It’s easy to write about a different culture when you’re standing outside looking in. The differences and similarities are so striking that all it takes are the proverbial a few nights in Bangkok and suddenly you have something to say about Thai morals.
But when you are trying to describe your own culture, trying to dissect and analyze why the people in your particular Tribe behave in such and such a way, it gets tricky. You might not even notice that everyone in your house picks their nose while they watch TV. Dinner rituals are second nature; language is something that comes “naturally”. What others might consider prejudice is just “common knowledge”.
So it has taken me a while to write this installment in the wandering series based on my family and our experiences, because this one involves people very close to me. My parents, my siblings, how we view Chinese people in general, Chinese women and finally my wife.
Oh you know how Asian women are
“Everybody’s sayin’ it, everybody’s playin it’, put it on a scale and everybody’s weighin it … ”
Asian women are a hot topic these days: if it isn’t stories on Yellow Fever, it’s a treatise on Tiger Mommies or Kept Women, or a market analysis of Second Wives or another ‘I’m an Asian woman” novel of suffering, determination and ultimate catharsis.
Asian women are submissive tigers that lurk demurely in the corner waiting to get tied up and tossed into the kitchen where stir fry is sizzlin’ but watch your back because you might end up toting a purse and dragging a gaggle of mentally scarred overachievers behind wherever she wants to go. Oh, and forget about your cashflow, cause its hers now.
(I’m not sure if I nailed all the cliches, but you get the point).
My parents lived in Japan and my dad’s best friend was married to a Korean lady. The Asian women they met were wives of soldiers. Allow me to drop another stereotype into the pot:
Asian wives of US soldiers = gold diggin’ peasants.
At least that’s what they say. So when my dad’s friend’s wife left him after he had a stroke and took all his money, everybody nodded sagely and said they saw it coming because that’s just what Asian women do.
My parents were and probably to a much lesser extent still are convinced that Bean (the pet name by which I call my wife) got pregnant on purpose. Either to keep me in her life or to get a green card, but basically on purpose. I’m not exactly sure how she did it, but I guess she told her anti-sperm defenses to stand down and informed her egg that the first lil Sascha that staggered through the phelopian was to be gobbled up. Immediately.
It was my fault too I guess, but only for getting duped by the manipulative Asian woman desperately trying to leave her Third World Country for the golden fields of grain in the USA. This whole spiel is something we hear every so often from expats and perhaps also their families and it does exist, this Asian Woman using sex with a Western Man to improve her situation and my parents have heard it and seen it enough to assume that it could be the case with Bean and I.
The key fact here is that my parents had heard of Bean, but hadn’t met her. We didn’t travel back to the West a lot and my parents never came to China in all the 10 years I lived here, until last year when they came to see lil Dorian, my son. So my wife — although very aware — has no real world experience with the West; and my parents — although they lived in Japan — have basically no experience with Chinese (or any other Asian) women.
Add to that the language barrier and you have a a strong chance that both parties will fall back on stereotypes to describe each other. Expect miscommunication and misunderstandings.
“Asian women are spoiled”
When Bean and I were discussing an Ayi (maid) for Dorian, my parents almost choked on their breakfast. Ayi? Like a maid?
“Your mother took care of you two boys (me and my brother), kept the house clean AND had dinner ready every evening,” scoffed my Dad. “We didn’t have a maid.”
So there we have a couple things popping out:
- Asian women are spoiled and unable to handle a normal workload
- They think nothing of spending your hard earned cash on their comforts
- They are inherently weaker than Western women
But its true; my mom did all of the housework, her entire life. My mom is proud of what she accomplished as a mother. We always had breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were always clean clothes and wiped counters. We never missed a practice and she never failed to pick us up from whatever we were into at the time.
Every time I think of my mom I hear the plodding, muffled steps of her slippered feet on the stairs up from the basement laundry room. Basket in her arms. Lips moving as she spoke to herself. About dinner I guess.
Today’s One-Child Chinese girls are told by their families, their society and their own desires that not only are they incapable of doing what my mom did, but to do so is undignified and depressing. They are completely and utterly terrified of the implications of being a real mother, ie taking care of the home and the kids.
The possibility that my wife fears a life of folding, cleaning and cooking makes her weak and selfish in my parents eyes. So she should quit her whining. I started to believe that too.
So during Christmas I would hear my parents’ voices in my head and turn on Bean:
“Baby, how come there’s no dinner on the table when I come home from work?”
“Baby, what you need a maid for? Get your ass in gear!”
“Baby you need to get a job, I can’t pay for all this stuff!”
And then Bean would lose it, start crying (which elicited another round of “see, there she goes again” from my parents) and after hours of tortured discussion, I would turn on my parents and say:
“Everyone has a maid in China, in fact, Bean is the only Momma I know that does not have her mom, dad, a maid and three other random women in the house taking care of Dorian!”
“Well that just goes to show you what those people are like!” came the reply.
“‘You don’t know what China is like!”
“Sounds ridiculous, you need to come home.”
When Bean and I were talking about paying big money for a hospital (because we’re expecting our second child now), my parents got angry.
“You don’t have a pot to piss in and she wants you to pay how much for hospital fees? What kind of a wimp is she?
Now of course my parents have no idea what it’s like in a Chinese hospital: factory conditions, callous nurses, weird procedures, men not allowed in to see the miracle happening. If they did then the fact that I live in China would just confirm my insanity and I my family might just intervene to save me.
Some Kind of Clarity
My oldest friend in the world Filip Pawelka has two kids and we went to hang out with them for a few days. We talked about all sorts of things and eventually came to the topic of my parents and Bean and maids and money and green cards and the stress of parenting.
When I was done laying out all of the arguments as I saw them, Filip’s wife Ilona said:
“If I didn’t have my mother here to help me out I would have gone crazy. Your Mom took care of you two, but you should ask her something: was it fun? Of course not. Full of love and joy and all that, but the stress and fatigue probably took 10 years off of her life.
If you can afford a woman to help out, then don’t be a fool. Do it.”
Me and Filip just nodded.
It took this type of a conversation with a Third Party to clear my head. For the first few weeks at my family’s home, I wasn’t sure what the truth was anymore. Did Bean do this on purpose? Is she lazy and selfish? Are my parents just callous racists?
Of course it turns out that none of these things are true. The truth is my parents are tripping because I have been a vagabond for 30 years and now suddenly I have a family and they are not sure if I’ll be able to handle it. Instead of tearing into me, which always ends up ugly, they tear into the third party, the Woman Responsible for all this.
And Bean isn’t lazy or selfish. She’s a young girl in her early 20’s who is suddenly a Mother, spending all of her waking and sleeping hours with a demanding little one year old. She should be smoking weed and laughing loud with her buddies, not wiping little butts and sleeping poorly.
By the third week in, the whole family had figured out the same thing. It all happened one night with the whole family relaxing in the living room after dinner watching my Dad and Dorian play the ‘Coming to Getcha” game for an hour. The little guy laughed so hard and the family fell in love with him all over again. His hysterical giggling dispelled the prejudice and established an unbreakable bridge between Bean and my family.
Now my parents are demanding that we all move back to Minneapolis so they can play the “Coming to Getcha” game all day long.
Let Grandpa Raise Him
Kids need a community to grow up in. In fact, there is a book somewhere that talked about the roles people have in the child-rearing process:
Young people should be having kids, older people should be raising them. Moms and Dads should be around all the time, of course, but truly a community of people all working together kibbutz style is probably the best way to raise kids.
Too bad we are all so splintered and scattered to do that for our mommies and lil ones …