Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Matriarchy

Family life in New Zealand can sometimes seem tricky, but this trip to China has given me the strongest impression yet of how much trickier it is in Chinese culture. My first trip to China was filled with unease around Xin's extended family; I was more or less a passenger or a passive spectator, regardless of which wing of the family I was in. Running back into it, I was resolved to be more active and assertive.

What I ran into was an interesting situation; I came face to face into conflict with Xin's paternal aunt. The setting was quite important: We had come in from Hangzhou. Xin was suffering with a cold, and was visibly thinner than the last time we had come to China. After dinner at the home, I reiterated that I was vegetarian, and they reiterated how unwise it was and 'The General', as I call her uncle, called me a monk.

The plan was for Xin and her mother to stay at their home, while I would stay in a small hotel 40 minutes walk from their home. After a night's rest, I walked over to their home to find Xin quite frustrated. Her aunt hadn't listened to her at all. Chinese families naturally tend to go a little OTT in the caring for 'children' and when they are sick, well, then they go even more overboard. And boy do they think they know best.

We went out but weren't told where we were going; it had already been planned. We went to a restaurant which wasn't really suitable at all for vegetarians. She tried to order something for me, and I asked whether there was meat in it: there was. I said I didn't want to it. She said it would be fine. I said it would not. And so we started on a bad foot.

Then there was a logical connection made: Xin is thinner. She has a cold. Her immunity must be weaker because she is thinner. She is with Daniel who is a vegetarian. Because she is with Daniel the vegetarian, she mustn't be eating her essential meat, which is causing her to lose weight and be sick. Much of the rest of the trip involved her lecturing either Xin or me.

She baited me too. I stood resolute on principle, but except for one time did not follow her into an argument. We were happy to finally escape the place. Xin raised the proposal of not going back.

Then after 3 hours of flying, we made our way to the other wing of the family, where there was internal strife from the start. Her maternal grandmother had long made it her mission to control the matters of the family. She resided in the home of Xin's uncle and his son (from his first marriage). After he got remarried, she found she couldn't stand his wife and said the wife couldn't stay with them. She actively blocked all efforts by her son for any compromise, and is resolute in her position. She also takes care of every aspect of her grandson's life, criticising every misstep and removing any sense of control he has over his life.

We made some politely phrased advice to her during our stay, but upon receiving the order from Xin's mum, Xin accepted the task of confronting her on our last night in their city. At the time, I was talking to the uncle and his son upstairs when I heard voices escalating. Heading downstairs, I sought to moderate the two sides but the discussion quickly went full-scale. There were tears; there were dramatics. The extended discussion went until 11pm at night (when we were meant to be packing for our trip home).

Both sides of the family had a very strong controlling matriarch. For a moment I thought maybe this might have been a common situation, but apparently not. Most of the Chinese I've talked to since has said the overbearing control of older generation has faded, especially in the coastal cities. The above described situations dominated my mind for the last half of my trip.

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