Thursday, May 12, 2011

Of Love and Mothers

I never see anyone other than young couples sitting closer than this. For Taiwan, this strikes me as quite close. I hope when I'm an obasan in my fifties and sitting under a tree with my husband, though, that we'll be even closer.

All week long I've been asking my students what they did for Mother's Day - I like to ask questions about work and weekends to force them to use the past tense consistently (as much as my job is about business training, there is also a language teaching component that I do take seriously).

I noticed a few cultural differences in the answers my students gave that seemed worth writing about.

First, the husband's mother always gets priority - this bothers me (of course) but is no surprise: the husband's family also gets priority for Chinese New Year and, I believe, Tomb Sweeping. As a wife, either you are supposed to only visit your in-laws with your husband on Mother's Day - theoretically your brothers will visit your own mother, as well as unmarried daughters. That's a bit old school but it still happens.

More commonly, you visit both families but Mom-in-law gets the day itself, whereas the wife's mother might get the weekend or day before, or be taken out to lunch while the husband's mother is taken out to dinner.

More than one student in more than one class has confirmed this and while the women, especially, don't care for it, they do agree that it is the custom. I really don't care for it - something like alternating years for priority, as Americans often do for Christmas, would be more egalitarian.

Secondly, children give mothers gifts, but husbands do not. "I bought my wife perfume last month," one said, "so it's fair!" Another: "I sometimes tell my wife I love her!"

"Did you do anything special for your wife?"

"No, why would I?"
"No - she's not my mother! She's my wife!"
"No - that's our kids' job."

In my family, and I suspect much of the US, this wouldn't fly: my dad always took the whole family out to dinner on Mother's Day (well, not really -nobody can really "treat" someone when they have a joint checking account). We all celebrated Mom. This year, she and my Dad went to some sort of flower show or nursery - she's really into gardening - and I think out to dinner.

"Why?" was the general response when I told my students this.

"Well, it's like thanking her for being the mother of your children together. It's like saying - you carried them, you pushed them out, it was really painful. It was more difficult than anything I have to do as a father. There's also the fact that mothers take more of a role in children's lives than fathers in various Asian cultures including Taiwan, which means more work for them. So a husband thanks his wife for all she's done."

"Oooooohhhhhh," they said, as though this idea had never occurred to them (it probably hadn't).

I do have to wonder if next year, a few more Taiwanese mothers get taken out to dinner by their husbands as a result...


Thirdly, I wanted to talk a bit about that "I sometimes tell my wife I love her" line.

I tell my husband I love him basically every day. When one of us leaves while the other is awake, we say it. When one gets home, we say it. Often before bed we say it. I wouldn't be surprised if I kept count and found that I say "I love you" or some variation to my husband on average of twice a day. This might fade with time - we've been married less than a year and together for less than five years, although we've known each other for over a dozen - although I hope it doesn't.

We're also affectionate - not overly so - not only in public but even when visiting parents or relatives or in a group with friends.

I consider this to be normal.

I'm learning, though, that in Taiwan it's not: you might act that way with someone you've just fallen in love with, but you don't see that among long-term or married couples, at least not often. I do remember wandering around Danshui and seeing a couple from behind, about 90 years old, sitting right next to each other. The husband had his arm around his wife, and she had her head on his shoulder. There was also the couple in the photo at the top, taken in a temple courtyard in Tainan (I believe it was the Temple of the Five Concubines).

Those seem to be exceptions, though - from my students, who represent a fine cross-section of professionals of all ages and positions across many industries in Taipei - I hear this:

"That screen saver on your iPod Touch with your arms around your husband? You can never find a picture like that of me and my husband."

"We live with my in-laws and we don't like to show affection around them, so now it is our habit not to show it."

"No - we rarely say 'I love you'. That's just not our way."

"I tell my kids 'I love you' every day but not my husband."

"If we go out with our friends, it's just like that - we don't hold hands or something. I would feel that is too strange."

I've also noticed that when my female friends come to a social gathering, they might bring a male guest. They act like friends but I really can't tell if they're dating: I suspect they're often in the early stages of it, but it's truly hard to tell.

And all of this, to me, is quite foreign, though not entirely surprising. I have to wonder - does the affection my husband and I show each other in public strike locals as being "too much"? Do they assume we're just dating and falling in love and not a married couple (I've encountered that before - new acquaintances who can clearly tell that we're a couple but are surprised to learn that we are married). Do our Taiwanese friends inwardly recoil when I put my hand on my husband's knee in public, or when he rubs the back of my neck? If so, are they just too polite to say anything? (I hope not - I'd rather know if I'm committing a faux pas).

Which leads me to contemplate both relationships and motherhood from my own perspective against what seems to be the norm in Taiwan - with the obvious caveat that everyone is different, everyone's mileage will vary, and we're talking in more observed trends than facts.

That's for another post, though.

1 comment:

160chan said...

I can relate to your post!

I'm Taiwanese American (born and raised by taiwanese immigrants) and on mothers day my dad always asks "why do I need to do anything?? She's not my mother!" to which my mom says 你能不能少講幾句啊!?