Screw that Confucian nonsense. Let’s not even get into the quagmire of East and West cliches; that exercise has never proven productive. Let’s just state this for what it is: my Chinese mother-in-law is a monster.
She objectifies me. I am the wife of her son, a wife that thankfully has credentials she can brag about to her friends. But that’s the extent of it. Actually, my credentials bug her, because it means I don’t have the time to obey her command to have her grandbabies right now. Every time she sees me, that’s the command she gives: give me grandbabies now! Where are my grandbabies! After that, she passes me by and completely ignores my existence to dote on her son. She fusses over him, whines about how far away he lives from Mommy, all the time throwing implications my way that it ‘s my fault she’s not already living under the same roof as her son. (Okay, it kind of is. I’ve already resolved death and divorce before I live with that woman.)
I try to understand where she comes from. Everything got taken away from her during the Cultural Revolution and she, a city girl, had to spend her young adult years toiling away on a farm, and gee, really, all this sucks, I feel for that woman, I do. Immigrating to the U.S. to work menial jobs in Chinatown was no walk in the park either, I bet, and the best thing to have ever happened to her (after an abortion or two because the fetuses were female and she wanted a son) was the birth of my husband, her beloved, precious “bao bei er zi“– all hail the Little Emperor.
Now he is great and I mean that. No facetiousness intended. He is a great, great guy, but nowhere near the greatness his mother thinks he is. When she visits us and he comes home from his cushy cubicle desk job at 6, she mollycoddles him with all this “you poor Atlas, you! Coochie, coochie, coo. Weight of the world on your shoulders. Work was tough and stressful, wasn’t it! Don’t you worry. Mommy is here!” He can do no wrong in her eyes. It’s either his boss’s fault, his company’s fault, the world’s fault, or my fault.
What’s more she constantly implies that I don’t keep the house (MY house) clean enough for her son, so whenever she visits, will set about cleaning it herself. Nevermind that I work full-time and am starting my own small business on the side (not related to the “working full-time”; hence the “and”) and manage several non-profits and spend the bulk of my weekends doing pro bono and am trying to do research for a book. It is of no significance whatsoever that I hold the highest degree out of anyone in her family, nuclear or extended, dead or alive, ancestors inclusive, and am working my hardest to apply that degree. It is more considerable whether I have wiped the kitchen table clean enough for Hubby to eat. Nevermind that Hubby has all his arms and legs and could in theory wipe the table clean himself.
Every time we visit her, we spend a small fortune on gifts because she declares stuff like “I love it when my son buys me gifts!” (actual quote, no exaggeration) so to keep her happy, my husband lavishes her with gifts, half of which I’m sure she does not use or does not know how to use, but loves all the same because she can tell they were expensive. The more expensive, by the way, the more she loves. We pay all her bills, we give her money for new cars, new toys, new gadgets, new everything. We pay her travel expenses to China. We pay for everything so, again, she can brag to her friends about how successful her son is, proof of that success being his ability to pay for all her shit.
In my presence, she insults my Taiwanese culture and political beliefs. She refers to Taiwanese foods, people, and fashions as “stupid,” “weird,” and “silly, those silly, silly Taiwanese people… who are really Chinese. We are all Chinese. *cough* One China.”
And in my presence, she makes fun of my mother. Now granted, it would not be an entirely inaccurate observation to say that my mother is an overly religious, overly superstitious housewife who sometimes acts like a Japanime character on speed. I can say that my mother acts funny, but you can’t. And the monster-in-law, an atheist whose sole beliefs of divinity are (1) her son and (2) the unstoppable rise of modern China, constantly remarks that my mother acts funny. Thankfully the husband intervenes at these times and will tell his mother not to say such things in my presence. But then she gets resentful, defensive, and exclaims, “I’m not saying anything bad! I’m just saying Taiwanese people are strange. Her mother is strange!”
Finally, worst of all, and the real reason I nitpick at every other abhorrent thing she does, is if she could have things her way, she would have full custody over my womb. Every day, every hour, every minute with her it’s “Where are my grandbabies? Where are my grandbabies? When are you going to have my grandbabies? You have to have my grandbabies. I want grandbabies. Where are my grandbabies? Grandbabies!!” Oh, and when I explain to her that my eyes are focused on my career, she calls me selfish. A less selfish daughter-in-law would have grandbabies already.
As all women who’ve married Chinese men will know, I’ve only scratched the surface of the horrors that come part and parcel with having a Chinese mother-in-law. I recently came across Kristy Shih’s article, “Power, Resistance, and Emotional Economies in Women’s Relationships With Mothers-in-Law in Chinese Immigrant Families,” an academic dissertation that basically uses big words to say “Chinese mothers-in-law are manipulative anti-feminist bitches.”
Shih and Pyke’s article discusses the ways that mothers-in-law reinforce patriarchy and male privilege when they try to force the daughters-in-law into submission, and how this continues even today, amongst Chinese American families. The Chinese mother-in-law doesn’t care about the daughter-in-law’s ambitions and accomplishments. It’s not in her best interest to care. It is in her best interest to care about whether the daughter-in-law will look after the son in the absence of the mother, whether she will adequately cook and clean and fawn over him as the mother has, to do exactly as the mother has for the son and no different (hence all the criticisms and passive aggressive facial expressions of disappointment whenever the daughter-in-law does something that diverges from the way the mother does it). Ambitions and accomplishments are matters for the husband, for her son, because they give the mother-in-law even more reasons to brag and gloat about her boy. Ambitions and accomplishments in the daughter-in-law, ultimately, mean nothing. That is why mothers-in-law are the ultimate enablers of patriarchy and male privilege.
Another informative piece I came across, a blog post by Jocelyn Eikenburg, “The Troubling Chinese Mother-in-Law Relationship,” delves into filial piety and the pervasiveness of the mother-in-law / daughter-in-law tension in Chinese society. It could also be a general Asian thing, after reading the Hyphen piece, “Me, You, and Your Mama Too,” and sure, sure, the argument can absolutely be made that it’s just a human nature thing, that in every culture throughout history, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship has been deadlocked and tricky.
Yet something very specific may be said about the Chinese mother-in-law, a woman whose life has been affected by the Cultural Revolution and the One Child Policy. She is a woman who did not have it easy and was deprived of so much that in the end, all her hopes, ambitions, and dreams were singly channeled into her one child, a son. She has had so little control over the other aspects of her life that now, the least she wants, the least she is asking for is to be able to control her son (and grandbabies). And me, the Americanized contemporary career woman with one too many ideas and opinions, is in her way. Perhaps, then, I’m the one being perceived as the monster. Alrightey. Well. Cheers to that. And may the scarier monster prevail.