One of the weirdest things about being a Taiwanxifu is that the first thing people always ask about is your mother-in-law. No-one ever asks me about my husband. Or at least, not very many people.
There is a long history in Chinese culture of sensitivity (often verging on animosity) between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Since a woman ‘marries into’ her husband’s family, she was traditionally expected to live with her in-laws and be subservient to her mother-in-law. Mother-in-laws would often expect their daughter-in-laws to conform with their view of her role, and were generally free in ‘advice’, some well-meaning and others less so, on how to behave. Even today, many daughter-in-laws must handle their Taiwanese mother-in-laws with care.
I usually avoid talking about the relationship I have with my mother-in-law. I am not always the model daughter-in-law, and our relationship has its ups and downs. As an independently minded (headstrong) Western woman I sometimes struggle with my xifu (daughter-in-law) role, even though we do not live together and we see her much less often than she would like. I find myself often having to bite my tongue, or wishing I had, depending on circumstances. Given the generational and cultural differences, it would be very easy for me to write a post titled ‘my crazy mother-in-law’. But then by the same token it would be easy for her to criticise me for all my very many faults, including my ego-centric drive for career sometimes at the expense of my family (even as I strive for work/life balance).
But recently my Taiwanxifu role has become more public. I was recently interviewed by Radio Taiwan International about being a Taiwanxifu; I really wasn’t sure how to answer when asked if mother-in-law is traditional. And then I was approached for media interviews and because I went with my mother-in-law to a Mothers Day ceremony organised by Buddha Light International Association. (The organisers were somewhat amazed when I asked to bring my mother-in-law … it had not crossed my mind that this was an unusual request until I looked out on the crowd and realised there were not many mothers and daughter-in-laws there. And mother-in-law was so delighted to be interviewed. I’m so hong (popular), she told Mr Taiwanxifu.) Finally last year, I was interviewed for the Wild East Magazine on what it means to be a Taiwanxifu.So, having now decided to write publicly — just after Mothers’ Day — on the topic, here are a few things I have learnt about being a Taiwanxifu and how to relate to my mother-in-law in a culturally appropriate way.
- My mother-in-law views herself as a matriarch, not a friend. I have many older friends, and for years I would treat my mother-in-law the same way, i.e. like a good friend and confidant. I am not ageist, and I figured we could bond over a cup fine bone-China tea. If I was open and disarming, and shared openly with her my feelings about life and the challenges of being a working mother, I thought that eventually she would eventually respond in a friendly and welcoming way. I would prattle on and on and on, while Mr Taiwanxifu would try desperately to shut me up by kicking me under the table. Invariably I would feel upset when mother-in-law repeated back things that I had told her as ‘constructive’ feedback. Her role, you see, as she sees it is not my bestie buddy. She is the matriarch of the family, responsible for overseeing the family and dispensing liberal advice on how we can all do things better. What I might consider fault-finding is really her way of showing love, of expressing her role. “I’m telling you this because I care.” (媽是好心得跟你講) is one of her favourite lines, usually said before she tells me I am a bad driver or I need to lose weight (both of which are true). My Taiwanese friends finally told me that I should stop talking so much: they were right.
- My mother-in-law wants me to treat her with the same respect that I show my own mother. In Taiwan culture, as soon as you are married you should address your mother-in-law as ‘Mum’ (ma – 媽). And this extends not just to the title; you should treat your mother-in-law with the same courtesy as your own mother, and preferably more. For example, if my mother-in-law is sick, she wants me to fuss over her to show that I care. But calling her mother does not extend to going up and giving her a big bear hug: although my mother-in-law will hold my hand on occasion to express her care, she’s not really that touchy feeling.
- My mother-in-law loves my children as if they were her own. Well, actually, the sense of possession is quite strong. In traditional Chinese culture, grandchildren are often deemed to be the property of the paternal grandparents. This is changing, but still grandmothers (called Ah-ma in Taiwanese) still usually feel a strong bond with her son’s children. She will spoil them rotten, and may volunteer/insist on being the main carer. My mother-in-law would love it if I agreed to her taking our eldest son back with her to live. While do not plan to part from our son anytime soon, this is not as strange as it sounds: in Australia it is relatively common to send young children back home to China to be cared for by grandparents, due in part to heavy work commitments.
- A red envelope is a gift that keeps on giving. I remember that my mother-in-law once hinted, while gazing at my engagement ring, that she never had any nice jewellery: so I bought her an expensive ruby and diamond ring. On another occasion, while I was shopping duty-free she told me that she never bought perfume for herself: so I later bought her a large bottle as a surprise. She never used either, said she didn’t like them and tried to give them back. The subtext here is that she is proud of her frugality, and worries if I spend (waste) too much money. I have learnt that she prefers to receive a red envelope containing money. She might complain we give her too much, but she will still pocket it quickly. And we will receive it back in kind because she will invariably give red envelopes to her grandchildren.
- Kitchen rules. When we visit mother-in-law, I always do the dishes even if she tells me not to bother. She has her own way of washing up, which involves not using any dishwashing detergent, and it has taken me a long time to work out the right process of washing what in which order. But while I have now mastered the dishes (almost), I have only just realised that I have unwittingly causing offense in another area of the kitchen. Mother-in-law always cooks up a storm when we visit. I had not realised that my role was to hover around in the kitchen, trying to assist where possible and listening carefully to advice about how to recreate the foods she prepared. It is her way of making sure that someone is there to care for her son and grandsons in her absence. Instead, I had taken the ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ approach and opted to move as far away as possible — and then I wondered why she wasn’t happy.
- Christmas is just another day. My mother-in-law doesn’t go in for Christmas much. Although she has lived in Australia for nearly 25 years, Christmas doesn’t resonate for her. So we don’t usually celebrate Christmas with her. One year we did, and as a family ended up having a yum cha Christmas lunch at 3.00pm in the afternoon. Although slightly weird, it was actually one of my most memorable Christmas events ever: so relaxed, no pressure. The cross-cultural difference is more apparent, though, when my family tries to extend Christmas hospitality to her. She won’t commit, or perhaps because she is shy, says ‘yes’ to the invitation when she really means ‘no’. And in my family culture, we really want to know in advance whether someone is coming to Christmas or not so they can organise presents, table settings and how big a turkey to order. Just best not to go there at all.
- Dialogue is about sacrifice. My mother-in-law revels in reminding us of her difficult times raising her three children. She really did do it tough: each child was less than a year apart and she had to work as a seamstress through the night to supplement the family income. But at first I didn’t quite understand why she was so gloomy and retrospective most of the time. I used to try to switch topics and suggest she enjoy her life now – why not lighten up and go on a holiday now that the kids have grown up? Or splurge on an occasional shopping trip? I have now learnt that what mother-in-law craves is filial acknowledgement of her mothering role, and the implied promise that by caring for her in her later years it will make it all worthwhile. “Women do it tough” (女人很辛苦) is the phrase that I find helps unite the best, before moving onto more positive topics.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. If my mother-in-law is visiting, I don’t lounge in front of the television eating chips. Apart from having an immaculate home (even if it means hiring a cleaner to do it), I always make sure that I just ‘happen’ to have a saucepan of nutritious soup on the stove, and some rice in the cooker. Just in case. Preferably her favourite ten-grain rice blend (she can’t eat normal white rice because she is almost diabetic.) I find that she won’t actually eat or drink much because she worries more about her grandkids needs; so I make sure I have enough nutritious food for the whole family ready, too. (No ordering take-away or McDonalds.)
My mother-in-law is currently having an extended visit to Taiwan, predominately to see her grandchildren. She is not staying with us, but is staying close-by and often drops by to cook dinner and see the kids. I am learning to be grateful that she loves her family so much. And also, I am appreciating the fact that she is a whizz in the kitchen. There are fringe benefits sometimes to being a Taiwan xifu.