And as I learned, that commitment meant changing how I addressed Jun’s parents. From then on, Jun instructed me to call them Laoba (老爸) and Laoma (老妈), just like him. Or Baba (爸爸) and Mama (妈妈) — the universal Chinese words for “Dad” and “Mom” — if I so desired. The bottom line was, I would now refer to them as if they were my own parents, in the most intimate terms once only reserved for my father and mother.
This isn’t the norm in the America I grew up in, where you call your in-laws by their first names. And given all the jokes about in-laws (and the American tendency to want to live as far from your in-laws as possible), I’m sure there are some Americans out there privately referencing their in-laws using expletives. The bottom line, though, is that in America there’s always this implied distance from your in-laws — a distance that I was never expected to have with Jun’s parents.
Being suddenly asked to call two people who never raised me “Mom” and “Dad” should be an adjustment. And to be sure, it did take some getting used to. But it was actually a lot easier than I thought for a very simple reason.
I was calling them “Mom” and “Dad” in Chinese, not in my native language of English.
Even though Laoba, Laoma, Baba and Mama were just as intimate as the words “Mom” and “Dad” that I grew up using, I had never called my parents by the Chinese versions. So in way, it actually freed me to easily adjust to using them with Jun’s parents. I didn’t feel like I was stretching any definition of who “Mom” and “Dad” were because it sounded different.
Now it’s like second nature and I don’t even think about it anymore. That’s who they are — Laoba and Laoma.
So I have to wonder, is it harder for Chinese people to get used to this? Do they struggle to refer to in-laws with such intimate terms?
There are things you never expect to see in a lifetime. Like watching a grown man whack snow off the roof with a bamboo pole.
I still couldn’t believe it when I caught a glimpse of this. Was that really my father-in-law balancing himself up there, pole in hand? Or was I having a strange hallucination induced by the bitter cold?
Nope, that was him all right. My husband even snapped a photo to prove it.
Then again, I’m still in shock over the thick white blanket of snow covering my husband’s home village these past few days. And the -4 degree temperatures outside my window.
I have to admit, the weather is messing with my head. It’s completely turned upside down my perceptions of winters here in the Hangzhou, China region. Everyone (including my husband) has always assured me that winters here are mild and, generally speaking, that’s what I’ve experienced in all the years I’ve lived here.
But now arctic cold from the North Pole has invaded China as far South as Zhejiang Province – our province – and it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced here. Suddenly I feel as if I’m back in Cleveland, Ohio all over again, where I grew up. Except, instead of the things I’m accustomed to having in the face of freezing winter cold and snow (like indoor heating and insulated plumbing), we have to manage without them.
Strange things have happened too – beyond just seeing my father-in-law on the roof of the house. For example, the window in my bedroom won’t budge because it has frozen itself shut. We’ll have to wait until the temperatures rise above zero (which we expect tomorrow, according to the weather forecasts) before we can open them.
I’ve always said I never knew the winter cold until I lived here in Hangzhou – which is ironic for a woman who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, a city renowned for its bone-chilling winters complete with heavy snowfall and even the occasional blizzard. But in Cleveland, Ohio, we are well-armed against the winter, comfortably tucked behind our insulated walls and indoor heating. Here in Hangzhou, we have none of that – and instead just make do with electric blankets, space heaters and hot coals.
These days of extreme winter cold, however, have felt like an intimate introduction to the most frigid and forbidding side of the season. I’ve never felt more grateful for the warmth of my electric blanket and my sturdy space heater.
We will survive.
And fortunately, the weather forecasts promise a business-as-usual winter to resume in the next few days. The temperatures will once again hover above freezing. We’ll be able to open the windows again. And with the melting snow, my father-in-law will no longer need to visit the roof with his sturdy bamboo pole.
I expect this won’t be the last time we’ll have some unusual winter days here. Global warming is wreaking havoc with weather patterns around the world, which means the season could become as unpredictable as my five-year-old niece’s mood swings.
Still, who’s to say it’ll always be like this in the family home? After all, the family has plans to rebuild the house in the next few years. And just the other day at lunch, while discussing the new home, my husband couldn’t help but ask, “What about adding in a little central heating?”
You’ll find my essay “Huangshan Honeymoon” included in the anthology, which explores a very different kind of honeymoon my husband and I enjoyed in 2005.
How was it different?
Well, yes, we planned our vacation around the chance to hike all the way up to China’s Huangshan or “Yellow Mountain”, instead of the typical honeymoon of sunny days spent lounging on golden sand beaches sipping tropical drinks and intimate twilit evenings laying in each others’ arms.
And yes, we chose to set out at the height of summer’s most sultry days, and stay in a region where July and August are feared for the ferocious heat of the “Autumn Tiger” that comes around every year.
But ultimately, this is what made our honeymoon so unusual: John’s father came along with us!
I never thought I would share my honeymoon suite with a man who once advised his son not to date foreign women. (Then again, I suppose he never imagined he’d have a foreign daughter-in-law!)
And as if that wasn’t enough, the heavens also brought us some of the lousiest viewing conditions for the mountain, thanks to the remnants of a typhoon that enveloped the scenery in a misty cloud of rain and fog.
(This is the one and only photo that offers a hint to the breathtaking views we should have enjoyed, had the weather cooperated!)
Why did we bring John’s father along? And how did that experience change my relationship with his father forever? You’ll find all the answers (and much more!) when you buy a copy of How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit and read the essay. Don’t miss out on a collection that I can’t stop raving about! (Okay, yes, I am biased but it’s still really an amazing book.)
Sometimes, I think the love of a Chinese family is one of the best kept secrets in the world. And if ever there was an example of that, it’s our upcoming move to Hangzhou. As we trade the countryside for city life, I still can’t believe how my husband’s family has gone out of their way to help us make the transition.
Okay, I know rice cookers, pressure cookers, dishes, woks and bedding don’t appear out of thin air. But when my mother-in-law suddenly pulled out all of these brand-spanking-new things (and more!) from storage in our house, it felt like some magic trick. Or the wedding registry I never imagined I had signed up for.
Because, after all, we never asked them to buy any of these things. But they bought them anyway!
My mother-in-law has continued this apartment hocus-pocus almost every day leading up to the move, trotting out new things during lunch, and has even pulled a few extra-special surprises out of her own proverbial hat (including honey and even veggies from her garden).
Making it an auspicious move
“It’s not superstition. It’s the Book of Change, a Chinese tradition.” Whether or not you agree with my father-in-law, the fact remains that good luck matters to my in-laws in every important aspect of life — including moving house.
So naturally, once we announced the news on Saturday, my father-in-law whipped out that indispensable little red book in his library — the Chinese Farmer’s Almanac, based on China’s Book of Change. It lists every date in the year, recommending what you should and should not do on that date. According to his almanac, the best upcoming date for our move (and preparing our new bedroom) would be this coming Tuesday, May 27.
And believe me, this stuff counts to them. How much? Enough for my mother-in-law to make a second phone call to my husband’s oldest brother (who initially said he couldn’t move us on Tuesday), convincing him to do it earlier in the day!
Money? We didn’t ask for money!
Compared to so many Americans I know, Chinese families seen to operate on a completely different wavelength when it comes to money — and my husband’s family is no exception.
You don’t even need to ask them, “Could you lend us some money?” It’s a given they will, which I still haven’t quite gotten used to (yes, I am a bag of nerves whenever John has to borrow cash from his family — and John always thinks it’s so funny).
And more often than not, you don’t even need to bring up the topic of money with them — because they’ll do it first.
That’s exactly what my father-in-law did the other day when he sauntered over to John and me in the yard. John’s dad had this serious look on his face that made me all nervous inside, as if he was like my dad and about to lecture us on something we messed up in his house. But this “serious talk” turned out to be nothing more than him saying, “You’re going to need some money for your move. How much?” (A question that, of course, I felt too embarrassed to answer. I mean, here’s my father-in-law approaching me with a gesture that seems too generous to be real, and expecting me to give him a number?)
Days later, I discovered a thick stack of crisp, red bills lying in the corner of our room — an amount that turned out to be more than three times more what I expected!
Sometimes it’s not even a question, but an order. Like, yesterday John’s oldest brother phoned him out of the blue just to say “Open an account so I can send you some money” when John hadn’t even asked for it. After my husband recounted this to me, I was shocked (in a good way)…and then almost wanted to pinch myself.
Nope, it wasn’t a daydream.
In the end, it’s all about the love
My Chinese relatives will never hug or kiss us, or say how much they love us the way my American relatives do. But they’ll pony up brand-new apartment essentials and money without us asking them, and make certain we move on the luckiest possible day. It all comes down to one simple idea — this is how they show us their love.
Now if you excuse me, I’ve got a move to get ready for. Hangzhou, here we come!
That hard-to-buy-for person? To my parents, that could have been John’s father — given the conversation we had yesterday about what to give him for the holidays.
“Wouldn’t he like, say, one of those pocket knives?” my dad asked. “Or a letter opener? Or even a tool kit?”
But John shook his head “no” at every suggestion, leaving my dad surprised and even laughing. After all, we essentially vetoed what he considered the top three must-have gifts for the average American guy his age.
While John’s dad was only a few years younger than my dad, he was a world away when it came to interests and needs. Unlike my dad, John’s dad wasn’t one of these handyman types who liked tinkering around the house, and would never have imagined that anyone needed a special tool to do something as simple as opening a letter. He cultivates bonsai in the garden, dabbles in painting and calligraphy, pens his own articles and self-published books, and reads the newspaper from front to back everyday. And while I’m sure some American men out there must share his passions, I’ve yet to meet him.
It’s no wonder, then, that cross-cultural gift-giving challenges so many of us — enough to keep a steady stream of “what should I buy him/her in China” e-mails flowing into my inbox.
In the end, my parents settled on an engraved pen — sure to please a certain “cultured” retiree in Zhejiang with a penchant for writing.
“My parents miss us,” said John, who beamed like a Mid-Autumn moon. “They want us to be back at home. They like it better when it’s renao,” or lively.
While working on to-dos for our trip back to China, my thoughts turned to living in the family home once again. And just like that, John reminded me of the warm welcome we’ll enjoy when we move back into the same two-story building his parents call home.
I felt that same welcome from John’s parents during the summer of 2009. On the phone, my father-in-law spoke of home renovations they planned to complete before our arrival. “Why are they wasting their money on that?” I once asked John. Turns out, the renovations were a whole new addition to the family home — including a two-bedroom and bathroom suite that my father-in-law would later dub our xinfang, that new home every newly married couple should have. “This is your home,” my father-in-law said to me once, after I claimed John and I didn’t have a home of our own.
In the US, this reads more like a fairytale — or even a myth. While your parents might kick in some cash for your wedding, they’re sure not likely to leave a “vacancy” sign on for you and your spouse to move in and call it home. And as for the married child, well, moving back home with your spouse is an utter embarrassment — or even life failure.
But John’s parents wanted us living with them so much they made room for us — literally.
And, strange as it may seem, I want nothing more than to live with them too. I love the way his father gets excited about the flowers in the garden and Chinese poetry and writing about the history of his ancient village. I love how his mother keeps me stuffed with the most sumptuous home-cooked vegetarian dishes, and won’t let me do my laundry, and teaches me how to cook with her fire-powered wok.
Maybe most Americans can’t understand why I’m excited about moving in with my in-laws. And that’s okay. The more time I’ve spent with John, the more I’ve realized that not everything about the white US culture I grew up in makes sense either. Sometimes, it’s not about what makes sense to the world or to others, but what makes sense to you.
All I can say is, I’m already missing my mother-in-law and father-in-law and can’t wait to be home with them.
Almost two months ago, while scanning through my inbox, I came across a post called How to be Mistaken for a Prostitute in China. What a title — and what dazzling writing. I devoured the entire post, right down to the byline introducing the author and her forthcoming memoir about her experiences in China.
That’s how I first discovered Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, and I’m thrilled to be sharing her essay with you, titled “Three Words From a Chinese Father”.
Thanks so much to Dorcas for contributing her work!
“I miss you,” my father said to me over the phone.
I hadn’t seen him for four days. He had been in the hospital for more weeks than I could keep track of, and had recently been transferred to a specialist hospital about an hour away from home. I was only a freshman in high school at the time, so I had to attend school during the week and could only visit him on weekends. My mom spent most nights at the hospital with him while I stayed home alone.
My surprise lasted only a couple seconds, during which I became very still and swallowed hard. “I miss you too,” I choked out, holding back tears. They were the three most significant words my father had ever said to me.
When he passed away less than a month later, they became the most significant words he would ever say to me. He had never said “I love you” to me. That night was the first and only time he ever told me he missed me.
My father had never been a man of many words. He left that to my mother, the chatty, extroverted half of the pair. For years I barely understood what he did for a living. All I knew was that he was an engineer, which in my young mind meant one thing: trains. I imagined my dad driving steam engines across the back roads of America, always somehow returning home in time for dinner. (He was, in fact, an electrical engineer.) I certainly knew nothing about his childhood in Guangdong Province in China, the few years he spent there before the realities of the new Communist regime prompted his family to send him away to Hong Kong.
I’m sure being the only male in a family with three women—his wife and two daughters—didn’t help. My father would often escape to the garage to tinker with small pieces of technology—a circuit board, a watch, a cassette player. He would take a Chinese-language novel with him to the bathroom or bedroom and remain out of sight for hours. Or he would park himself in front of the television to watch a San Francisco 49ers football game.
By the time I was ten, I had become an obsessive 49ers fan. It had started from curiosity, from a young girl’s intangible desire to connect with her father, but it soon became my own passion. I would pepper my dad with questions about the rules, about certain plays, about this player or that coach. He didn’t seem to mind having his younger daughter impose upon his weekly ritual; I suspect he secretly relished it. We fueled one another’s passions for the sport to the point where we drove my mother and sister a little nuts with our single-minded devotion. I promised my dad that as soon as I was old enough to work and earn money, I would take him to a 49ers game.
I began following my father into other arenas of his life. When my mom and sister went shopping for clothes at the mall, I would go with my dad to the bookstore. I watched with awe as he practiced his pseudo kung fu moves with a wooden rod from a closet. I often stood behind his chair with my chin resting on his head as he and my mom lingered after a meal.
He enjoyed telling corny jokes at the dinner table, jokes that often made my mom groan and roll her eyes. I would always laugh loudly at his jokes, even when I didn’t understand them, and was rewarded by a knowing, just-between-us grin that my dad would send across the table. In those fleeting moments, I may not have understood what he meant, but I felt like I understood him.
It’s hard for me to explain why I felt this way. In many regards my dad was the stereotypical Chinese father. He didn’t trouble himself with the day-to-day details of raising two daughters. He wasn’t the type to shower us with hugs or kisses. He wasn’t the one we went to when we were in need of parental advice. Looking back, I can’t remember a single conversation of deep significance that I had with my father.
But this is what he did do: on one of the rare occasions he cooked dinner for the family, he made salt-and-pepper prawns with so much salt and pepper that my sister and I were raving about it for weeks. (My mother promptly scolded him and switched us back to bland, low-salt food the following day.) He sincerely thanked my sister and me every time we gave him yet another striped tie for Christmas. He watched Beauty and the Beast and other Disney movies with me. He let me into his world and the things he loved on a regular basis. But he just didn’t let me in; he welcomed me and let me know—somehow, without words—that he was delighted to be sharing these things with me.
And finally, just weeks before we had to say goodbye forever, he overcame thousands of years of cultural norms and said aloud what he actually felt: “I miss you.” At the time none of us thought he wouldn’t make it; we were convinced that a cure or a miracle was just around the corner. I wonder, though, if my dad knew he was running out of time, which is why he chose to give me what remains one of my most precious memories of him all these years later.
Those are not the three words that we typically think of in American culture. “I love you” has taken on the status of myth and legend, three tiny words with the power of giants to slay or fairy godmothers to bring enchanted happy endings. We wonder if any relationship can ever feel authentic or complete without these words. Even I have occasionally fallen into this trap.
My dad never told me he loved me—at least, not in words. In the end, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I knew he loved me. And with each passing year that he’s not in my life, I know it with even more certainty.
I miss you too, Daddy.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience as a Chinese American living in Shenzhen, China. Learn more at www.transformativewords.com or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.
I spent much of the past week in bed, and unfortunately, much of this weekend as well. So I’m sending you to the archives this Monday so I can catch my breath and rest up a little.
Those of you new to this blog may have missed my posts on Chinese marriage, through the eyes of my mother-in-law and father-in-law. I spent the summer of 2011 living with them, and one outcome of that summer was my newfound understanding of their own marriage. Enjoy!
My Chinese Inlaws’ Not-So-Free Marriage. My Chinese father-in-law insisted that the new China included free choice in marriages. But it seemed like an illusion when he admitted he didn’t freely choose his bride.
For My Chinese In-laws, Scolding is Love. I didn’t understand why my Chinese mother-in-law always argued with my Chinese father-in-law. But, according to my husband, maybe that’s their way of showing love.
Lame, loser, or just plain “oh Lord.” My American friends could have easily thought any one of these things — if not more — about me, all because my husband and I moved in with my grandmother.
That’s why I never just told people in America, “We’re moving in with Grandma,” but made it clear that this move came with an asterisk. She’s 89, she had a stroke some years ago, my grandfather passed away last year and she lives alone. We’re moving to China next year, once John finishes his internship — it just didn’t make sense to start a new household all over again, only to have to leave it all behind in an international move. Without this addendum, I felt certain we’d get branded as just another pathetic boomeranging couple leaching off of sweet little grandma.
I am sitting in Beijing after spending 20 days in Southern China visiting my in-laws. I just found your blog and find it most timely. I am writing because I find myself so lost when it comes to the endless, dreaded family gatherings. My Mandarin is intermediate level and I’ve only travelled to China many times. Each time I come, I hope I can improve my skills but I am always disappointed by the fact that I almost never hear Mandarin, except on TV. Even more challenging is that while my mother-in-law is from the city, my father-in-law is from a bit further north in the province and he speaks a mixture of Mandarin, the city’s dialect and his local dialect. Naturally, we have so many family dinners and I am so frustrated by the use of one or more dialects at the table depending on the crowd and almost never Mandarin, except to me with strong accents. Please give me some advice on how to cope with the scenario. I am working on improving my Mandarin, so that will generally help, but I could sure use some advice based on your experience when your in-laws get together and just speak dialect. Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: My Chinese Family Speaks Local Dialect at Dinner, Not Mandarin”
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