My Chinese father-in-law isn’t just a husband and parent in our home. He’s also a punchline, and a virtual punching bag.
I’ll never forget that day in May when I watched my Chinese mother-in-law storm out into the yard and holler up to my Chinese father-in-law. “You’re just like a Bodhisattva! Always staying up and never coming down!”
I don’t know what he did to deserve that Buddhist curse. But after spending more than two months here – where almost a day wouldn’t pass without my Chinese mother-in-law naming my father-in-law’s stupidity du jour – I can guess why.
He can’t be trusted with fruit (“He doesn’t throw out the bad ones,” my Chinese mother-in-law once frowned when he brought in a basket of raspberries loaded with squishy and rotten ones.). He buys the wrong things (“That soy milk he bought from the market is no good. It’s mostly water and no nutrition!”). He can’t cook (my Chinese mother-in-law grimaced at a plate he brought from the kitchen filled with the strangest thing I had ever seen – a corn cob sliced straight down the center into medallions that, apart from the kernels sticking out on the end like spokes, were otherwise inedible. “Why did you waste food making that? Nobody will eat it.”). He can’t garden (my Chinese father-in-law ruined most of the eggplant, tomatoes and corn in the garden because, despite my mother-in-law’s warning, he planted them in shady places.). He can’t supervise young children (when my nephew was a toddler, he let him bicycle in his big wheel on the second floor of their home with no fence blocking the stairwell; the nephew fell down the stairs.). He’s lost thousands of RMB to scams.
Every day, my Chinese mother-in-law mutters something derogatory about him at the table. Sometimes he ignores her as she walks in and out of the dining room denouncing him in the unintelligible staccato tones of the local dialect. Sometimes, he retreats to a stool at the back of the kitchen, scarfing down the rest of his meal before hiding away from her – and her laughter – in his study.
“They have such a bizarre relationship,” I reflected one evening over to phone to John. “They argue all the time. She never has a good thing to say about him. Do you think they even love each other?”
“There’s a saying in Chinese — da shi qin, ma shi ai [打是亲，骂是爱；literally — hitting is closeness, scolding is love]. Usually they use it to refer to children…” John trailed off — as if to say, but it could apply to my parents.
I thought about what my father used to say. “You only tease the ones you love.” In my in-laws’ case, make that, “you only argue with the ones you love.”
Have you ever seen your Chinese family members argue out of love for each other?