from the Taiwanese government and having them delivered to me to be translated. In order to qualify financially, we needed to pay off our home mortgage, and all the siblings in the family pooled their money so that we would be debt free. Pa gave us the money to pay off our car loan on the van.

Yuni finished up his two jobs, and before starting his next project, he took off work for ten days so that we could drive down to California with Pa and Ma to visit my mother. We drove down along the Oregon Coast and then spent a week with my mother in Long Beach, CA. We took Pa and Ma to Knott’s Berry Farm, Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Sea World. Pa was not happy. The sun in California was bothering his eyes, he was worried about Elder Sister, and he was annoyed at Yuni for not giving him face in the situation with my father. It was the most unpleasant ten days I have ever spent with Pa and Ma. Yuni also registered his father’s displeasure, but instead of giving in, he refused to talk to them on the phone after their return to Taiwan, and Ma later reported that he failed to send them money the next Chinese New Year. 

I was stunned to learn that Yuni had turned on his parents because they had supported me. I was also pretty angry, but I didn’t let him know it. If he thought that his “ox temper” could win the day in the family, I was going to go mano a mano with my “ox temper.” I, too, was born in the Year of the Metal Ox, and I could be just as stubborn as he. But my stubbornness would be in taking the course of Chinese feminine virtue. I would wear him out by my feminine endurance, just as Elder Sister was planning to endure in her situation with her in-laws. It took three years before Yuni allowed me to speak to my dad again, and it took almost five years for him to allow my kids to spend time alone with their maternal grandfather, but in the end, the relationship was healed.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Working through Cross-Cultural Family Conflict

I was certainly stunned by Yuni’s screed against my country, my family, and my person. I understood his point of view on everything because I had experienced with him how much harder life is in America for immigrants and minorities than it is for middle class/upper middle class whites. I was living as an immigrant in my own country, and it was a strange feeling. When I was on my own in a fully English-speaking situation or when I was out with my white relatives, I was treated with deference and respect. My opinions were respectfully heard and carefully weighed; even if my ideas were not implemented, they were not dismissed outright. When I was out with Yuni and my children, we always spoke Chinese. People looked at me differently when I was part of a group of “foreigners.” We would be seated in the worst seats at restaurants; no one listened to us or took us seriously. Some of my acquaintances would even refuse to acknowledge me when I was in my Chinese context. They would look past me when I greeted them and walk hurriedly away. At least I had the option of going out alone and being white; Yuni did not have that. After being so privileged from birth in Taiwan due to his status as a male, he became an eternal pariah here in the US, regardless of his intelligence, skills, and other qualifications. 

I also felt quite sympathetic to Yuni’s sorrow about Elder Sister’s situation. He had not been with his family as they worked through their grief in her hospital room because he was their main breadwinner and had had to return to the US to earn needed American dollars. I know that he felt isolated in his grief and a little jealous of me and our daughters for “taking his place.” One of my Japanese friends likes to share her favorite things with me, and she wants me to resonate with her feelings (her English words) about almost every detail. It seems that to her, friendship means we need to like the same movie stars, eat the same foods, and be in almost total alignment. When my American family and friends speak of resonating with others, it generally means that we share crucial core values, but there is room for much variance in the minutia of our personal likes and dislikes. I have come to realize that this idea of totally “resonating” is also important in Chinese families. The shared stories, the legends, and the general emphasis on the group all act to bring people into a close harmony of feelings that we do not have in American families. I think part of the reason Yuni felt out of sorts about Elder Sister’s situation was that he missed the family gatherings, which would have attuned him to his family’s new upbeat determination to help Elder Sister reclaim her position as a chaste widow in Eldest Brother-in-Law’s family. 

I could understand his criticism of my family, but I could not “resonate” with him in this matter for the simple reason that I had two gut reactions, one in Chinese and one in English. My Chinese gut understood his critique, but I relate to my family in English, and my English gut said it was unfair of him to impose Chinese culture upon people who had no clue about the cultural standards being used to evaluate them. My failure to closely resonate with his feelings precipitated the first major fight of our marriage, and I decided to ask for some input as to how to resolve things.  

My American friends had no idea what to tell me. My Chinese friends from more modern, urban families said that their families had not adhered so rigidly to the traditions since their grandparents were small children, and they did not know what to say to me, either. 

Eventually, I got some good advice from the Taiwanese mothers of my ESL students. They told me that Yuni’s situation was quite common among Chinese immigrant men and that he was actually handling things pretty well. Many immigrant Chinese men in the US become violent against their wives or develop addictions to gambling and alcohol. Some even get so depressed that they do not work; they just sit in front of the TV all day and leave everything to their wives. My friends said that since Yuni was working, I should just let things go. They believed that after awhile, this would blow over. They thought that he had a lot of pent up frustrations and was just blowing off steam. One of the ESL mothers also suggested that I call one or two of my sisters-in-law to get advice from them. All of the ESL mothers exhorted me to “endure” this episode of what we dubbed “Chinese Husband in America Syndrome.” After moving to California and becoming friends with women of other Asian immigrant groups, I expanded the name to “Asian Husband in America Syndrome,” and one of my professors at CSULB informs me that her research shows it is really just “Immigrant Husband in America Syndrome.”  

Since Yuni was away from home, working in California, I thought it was a good time to call my sisters-in-law to see what they had to say about the situation. They told me that Yuni has an “ox temper.” He was born in the Year of the Ox, and he is stubborn like an ox. He is usually placid and good-natured, but when provoked he has an unpredictable temper that occasionally turns violent. They said that since marrying me, his temper was much improved. They also told me that when he “goes into ox mode” (發牛,fa niu), the best thing to do is to NOT directly contradict him or he digs in his heels and takes years to come around. They suggested that I follow Elder Sister’s example of being an exemplary woman so that he would be shamed into better behavior. My sisters-in-law also exhorted me to “endure.” 

And so, I decided to give Yuni more time. I believed that his outburst was mainly precipitated by frustration at his lack of social status in America compounded with the shock and grief of Eldest Brother-in-law’s death, the loss of face at Eldest Brother-in-law’s funeral, and his worry over Elder Sister’s precarious situation. We had been married for seven years, and things had been pretty good. I was not ready to throw in the towel after our first major disagreement. I had encountered Yuni’s “ox temper” before, and I agreed with my sisters-in-law that direct conflict usually made things much worse. In the end, I did what he told me, keeping my kids away from my dad and not driving the family van. 

My dad was not happy about being cut off from contact with his granddaughters. I tried to explain my situation to him, but he understandably felt that it was all horribly unfair. Other members of my American family tried to talk me into pushing Yuni, a few even going so far as to suggest that perhaps I should divorce him for being too controlling. I totally understood where they were coming from, but I also knew that they did not understand the cultural and psychological context for Yuni’s tantrum. I was still working every day from 4:30 am until 1 am with my translation jobs, homeschooling, housework, and tutoring. It was an exhausting schedule, and I didn’t have the time to figure out how to explain the cultural differences to my American relatives. I just said, “It’s a Chinese thing,” and trusted that the American culture would give us enough leeway to let Yuni take his time. I have to say that while my family was not entirely happy with my decision, they did respect me enough to let me make my own choices. I truly appreciate them for giving me that freedom. 

I also want to clarify that my American family members were extremely supportive of us when we first arrived in the US and have continued to be supportive ever since. Although they did not pick up on our lack of food, they did give us warm clothes, money to repair the car, books and other educational supplies for the children. They provided lots of encouragement and support in their American way. Many of Yuni’s negative feelings about them stemmed from his cultural expectations that family finances should be more communal. Unlike the situation in Chinese families, in a typical extended American family, finances are not handled in a communal or semi-communal pot. My American family was also looking for plain speaking, but Yuni did not want me to come right out and tell them that we were forced to rely on the food bank donations from our neighbor. Again, I think this was a problem with cross-cultural communication. Yuni was hoping to experience resonance and to feel that my family accepted him to the point of being beyond the need for words. He got frustrated when the relationship did not reach that level, but that is not a place where typical white American families even try to go. Americans value straight-forward speech and open communication. I am extremely grateful for my American family’s openness to and tolerance of my Chinese lifestyle, and I also have to give Yuni much credit for (spoiler alert) eventually getting past his cultural prejudices and learning to get along with my dad.