Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Group Ladies Discuss Parenting and other Chinese Traditions

Mid-February, I was invited to join a group of LDS (Mormon) ladies from my neighborhood in their quarterly book group discussion. I was told we’d be reading Adeline Yeh Mah’s, Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, and asked if I would mind leading the discussion. I smiled to myself thinking that asking me to do so was a tricky way to get me to commit to come. How could I refuse? I thrive on flattery.

My primary purpose in posting these observational notes is to reveal a glimpse of two traditions: Mormon ladies’ book groups, and early 20th century Chinese familial customs. My secondary purpose is to report on an honest dialogue about race and culture, as encouraged by the leaders at the Critical Race Theory meeting I attended at University of Utah’s Conference On Social Awareness (COSA) February, 2011. 

I was particularly excited about the book choice. I’ve read several books, short stories, and poetry by Japanese authors, and have been curious to understand the differences between the two commonly, but inappropriately equated national cultures. Watching the film, To Live, directed by Zhang Yimou, really opened my eyes to an inside view of Chinese tradition and Communism. But I wanted more, and hoped that Falling Leaves would satisfy my craving.

Setting and Characters
I walked up to the steps of the the home where the book group was to take place. I carried in one arm the memoir, my journal, an immigration book, and a stack of handouts on Chinese social customs. In my left hand, I was clutching a baby carrier/car seat. Another woman, a couple generations older than myself, joined me on the sidewalk. We are neighbors in a unique neighborhood of homes from various decades. Our host’s home looked to me like it had been built in the 1940’s. We entered the living room space, and I noted the furnishings. Very vintage/casual, I thought to myself. Two couches, one blue from the 90’s, one green faux velvet from the 80’s. Three cushioned chairs, two with Queen Anne legs, and one very comfortable, fully upholstered, with doggy teeth marks. A fourth chair, a wooden one with a colorful tile mosaic back, completed the circle.

There were 7 ladies altogether: 6 Caucasian, 1 with light brown skin and thick, tightly curly hair. (The most significant thing here is that none of us were Asian.) I was the youngest, and the only one accompanied by a baby. One lady appeared to be in her 30s, the rest were in their 40s or older. It was a casual affair, but a couple of the women wore skirts and blouses.

After greetings and a few moments of small talk, I began arranging for myself a plate of food--our hostess had set a lovely spread of finger foods on the coffee table in the center of the room. I had been so hurried printing handouts, changing the baby’s diaper, and stacking my arms full on the way out of my house, I had forgotten to eat. Just as I began to munch down on flatbread and some fabulous hummus with red pepper, I realized the ladies were expecting me to start. The food would have to wait.

We went over the main conflict of the story for those who hadn’t finished the book, or read it recently. The author, Adeline, basically suffered from an evil stepmother whom she refers to as “Niang,” the Chinese equivalent of “mother.” I told the ladies I wanted to focus our discussion on the character and motives of Niang, to answer the essential question: Why did Niang treat her family the way she did? I proposed three hypotheses.

1. Culture. Some of Niang’s attitudes and actions are informed by Chinese tradition.
2. Psychology. The extremity of Niang’s actions are evidence that she is emotionally unstable.
3. Racism. Niang’s oppressive familial rule is related to Europe’s dominating influence over Chinese citizens in the early 20th century. Even in their own country, the Chinese social elite were considered inferior to the European import-and-export business owners, personnel, and their families. Niang was half-Chinese, half-French.

The following are the reading notes I used during the discussion, as well as reactions and comments from the other ladies in the group.

I handed out an encyclopedic article entitled, China - Tradition--Persistence and Transition. I told the book group ladies that the article contained a bibliography of 25 scholarly sociological sources published at universities in the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, and mainland China. This article’s intent is to show which old familial customs in China have continued, and which have changed in contemporary society. We looked at the old traditions to compare Adeline’s family to other early 20th century Chinese families.

I pointed out that Niang’s attitude toward Adeline may be partially due to the fact that the phenomenon of “unwanted daughters” was relatively common.
The differential treatment of the child on the basis of gender began at birth. The birth of a son was greeted joyfully. Daughters, in contrast, were usually deemed liabilities. They experienced a much greater risk of being sold out to act as servants, concubines, or prostitutes. Infanticide often happened (China - Tradition).
In Adeline’s family, it was her younger half-brother, Niang’s only son, Franklin, who was favored above all the other siblings, even though Adeline’s father had three older sons from his first marriage. Here's Adeline's version of the unwanted daughter custom:
Girls were a cheap commodity in China. Unwanted daughters were peddled as virtual slaves, sometimes by brokers, to unknown families. Once sold, a child’s destiny was at the whim of her buyer. She had no papers and no rights. A few lucky ones became legally adopted by their owners. Many more were subjected to beatings and other abuses. Prostitution or even death were the fate of some child slaves. (Falling Leaves, 100).
We briefly discussed another anti-female tradition, that of footbinding, which was mentioned several times in the book, although it was not used in Adeline’s immediate family. This may be because of the courage of Adeline’s Grand Aunt who refused to be bound as a child, and became a member of the Anti-foot-binding-League. Here are the facts on footbinding from the article:
Foot-binding, started from early childhood, also confined women to home and made them safer, less mobile property. In 1902 the Ching empress and in 1912 the president of the Republic of China respectively issued edicts that outlawed footbinding. However, the practice did not end until the end of the Sino-Japanese War (China - Tradition).
According to Falling Leaves, although at the time of the author’s childhood some women in China were professionals, such as the author’s Grand Aunt (who owned a women’s bank), a daughter’s position in her family was very low. For example, Niang scares Adeline’s elder sister, Lydia, into an arranged marriage at age 17, because she doesn’t want another spinster in the house to take care of (also living in their home was Adeline’s unmarried aunt). Lydia recalls,
I can still remember Niang’s cold voice in my ears: ‘I’m not going to keep another old maid in my house! What do you expect? We’ll certainly send you behind closed doors in a convent if you do not act as you’re told.’ This made me realize that I was really surplus and unwanted . . . I felt so wretched and depressed for having submitted to their mean plot of shifting their burden to someone else (Falling Leaves, 78).
We then began to discuss the position of daughters-in-law.
In those days . . . a wife was often treated as an indentured servant in her husband’s household, especially to her mother-in-law. (Falling Leaves, 8)
One of the ladies in the group mentioned that the relationship between Niang and her step-children became much more brutal after Adeline’s grandmother (Niang’s mother-in-law) passed away. I said that this seemed typical considering this segment from the article:
Regardless of her hard work for her husband’s family, a daughter-in-law was seldom counted as zi-jia-ren [“my own people”], nor could she enjoy favoritism, especially if she had no son. As an outsider, without a son to secure her status, a woman was doomed to powerlessness. The head of the family might demand that his son take a concubine, and the wife could only cooperate (China - Tradition).
I added, however, that Niang’s rise to power after the death of her mother-in-law still doesn’t make sense because her father-in-law continued to live with the family for many years following. Adeline’s grandfather, Ye Ye, was a successful business owner as was her father. At some point in Adeline’s youth, Ye Ye sold his business and trustingly pooled his large set of profits with his son’s business funds. He probably assumed that these traditions would have been in place:
The elderly, as the closest living contacts with ancestors, traditionally received humble respect and esteem from younger family members and had first claim on the family’s resources. This was the most secure and comfortable period for men and women alike. Filial piety ensured that the old father still preserved the privilege of venting his anger upon any member of the family . . . (China - Tradition).
Regardless of the traditional paternal role, and his grand contribution to the family finances, Ye Ye lived modestly and frugally in the midst of his son’s and Niang’s extravagance, was chastised for giving his meager allowance of spending money to Adeline and her siblings for tram fare, and became virtually powerless in family decision making as Niang frequently contended that he (like Lydia, and Aunt Baba) was a burden on the family. Why would a daughter-in-law have that kind of power in a family relationship when tradition strongly dictates the opposite? I suggested racism as a possible reason.

Niang’s violent bouts of anger are indicative of her emotional instability. Adeline’s fall from Niang’s grace takes place during a telling episode. When Adeline’s two-year-old step-sibling, Susan, failed to recognize her mother after a separation of over a year, Niang began to beat her. Five-year-old Adeline begged Niang to stop, saying, “She’s only a baby!” in her sister’s defense. Immediately, Niang directed her shouting to Adeline, “Get out of my sight at once. How dare you open your mouth?” She then promised to never forgive or forget Adeline’s “insolence” (Falling Leaves, 46-7).

Strict, unyielding discipline is the stereotype Americans hold about Chinese parenting, but the article on Chinese family customs says this:
The Chinese were tender and affectionate toward small children. Discipline was held to a minimum. Through story-telling, for example, young children learned to obey their parents and older siblings, and, more importantly, to devote themselves to be filial. At the age of three or four, some restrictions began (China - Tradition).
In other words, Sorry, Niang, there’s no Chinese tradition to back you up on this one. There were many moments in the book in which both Niang and Adeline’s father were shockingly, stupidly heartless. Adeline expresses her assessment that Niang was both mentally disturbed and manipulative as she recounts a strange routine: Whenever Niang was upset about something she would resign herself to her bed for one or two months at a time, as if boycotting life, and proving to her husband that she would have to get her way in order to ever be happy again. Perhaps it was for this reason that Adeline’s father not only agreed to, but participated in Niang’s strange cruel treatment of her children. The example in which they fed Adeline’s pet baby chick to the family dog shows that they had no regard for the feelings of their children. (Falling Leaves, 62-3)

Another evidence of Niang’s general imbalance was the way she put her social life above the children. The caption beneath a photo of Niang and Adeline’s father at a restaurant displayed in the center of the book reads: “They were a glamorous and handsome couple in the 1940s and 1950s and socially prominent in Shanghai and Hong Kong” (Falling Leaves, 140). Adeline explains that when her parents had guests over, the children (with the exception of Franklin) were commanded to stay out of sight, especially when the guests were Westerners. It was understood that they didn’t want their guests to know they had other children. However, Niang’s favoritism of Franklin and her social vanity lead to a tragic irony. On a road trip, Niang and Adeline’s father gave in to spoiled Franklin’s plea for strawberries from a farm-side vendor. They bought him two crates of strawberries for him alone, not to be shared with anyone else. He ate the unwashed strawberries immediately. Because they had been manured with human waste, Franklin quickly contracted polio. Rather than staying at his bedside throughout his hospital stay, Niang decided to attend a party. While she was out, she received a phone call informing her that her son had died (Falling Leaves, 120).

On a merciful note, it seems reasonable to perceive Niang’s cruelty as a reaction to her own dashed dreams. Perhaps she had aspired to have a small family, simply a husband and a couple of her own children to take care of. She wasn’t expecting to step into a family where she would be the caretaker for four children of her husband’s previous marriage, and a set of elderly in-laws. She felt continually frustrated that these extra people she didn’t ask to take care of were constantly asking for special privileges, and how dare they think twice about doing exactly what she and her husband dictated, after all the care they’d been given?! The ingratitude!

Niang is a half French, half Chinese woman who marries into a traditional, wealthy full-Chinese family at a time when “Western” and “chic” were practically synonyms in Shanghai, Adeline’s home town. Her father’s adoration for Niang’s beauty and European background, coupled with Niang’s distaste for all things traditionally Eastern, may have given birth to the manipulative power with which she reigned over the family.

The author attaches this race commentary to her description of Shanghai:
The white conquerors....westerners were perceived throughout China as superior beings whose wishes transcended even those of their own mandarins (local leaders) . . . Discrimination, segregation, and abuse coloured most inter-racial dealings, with westerners viewing the Chinese as their vanquished inferiors. All this was bitterly resented” (Falling Leaves, 6).
Adeline implies that her father wanted Niang because she was so European, so Western.
Father was utterly in her thrall, so much so that he began to adopt ambiguous notions about his own race . . . he, like many Chinese, had come to see westerners as taller, cleverer, stronger, and better (Falling Leaves, 29).
I mentioned one of my favorite descriptions of her father’s courtship with Niang,  “As the Chinese saying goes: to Father, even her farts were fragrant” (Falling Leaves, 28).

There is some evidence that Niang’s and Adeline’s father’s differential treatment of the children was race-related. Adeline and her full siblings were not allowed in attendance at their father’s wedding to Niang, although Niang’s relatives brought their children. Additionally, at Lydia’s wedding, Niang, Adeline’s father, Niang’s relatives, and the children that Niang gave birth to, all dressed in Western style, while Adeline and her siblings, and YeYe dressed in traditional Chinese style. This was not due to preference, but to specific instruction from Niang. Franklin and Susan were allowed stylish haircuts, while Adeline and her full sister Lydia had very conservative hairstyles, and Adeline’s older brothers were told they must have clean-shaven heads, not at all a popular look at the time. That may seem of little importance, but to a child who knows that other people are gossiping about the difference, it matters a great deal. It essentially put the children in unequal categories. Niang’s own children were treated as symbols of the dominate West, Adeline and her full siblings represented the inferior East.
During the ceremony and for days afterwards my brothers, the three light bulbs, were mercilessly teased by their peers. Father’s friends remarked on the unequal treatment of the two sets of children by his two wives (Falling Leaves, 79).
When I brought up the issue of racism in the book, the book group ladies seemed surprised. it hadn’t occurred to them that some of Niang’s power issues related to race, although the text clearly indicates that Adeline thought so. However, when I pointed it out, they nodded to agree that that may have been a partial cause of Niang’s strange, manipulative power.

I also used this quotation to indicate that Niang’s power might have been a race issue. It’s another example of Niang chastising Adeline:
You’re not only a thief and a liar, but manipulative as well. The problem is that you have bad blood from your mother. Nothing good will come of you! (Falling Leaves, 65).
A couple of the ladies added to this that “bad blood” could be referring to any number of things other than or in addition to race. For example, it could relate simply to Niang’s jealousy of a first wife, or the fact that Adeline’s mother died during her birth. In any case, Adeline was also told by her father that she had “bad blood from your dead mother” (Falling Leaves, 81).

Niang aside, I told the book group ladies that Adeline had given a very interesting description of  racial prejudice in England during her university studies.
In the 1950s racial prejudice was much in evidence in England. Chinese students were few and far between and there was a layer of reticence between my English classmates and myself. Most of them had never been in such close proximity to a Chinese. Some felt uncomfortable around me. A few showed barely disguised contempt. Others were patronizing, making a show of their liberal acceptance. Condescending reference would be made to China, or Shanghai, or chopsticks--usually about a subject highlighting the glaring differences. The underlying assumption was the superiority of the West.
I found that not all English words conveyed what they depicted. In a social context, words like ‘exotic’ or ‘interesting’ hid subtler shades of discrimination. ‘Exotic’ meant ‘possibly considered decorative in China, but very strange indeed and certainly not my cup of tea.’ ‘Interesting’ meant ‘let me give you my valuable attention for the time being, while my eyes stray around in hopes of meeting someone worthwhile’ (Falling Leaves 125-6).
I remarked that I thought this was an excellent depiction of the way racism still does rear its ugly head in society. One lady responded to my assessment by remarking that that kind of awkwardness could be felt by anyone who is socially different, not just by those of minority race. Of course, I have to agree with that. People feel social disregard for any number of reasons, their race, their weight, their clothing style, their level of popularity, their manner of speech. However, the fact that subtle discrimination affects many different types of people does not make it appropriate. I would also add that discrimination against someone because they have acne cannot be equated to discrimination against someone because the color of their skin, their family, and their nation are associated with inferiority.

Following my guided discussion, we broke into freer conversation about Chinese culture and parenting. As is the case in many such conversations among educated persons, the prevailing, unspoken question was, to what extent are the stereotypes true?

“I’ve seen that from people of other nationalities . . .” One of the ladies began, “the first son is favored. I also know a family where the kids were not allowed to play with anyone else.” She seemed to have forgotten what nationality the people were. She wasn’t trying to make a generalization about a certain group, rather it seemed like she was wondering aloud if that family acted that way out of some long-established national tradition.

One woman mentioned a book with “Tiger Mother” in the title. She explained that she had heard that this book was basically a parenting book, in which a Chinese mother handles her children the “Chinese Way.” She is excessively strict, critical, and obsessed with her daughters’ success. The same woman added a few ponderful generalizations: “The Chinese have high standards, that’s why they’re good students. Chinese culture creates good workers, but usually not innovators as a result.”

Anther woman mentioned the story of famous tennis player, Andre Aggasi, whose parents enforced a strict schedule of practice beginning at age 6. As the story goes, they actually strapped a tennis racket to his arm. She explained that his fans were surprised to discover that he really hates tennis. Being a social person, he is much more interested in team sports, and feels lonely on the tennis court. Besides, who wouldn’t hate something that they’re forced to do? Another woman added that Tiger Woods had a similar story.

The woman who had mentioned the Tiger Mother book supposed that strictness and super-diligence might be the phenomenon of Chinese culture in America, not necessarily Chinese culture in China.

The topic turned to Falling Leaves again. I started postulating about the psychological need for control. “Everyone has a desire to control people they love,” I said, “It’s just that mature people seem to be able to keep their need for control under control.” I told them I was thinking mostly of the part of the memoir in which Adeline’s father chooses her career for her, without consulting her in the least. I asked, “Was that typical in China?” There was a hesitant nod of agreement from the group.

We added to the gender discrimination topic by having a laugh about one of the author’s comments about her English university:
Female medical students consisted of less than 20 per cent of the class. By and large, we were a studious and earnest bunch. The boys resented our ‘constant swotting’ and good grades. They called us DARs (damned average raisers) (Falling Leaves, 126).
One woman added, “Well, I think the Chinese do that in the U.S. Is that racist?” with a wink.

Toward the end of the meeting, we had a little dialogue about our next book choice, My √Āntonia by Willa Cather. I was supposed to read the book in college--I think I got about half way through. It’s about the frontier-era American West. Antonia is a Bohemian immigrant that the story’s narrator has a life-long crush on. We briefly chatted about immigration history. One woman mentioned a book she read about in BYU Magazine. It’s Mark I. Choate’s Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad. She remarked on the incredibly large number of Italians who immigrated to the U.S. close to the turn of the last century and expressed that it’s ironic that people who complain about Central and South American immigration don’t realize that our nation went through the same anger and intolerance of immigration a hundred years ago. A few of the ladies nodded in agreement. I told the ladies that I’d been watching old episodes of the late 70’s sitcom, “Taxi.” I said that it was a good example of Italians and other European immigrants being treated as lower-class citizens. The final word on the topic was from the woman who had made the comments about Andre Aggasi, “I don’t think anyone has a right to tell someone they can’t immigrate.”

Looking back, I try to assess the candor of our race and culture conversation. A narrative was analyzed, a few stereotypes were mildly questioned, a few researched facts were discussed, and yet I feel like nothing special was accomplished. I’m now left with these questions:

What should a productive dialogue about race accomplish? What should a discussion leader’s objectives be? Should there be objectives at all?

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