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.


Cloudia said...

Another invaluable post that I have already sent around.

Thanks for sharing your personal matters in a way that is sure to educate and help others.

Wishing YOU a sweet week,
with Aloha from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral

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Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia, Thanks for your encouragement. These events all happened 18-20 years ago. I feel okay about sharing them now because I think that the lessons I learned then are still relevant today.

Ricardo Miñana said...

Hola Teresa, interesante espacio
el tuyo, un placer.
si te gusta la poesía, la palabra inaudita te invito a mis blogs.
felices fiestas.

MKL said...

I'm a European living in Taiwan and I'm constantly stuck between two worlds. It can be quite challenging, so I could understand both sides of the issue in your post. Very well written and I'm glad it all turned out well.