Expat Chat: On being a Western wife, part 2 of 2

The Taiwanxifu family.

What it’s like being a Taiwan xifu – daughter-in-law…?

Curious about other foreign women’s experience of marrying Taiwanese, I interviewed Serina from Australia, who shares her many cultural experiences as a Taiwan daughter-in-law on her blog, http://www.taiwanxifu.com/.

Read Part 1 here

Serina wrote :

“I met and married my husband (Sam) in Brisbane, Australia. We were both students studying law at the University of Queensland. We were introduced by a mutual friend, who knew I was looking for a language exchange partner. At that time I was studying Chinese as part of my double degree and preparing to go to Taiwan to study. I must have been a bit slow, because it took me a long time to realize that Sam always spent much more time helping me with my essays than he would allow me to reciprocate. Our exchange sessions kept getting longer and longer, until finally I realized just how attracted I was to this cute, funny and considerate guy. We started dating ten days before I left to study for a year in Taiwan, and married six years later.

When we first started seeing each other, I told people I had a boyfriend and they didn’t believe me – even those who had regularly seen me with together Sam with didn’t guess he was Mr Right. People kept asking me ‘is it serious’. My answer was that I was in love, not suffering from a terminal illness. Sam and I are celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary this year, and two weeks’ ago welcomed our second child into the world – a son born in the auspicious year of the dragon.

When I was studying Chinese at the National Cheng-kung University, Tainan, I lived with a homestay family who decided they liked Sam so much that they would educate me about how to be a ‘Taiwan xifu’ and help keep a watching eye over me for him. They are a lot more traditional and conservative than my husband’s family. For example, once a former college classmate of Sam’s tried to get in contact with me. My homestay mother-in-law was appalled that a new guy was trying to contact me, and for six weeks refused to pass on phone messages. Eventually, this friend rang while I was at home. My homestay mother gave me a look of death as I took the call, and I suspect she also listened intently to the conversation as well.

I returned to Australia after my year-long exchange in Taiwan and have been together with Sam ever since. We lived together for six years before we married, something that would be almost unheard of in Taiwan but which was acceptable and common in Australia. We even bought a house together before we were married; to us this was a greater priority than a big, fancy wedding.

Our wedding ceremony was very small by Taiwanese standards. We had an intimate – but fun – cocktail reception at my mother’s home on the Gold Coast, Australia. And then we came back to Taiwan (along with the in-laws) for a second ceremony and small reception. Sam’s father is Hakka, and although he did not grow up in the culture, we still observed the tradition of bowing before the ancestral shrine. But we dispensed with flashy ‘hunsha’ wedding photos, and I ‘only’ had three costume changes at the Australian wedding ceremony. And then we enjoyed a short honey-moon at a Bed and Breakfast (minsu) at Taitung on Taiwan’s Eastern-coast.

What does it mean to be a Taiwanxifu?

Taiwanxifu & child.
Hmmm. A hard one. I think the real key is developing an understanding of the importance that family plays in Taiwan culture. Not that I am saying that family is not important in Western culture, but in Taiwan there is more a sense of sticking together through thick and thin. A woman ‘marries into’ her husband’s family and you become part of the family unit no matter what. As an example, around five years ago I needed to have an operation fairly quickly. My mother was worried, rang me constantly and sent flowers. The response from my in-laws, however, was culturally different and more pragmatic. My mother-in-law immediately went to the temple to pray to Guanyin the Goddess of Compassion for me. And my brother-in-law rang my husband to offer money. I don’t know of many Western families who would offer to give money to fund a sister-in-law’s operation, and although I did not need financial support, I was incredibly touched.

But I have noticed that although families will help each other through financial difficulties, they do not always share their feelings openly with each other. Even before I was dating Sam my mother had worked out that I liked him (before I myself even knew). In contrast, Sam did not tell his mother we were dating for several months, and only then after I told him that I needed to know whether she would ‘fandui’ (be against it) or not. Sam’s cousin recently got married to a girl from work he had been dating for five years. Yet up until just before the engagement, Sam’s Uncle and Aunt knew next to nothing about her. Unlike in Western families, you can’t just invite a ‘friend’ over for a casual dinner to meet the folks. Instead, you tend to hide your romantic aspirations carefully until the relationship is ripe. When you do introduce him/her to the potential in-laws, it must be carefully orchestrated to obtain their much-needed blessing.

I always find this disconnect between not knowing much about one’s future family before getting married and then being expected to prioritize them after marriage (either living with them or spending much of your leisure time with them) as a bit odd. And I find it odd that families in general don’t talk to each other about what they actually think. I always find myself chatting away to my mother-in-law, and my husband trying to kick me under the table to silence me. Although there are exceptions, as a Taiwan xifu, one is not usually expected to become best pals with one’s mother-in-law as this contravenes the matriarch/obedient daughter-in-law relationship.

And while on the topic of mother-in-laws, I always find strange that one of the first things people often ask is what your relationship with mother-in-law is like (they rarely ask questions about husbands). My mother-in-law lives in Australia, so the tyranny of distance keeps us apart.

That said, my mother-in-law did visit for a few months shortly after we moved to Taipei. While she is incredibly well-meaning, her parenting ideas differ from ours and we clashed over how to raise my toddler. I want him to be more independent, but she was much more protective. For example, she overdressed him in too many layers and would not allow him to go to the playground in case he picked up germs.

Privacy (or lack of) was also an issue as she used to come into our room at odd hours to check on our son. (She would not allow us to put him to sleep in his own room.) And a few days before she left, she cut up several pillows from matching sheet and quilt sets I had brought from Australia to make cases for green bean pillows. Pillows made from green bean shells were traditionally made for infants, but are now not so common and she went to a lot of trouble to source them. When I asked her to stop cutting up my linen, she retorted that I should have told her not to use them. I was somewhat speechless as I hadn’t anticipated she would go into our bedroom when I was at work and help herself to the linen closet there. But at the end of the day, does it really matter if some fabric was cut up. More importantly, our toddler loves his special pillows that ‘Ah-ma’ made for him, and cradles them to sleep each night.

I find as a Taiwan xifu that I have to bite my tongue a lot. My mother is a successful businesswoman and I was encouraged to be strong, independent, resilient and outspoken. So having to be a ‘guai’ (obedient) Taiwanxifu does not always suit my temperament. I want to sometimes to point out where things my in-laws say are plainly wrong or contrary to accepted ‘Western’ practice. ‘You’re in Australia now,’ is sometimes at the tip of my tongue. But usually it is easier just to nod and silently continue doing things the way you prefer. I find that so long as I am not confrontational about it, I can pretty much continue along my chosen path even if the in-laws don’t agree. The ‘guidance’ is usually well meaning even if not always well informed. Or maybe this is just my sense of cultural superiority showing through.

Serina is based in Taipei. At her blog http://www.taiwanxifu.com/, she writes about food, travel and culture, and has recently begun writing a series on her experiences undergoing traditional Chinese postpartum confinement (坐月子, zuo yuezi). She also contributes to Centered on Taipei magazine.

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