In-laws are proverbial, especially the mother-in-law, and Chinese moms-in-law seem to fit every stereotype available, as far as I have heard. I call on you, reader and critic, to help me with stories and wisdom concerning the moms in law because I am unfortunate enough to only have a father in law.
My wife’s mom died suddenly of cancer just a year before we were married and although she never got to know me and never had a chance to fuss over our son, I have a feeling she is responsible for all of this.
In her place stands my father in law and his relationship to the family is at once endearingly simple and infuriatingly complex. I refer to him as Lao Ba (“Old Dad”) and he and I get along just fine. He lets me be me and I let him be him and we can sit in silence for a long time puffin’ on cigarettes and every now and then getting up to fill two cups of tea. I get his jokes and he gets mine and we often stand by our little pond in the backyard and point out projects in half-sentences and grunts, the way fellas do when they don’t need to talk too much.
Our Common Ground & Mutual Understanding
“You see that?” (I point to the sagging fence the chickens keep sneaking through to get at the lotus leaves)
“Hm. Not enough bamboo.” (to patch the hole, which means we have to get more before we start on that project)
“Hm.” (take an offered cigarette and lean in for the light)
“Let’s pull those boards out.” (to patch the hole for now)
In unison: Cha Bu Duo (??? – literally “not lacking much”, but expressing mutual agreement).
That’s pretty much how it works for me and Lao Ba. We talk about the future and where we will eventually settle (America? Germany? The Du? Dali? Morocco? A constantly moving VW van?) and he doesn’t trip out like my own Dad does when I mention that last option. Lao Ba says things like:
“Better build a play pen in that van if you’re gonna be on the road for a while.”
Which puts things in perspective real quick-like.
The Utilitarian Perspective
Lao Ba is indispensable to me because Bean (the nickname I call my wife by) is taking care of my son all the time (breastfeeding, cooing, holding, lulling to sleep etc.) and that leaves just me to sweep the courtyard, clean the rooms and kitchen, prepare food and clean the dishes, work to earn money, sort out other issues like the bank, electricity, water, clothes washing, the slippery moss in our front yard, pulling stranded, sinking chickens out of the pool, feeding our useless hound TofuPi (???) and other such unimportant tasks. I can’t do it alone so I am a big believer in having Lao Ba around to help me with the chores.
Sure: he has a different idea of cleanliness than I do. He’s a superstar when it comes to keeping counters and bowls clean, but he neglects the floors, the corners, and all those spaces where nastiness regroups for an eventual assault on the tabletop. I’ve worked in kitchens since I was 14 years of age so I have a lot of experience battling mold and gunk and all the other enemies of a clean kitchen. Lao Ba loves to say “meiyou banfa,” (????, “there’s no option!”) in fact that is his favorite thing to say because he’s 50-something and back when he was growing up having no choice in the matter was par for course in China.
My Father in Law Fixes Things
I am slowly weening him of that bad habit and he now fixes household objects I couldn’t possibly fix, like the fan, the rice cooker, the electrical cable leading to the lamp above the stairs, the washing machine and other such appliances that usually don’t last much more than a few years in China. That too is a product of his age and his generation: old guys fix stuff until it falls apart completely and I admire that. I need that around my house.
Problem is, Bean and Lao Ba have a very rocky relationship that stretches back to when Lao Ba was a fire breathing, unemployed engineer cooking meals during the day while his wife kept the house afloat working the night shift at the Chengdu Economic Daily. For a man from his generation, there isn’t much more face to lose really. So he was difficult to live with sometimes. He is older now and living with me has bent a few of his iron viewpoints on how things should (“can only be!”) done, but back then, he and Bean fought like cats and dogs.
Bean’s mom never smoked a day in her life, but died of lung cancer. Lao Ba is a smokestack. Bean and her mom were like sisters. Lao Ba prepared Bean’s meals all of her life, sent her to and picked her up from school and did most of the discipline. Moms wasn’t really available, which made her even more of a treasure and the time she took out from sleeping to be there for Bean that much more precious.
I stand in the middle and I have to think of the house and the family. Lao Ba loves his grandson (my son, Dorian) and the feeling is mutual. They get along like grampas and grandsons should and that’s really important. Lao Ba cooks, cleans, fixes and handles stuff around the house, which allows me to breathe and take care of my son and wife and other things I have to do. We need him.
My wife’s happiness — nay, a woman’s happiness — is the most important factor determining the health of a household. Let it be known:
“If a woman ain’t happy, the house ain’t comfy.”
I like a comfy house. So part of our daily routine is me defusing bombs dropped by one or the other party that risk exploding into a screaming, crying, household disorder-inducing conflagration. That’s just how it is.
Now I hear about Moms-in-law causing all sorts of havoc with their daughters: ostracizing the husband and basically exerting middle-aged to older Dragonlady control over matters and that sounds real taxing (note: Sarah Palin calls them “Mama Grizzlies”). But as far as I have seen, in the families that I have experience with, the moms-in-law are equally indispensable: taking care of the little one, dishing out wisdom like Stockton dishing assists, cooking all the good fixin’s and generally being a force of good and a well of strength for their family.
Tell me a tall tale of in-laws and outlaws in your family.