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.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Consequences of Being Labeled "Bu Xiao"

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… 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Branded "Bu Xiao" (不孝,Unfilial)

In earlier posts, I mentioned that filial piety is huge in Chinese culture. If you watch Chinese soap operas, you can see a recurring theme of an elderly parent, usually a mother, becoming ill with distress when a son is unfilial. If the son fails to mend his ways at the first sign of his parent’s illness, and especially if the parent dies as a result of becoming ill from his lack of piety, the son gets branded as bu xiao or unfilial by society. Such a label is something my friends from Taiwan and China fear because it means a total loss of credibility in the community. In imperial China, even the emperors had to avoid having a reputation of being unfilial because it could mean that they would lose the “mandate of Heaven,” making them vulnerable to a coup. 

I also mentioned that Ma told stories about filial piety to her children as a way of encouraging them to be assiduous in their filial piety towards her. One of her favorite stories, especially for her sons, was the story of Youngest Maternal Uncle standing up to his elder sisters-in-law to protect his mother:

After the Maternal Uncles had divided up the family assets and were all living in separate households, Grandma Chu was supposed to travel from household to household, living with each son and daughter-in-law for two weeks at a time. Each son had a room in his home for Grandma Chu, and while Grandma Chu was living in a household, the daughter-in-law had to cook special foods to manage Grandma Chu’s diabetes. This was a chore because Grandma Chu had to eat six small meals per day, and she could not eat sweets or dishes cooked with sugar. Several of the Maternal Uncle’s Wives worked outside the home, and they could not always meet Grandma Chu’s needs. Her diabetes was worsening, but nothing she said was sinking in with her sons and daughters-in-law. Once, after receiving news that her diabetes was worsening at a doctor’s appointment, the Maternal Uncles held a family council about Grandma Chu’s health. They and their wives were arguing and bickering because no one wanted to be taxed with taking off two weeks from work every other month to cook for Grandma Chu. Grandma Chu was distressed to the point of tears, and Youngest Maternal Uncle stood up and said to his elder brothers and sisters-in-law: “Wives can be changed like clothes, but I only have one mother. If you do not care enough for our mother to give her a pleasant life in her old age, then I will take her into my home and order my wife to not work so that she can devote herself to caring for our mother. You can pay me a certain amount every month for the support of our mother. If my wife won’t do this, I will divorce her and find a wife who will care properly for my mother.” That stopped the bickering. Youngest Maternal Uncle’s Wife was amenable to caring for Grandma Chu full-time, and the other Maternal Uncles were happy to pay a small sum every month towards their mother’s care. Grandma Chu was overjoyed being allowed to stay in one home where someone would take care of her special diet. The legend of Youngest Maternal Uncle’s filial piety became part of the Liu family lore, as one of Ma’s oft-repeated stories. 

Over the past month I have laid a theoretical and descriptive foundation about the workings of Chinese families, and now I would like to return to the thread of my own story and describe what happened at my own grandmother’s funeral. If you remember, I went off on this tangent about masculinity and the battle between the sexes, leaving myself and the girls on a trans-Pacific airplane flight rushing home to the US to attend my paternal grandmother’s funeral, after having seen Elder Sister safely through her ordeal in the hospital in Taiwan. The girls and I landed safely in Seattle and met Yuni and my dad in the airport. Yuni’s plane from California had gotten in a hour or so before ours did. We went home, and a few days later, we attended the funeral. The girls had plenty of appropriate clothes, since we had been to so many funerals over the course of that year. Everything went well until the family dinner after all the funeral proceedings were over.

By this time, Yuni’s English was quite good; he felt especially comfortable talking with children. My uncle’s three children are not too much older than my own children, and Yuni sat among the six of them as self-proclaimed “king of the kids.” He kept them quiet and well-behaved while the rest of the adults discussed family matters that were not as interesting to him. Since it was a funeral feast, and since my grandmother had been good to him, Yuni began questioning my cousins about their last moments with Grammie. He did this in a manner reminiscent of what his family had done after the deaths of Grandma Chu and Eldest Brother-in-Law. He was beginning the creation of Grammie’s hagiography. I was involved in the discussion with the adults, so I do not quite know what he said when he asked his questions, but he suddenly became very perturbed. When the meal was over, he demanded that I talk to my cousins about the last time they had seen Grammie. Their story was that they had visited her on Christmas Day and she was happy talking to them. Then my dad had come in with his girl friend, and she had turned her face to the wall, refusing to speak. The next thing they knew she was dead.

I asked their mother about this, and my aunt said that Grammie’s health had not been good prior to Christmas. My uncle’s family had been with her in her room at the convalescent home for 30 minutes before my dad and his girl friend arrived. Grammie spoke with everyone for another 20 minutes or so, and then she had felt so tired that she rolled over to take a nap. My uncle’s family left at that point for Christmas lunch with other relatives, and they were so busy with holiday festivities that did not get a chance to visit her again. Grammie passed away two or three days after Christmas, and health care professionals believed it was because she had seen her family, she had been ailing for some time, and her death was the result of normal post-holiday let down often seen among the elderly. I translated this to Yuni, but he would not accept it. Just as his youngest cousin’s story of the men in white was proof that Grandma Chu had gone to heaven, so also my young cousins’ version of Grammie’s death was to him the most truthful and unbiased account of the situation. 

And from my cousins’ story, Yuni came up with this very Chinese interpretation of what had happened at Christmas: Grammie had really liked my father’s second wife because she was quite good at caring for elderly people. Grammie was sad because my father was divorcing his second wife, depriving his mother of her accustomed caretaker. While Yuni had huge problems with men having mistresses, especially after the situation at Eldest Brother-in-Law’s funeral in Taiwan, he claimed to make no judgment in this instance about the fact of my father's divorce. However, he believed that my dad should have settled his divorce by buying Wife Number Two a house near Grammie's nursing home and paying her handsomely to continue caring for his mother until her death, and then beyond as a way of thanking her for her service to his parents. Yuni felt that in the matter of his divorce, my dad was completely ignoring his mother’s wishes with respect to her choice of care-taker. To be a truly good and filial son, my dad should have chosen his wife to suit his mother, as in the legend of Youngest Maternal Uncle. In Yuni’s view, Grammie had turned her face to the wall on Christmas because she had been deprived of spending the holiday with Wife Number Two, and therefore, she had died of a broken heart. Ergo, my father is an unfilial son. 

Yuni and I were carrying on this conversation in rapid Mandarin Chinese at the edge of the private dining room where we had had the funeral dinner, and so of course, my family didn’t know what was going on. Yuni and I argued about this in the car on the way home, but anything I said was to no avail. In the end, Yuni’s reading of the situation fit the typical Chinese soap opera plot lines and his family legends too well for him to accept any other possible explanation. And so, in his eyes, my father was branded as the worst kind of unfilial son—the kind who aggravates his mother to death.