On My Taiwanese Mother-in-Law

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.

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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.

Judy happy[1]

My mother-in-law loving the attention of being interviewed at a Buddha’s Light International Association event on Mothers’ Day

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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15 Responses to On My Taiwanese Mother-in-Law

  1. gang chen says:

    I am a Chinese and married to an American woman. I know my mom is very difficult to deal with, but my wife is so graceful in dealing with her — much better than I’d have. Just want to say that we, Chinese guys who are married to western woman, are so appreciative and admire how you handle this very difficult relationship!

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Wow. Thank you so much for your comment. Dealing with my mother-in-law is not always easy, and sometimes it brings me into conflict with values I was raised with, I.e. that of a strong, independent woman who is supposedly liberated. From observing my friends and Taiwanese soap operas (a rich source of material on social commentary), I gather that many guys in Taiwan feel torn and uncertain how to act when dealing with conflict between the two important women in their lives. And i assume this holds true for the greater Chinese diaspora. Generally, mother wins (even if daughter-in-law was not trying to enter into a contest) due to longstanding cultural conditioning on filial piety. This is something I have on occasion has trouble dealing with. It is so good to hear your honest opinion – I hope you tell your wife how much you appreciate how she treats your mother. And I am sure you must have a happy marriage.

  2. Charles says:

    Very well written. I am from Taiwan but lives in Florida now. My mother has three Xifu. One from Taiwan, one from USA and one from Colombia.
    You can imagine the drama at home during Christmas and Thanksgiving.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Do you mix all your different cultural traditions during holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving? I hoep it is fun as well as drama.

  3. Sophie says:

    Thank you for this blog post!
    I’m very fortunate to have a very easy-going and understanding MIL, although we live far away enough to keep our interaction to its minimum.
    My mother, on the other hand, is very difficult to deal with. I’m so grateful for my sister-in-law’s patience with my mother’s attitude. I truly admire my SIL’s love towards my brother, as I myself wouldn’t have been able to handle such MIL. I can say that, as the ones stuck in the middle, my brother and I can oftentimes feel frustrated and torn between the ones we love…

    (By the way, I stumbled upon your blog while searching for some recipes to use with a rice cooker. I love your blog! I was able to check out the Taiwanese TV series you mentioned (IP) and had much fun “marathon-ing” it !)

    • taiwanxifu says:

      As they say, you can’t choose family but in the end blood is thicker than water. It sounds like your sister-in-law is a lovely person.

      Thank you for telling me how you found my blog. Isn’t IP so cute? I was a little disappointed with the ending, but I guess part of it was because the series was so popular that they strung it out for an extra few weeks. The tension amongst the two leads in the earlier episodes was great! On Saturday I was having a real IP day: the lead actress, Annie Chen, was on an infomerical in our taxi, and then I went into a convenience store and saw a huge picture of the lead actor (Chris Wang) on the beverages fridge. Am I following them, or are they following me?

  4. Steph says:

    Thank you for writing such an accurate and insightful post. I am having trouble dealing with my own mom (she’s Taiwanese). Since I was born in America (California), I grew up (as you mentioned) with a mentality that we need to stand up for ourselves and speak up when we feel we are being misunderstood. I have done that a few times in my life (I’m 23 now), but my mom never remembers those times, and we continue living as if I have never said anything like that to her before. I’m not close with my mom at all. Like you mentioned, she will never be a friend. She sees herself as my mom and only that. She doesn’t care about my feelings, and whenever she lectures and yells at me, she says it’s because she cares about me. It sure does not feel that way. But anyway, reading your post makes me feel better.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Well, I can’t speak for all Taiwanese parents but I have observed that after family arguments my Taiwanese family has a knack of forgetting. The bad thing is that things don’t really get resolved. But the good thing is they don’t hold grudges: family sticks together.

      I’m telling you because I care has to be my mother in law’s favorite phrase, ha ha ha. Still doesn’t make the advice any easier to accept.

      I’m sure your mum loves you heaps, in her own way.

  5. Pingback: blend of the week #6: in-laws | the love blender

  6. Kathleen says:

    I am the american mother in law to a Taiwanese son in law- married to my American daughter. I wonder what the tradition is of this relationship, I can find nothing written about this, and it would be very helpful. There are thousands about the Asian MIL but none on this topic. They live about an hour away from me, his parents moved to a three minute walk to their home here in USA. He is a bit stand offish, and I would like to get to know him better. It is very disappointing. My daughter does not have the usual complaints you hear about Asian MIL. They now have a baby and I want to feel connected and just wish I understood his culture better. Thank You

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Hi, usually they say that the more a mother-in-law sees her son-in-law, the more she likes him. So I don’t think there is likely to be any ill-will towards you. But also in the Taiwanese tradition, the wife marries INTO her husband’s family, so the grandchildren are usually more attached to their paternal grandparents. This is because the paternal grandparents usually have a more active caring role (i.e. in a traditional household the wife would live with her inlaws and the parents would have involvement in raising their grandchild). Maternal grandchildren are called 外孙 (wai zun, literally ‘outer grandchildren’), and the expectations and involvement is different.

      It is usual for Taiwanese to be standoffish with family. He might not even open up or talk to his own parents that much. My theory is that living in such a densely urban environment, often growing up in tiny apartments, many Taiwanese need to hold back private stuff. This then becomes culturally entwined. You might never have a heart to heart with your son-in-law, and he might never expect it.

  7. Singaporemummy says:

    Hi! Love your blog! I’m from Singapore, Chinese by ethinicity and your description of your MIL is very smililar to my own mum. Every single point was spot on. Despite being a Chinese myself, I get frustrated with my mum’s mannerisms and I don’t understand where she is coming from.

    An example is that it’s the Mother’s Day weekend tomorrow and I suggested that we celebrate it. Immediately I was being chided and she said there’s no need to celebrate it. However if I want her to cook dinner, she would. But I didn’t want her to cook, I wanted to bring her out for a nice meal since you know, it’s Mother’s Day and she had a tough life bringing up my brother and I (yes, she frequently reminds us of her hardship).

    I offered to buy food over to her house instead since she didn’t want to eat out (“Too crowded! Too many people!”) and she rejected, saying that my food choices are bad. We ended up agreeing that she would cook dinner and she is cooking because it’s requested by me (ahh! I just wanted to bring her out!).

    Anyway, by reading your perspective, I am actually beginning to understand what’s going on in my mum’s head, so thank you for that.

    Keep writing!

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Thank you so much for sharing. Ah, MIL and Chinese mother dilemmas! Could be any number of things, but I suspect it reflects her worry about something: money, crowds, diet, concern about going out to a ‘trendy’ restaurant. At a guess she worries about you saving money and not being too ‘langfei’ (wasteful). But of course you can’t really talk openly about her fears or issues: as the matriarch she can’t really share these things openly.

  8. newmum says:

    Thanks a lot for the great post! I have a Taiwanese MIL and we live together with our newborn son. A lot of things described hit the spot, especially caring about the grandson like their own, disregarding what I have to say or my own mother except for the kitchen. She has hew own rules and she is an amazing cook but she never wants to share how to cook. I suspect it is because of so many years living in America in isolation and only having sons as children, she grew to like this isolation and would never accept another woman at a house as a friend.
    I can’t even talk to her directly even though she speaks English but only through my husband as a mediator.. Any thoughts on that?

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Hmmm, how to talk directly to a Taiwanese MIL. It is probably never going to happen. She is probably unused to having direct and honest communications with anyone, much less a daughter-in-law. And she might feel uncomfortable about trying. She would likely see her role as that of a matriarch rather than a friend, and yes there is a certain amount of competition in that. You have hit on a significant cross-cultural communication issue. While you might crave friendship and open communication, she might not. Perhaps define what role you want to play in the household when she is around, and save open communication for with your husband behind closed doors. None of my female Taiwanese friends spoke honestly and openly with their MILs: contacts/visits were stage managed to demonstrate that they were good and attentive daughter-in-laws and mothers. I always had trouble with this but it does keep the peace quite well.

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