Last night was a cultural hodge-podge; tater tot casserole, just about as Middle-Class Caucasian as you can get, and the movie, Crazy Rich Asians. I’m sure it’s due to the ethnicity of the people involved, but it kind of reminded me of The Joy Luck Club…kind of. Both wonderful stories, both with the underlying sting of a deeply matriarchal society, and both stirring up amusing memories.
I was the first Caucasian female to marry into my husband’s family. I’m not sure who the culture shock was worse for them or me. Think about it, a nice, fairly quiet, reserved Asian family and a loud, Italian-Irish redhead. When we first started dating, I would whisper in Cliff’s house to not disturb the quiet. I was fortunate that two male Caucasians married into their family before me. The second being a Russian Jew from Brooklyn, it is safe to say he broke the ice and I am eternally indebted to this man. I love you, Shel!
In spite of my ethnicity, or lack thereof, Cliff’s family welcomed me with open arms. I have never felt anything but love from them and for them, that is until I was told about Um Pau. I’m not sure of the spelling on that one, but phonetically, that’s what she was called.
A few months before our wedding, my mother-in-law asked to speak with me…privately. She told me we would have to invite her Great Aunt, Um Pau, to the wedding. A reasonable request. She then explained that she probably wouldn’t come but, if she did, she would have to publicly shun me because I’m Caucasian. I was 19.
I quickly decided that it wasn’t personal, after all, Um Pau had never met me; and so it must be cultural. Chinese people had been purely Chinese for centuries, Cliff’s family included. I was an infiltrator of sorts. And, fortunately for me, Um Pau didn’t come.
A few years later, I gave birth to the first male Chin grandchild in the family, and just like that I was practically a celebrity. My mother-in-law asked if she could have Um Pau give our son, Eric, a Chinese name and place his name in a family book kept in their village in China. Aside from being the first male Chin grandson, Eric is also the first born son of a first born son, a big deal in China. There was a catch. Though Eric and Cliff would be listed as father and son, I would not be listed as his mother because I am not Chinese. I was getting used to this and so, I agreed.
Years later, after my mother-in-law had passed away, we attended a family wedding. One of Cliff’s aunts came up to us and said, “Um Pau is here, she’d like to meet you, Roxanne.” I have to admit, I wondered why. Had she been saving her shunning for all these years and decided, since she missed the wedding, that now was as good a time as any? Anyway, I agreed and braced myself for whatever was about to happen. I was not prepared.
A frail, little old lady was brought before me. She looked pleasant enough considering who she was and what I was told she would do. She wore traditional Chinese clothing and spoke no English. I was introduced. I am 5’2″ tall. I could easily see the part in her gray hair. She stood before me for a moment and I waited. She bowed to me in greeting. I bowed back. She took my hand, looked up at me, and smiled. I smiled back. Evidently, years and the fact that none of her other grand nieces and nephews had married Asians had softened her. I was accepted.
It was a very big deal….