This Thanksgiving weekend, while alternating between a table of gluten-free vegan bounty, time on my yoga mat in poses to aid digestion, and cuddling with my honey, I've read a book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's an interesting and generally pretty competent novel, a first person account of a woman's life told in reflection about her experience with family, footbinding, marriage and children, and love and betrayal in 19th century China. Sounds like it ought to be a movie soon, right? And if The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha have taught us anything, Hollywood loves these old China stories of women, and it soon will be. (My sweetheart asks, partly out of artist's frustration and partly out of the absence of his voice, why it is always Chinese women who are telling these stories, and telling stories of only Chinese women? Evidently the only stories to be told by Chinese men are restricted the form of the graphic novel or the kung fu movie; where is the place for the Asian American experience as told through the eyes and heart of a man, without the requisite nunchucks and 9mm auto? My answer, they are lurking in the tip of his pen, waiting only to hit the page.)
I bring up this book for a couple of reasons: it came to me as a gift from a friend of his, the feminine half of a couple in an interracial relationship who thought I might enjoy reading it; and I have. While it is not the novel that exoticizes the Old China experience, it is replete with imagery and behavior of what someone like me (ie, ignorant) imagines Old China to certainly have been capable of. It is intriguing to consider that women in China who considered their lives, as the writer says, "as useless branches", whose lives consisted only of having their bodies broken in pursuit of beauty; of the mundaneity of domestic life--hauling water, making food, serving and cleaning after men and making and raising babies--and in their free time, learning calligraphy, embroidery, and staying cloistered/protected within a space that is just for women; these women were able to create and foster a secret language that only women read and understood for thousands of years. That's pretty cool.
I don't know how much I really get into the sisterhood phenomenon; I haven't tended toward being that kind of woman, the woman who values all that sisterhood time. The other day I sat beside a woman on the train who was reading The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Lucky for me, she was too engrossed in it to see me rolling my eyes in pretentious disgust. Sure, I joined a sorority in college, but my experience in it was about identifying with the black community and the greek community in a big way, and while I love my sorors, I just haven't cultivated that kind of sisterhood in my life. I see it's value objectively, but not practically.
But something of this book makes me feel differently, taps me into a desire I have that I'm just beginning to understand. Only child, right? I have a number of times in my life found myself lamenting my absence of sisters. But in this novel I read of these rituals which seem to me both alien and vital: the storyteller is getting ready to marry, and this kind of thing requires all sorts of complicated cultural gesture and behavior for her that require the close company of women. She and women of her family and friends and neighbors have a day where they all sit around worrying and feeling sad that she's leaving her father's house, and about to marry. She spends months making clothes and embroidering what she will wear once she is taken as her husband's wife, and making binding bandages and tiny shoes for her perfect tiny feet, the feet that she has broken and misshapen so her husband will love her. She fasts for ten days before her wedding, and must attend countless banquets as part of the celebration, all where she is not permitted to eat. There's "the talk" wherein all the non-virgins scare the shit out of the poor girl and tell her what is coming, "bed business" the storyteller calls it.
(Incidentally, that sounds really distant and ancient, but I know for certain that it still happens. I have heard stories of women in this time and place who locked themselves in the hotel bathroom sobbing in terror of what would come when their husbands touched them, or who climbed into the tub and whispered on their cellies to girlfriends about what he was trying to do.)
What I'm driving at is despite the archaic quality of the observance and celebration of this rite, I am observing within me an ardent desire--and have been since I got engaged--to gather the uterines around me and prep for my wedding. And for my marriage. I mean, let's be real, I'm not going to be wearing new clothes once I get married, so it's not like I have to spend my time sewing jackets and pants and whatnot. There is no arrangement or matchmaker, no gift of pig from his family to mine to show wealth, no gift of eggs and rice from mine to his to show fertility. And as for bed business, please. Nevertheless, I want women around me to ponder with me the passing of my singlehood into my past. I want them to both celebrate the woman I am becoming and mourn the woman I am shedding. Have I said this before--I'm sure I have--that an old girlfriend of mine considered her wedding day as a time where she would walk to the altar and crucify her single woman there. (Please note the religious, masochistic overtone.) Afterward she would be reborn in married life as a wife. (Insert angelic music here.) Yes, I am being incredibly sarcastic. But there's a part of me, and a large part, that is thinking that some of this is real, some of this women who cluck around you and weep as you leave your father's house for your husband's is real.
For instance, I want a shower. I mean, I want a shower in a big way, one of those single sex, high heel optional mixed drink affairs that everybody hates going to. I wouldn't want them to hate going to mine, but I sure would want to "pink out". I am blessed to have three women who have agreed to stand up with and for me, to steward me into this next season of my life, and I know they're willing to take up this party planning mantle, and make manifest whatever monstrosity I hope for. I'm frankly a little stunned by this all: I'm social, and I love to party, but I didn't quite think I'd be that excited about sitting around opening box after box of lace teddy and silk robe (later for all that housewares shit) feeling like some icon on a lily pad. But I am. I want it because I want to create that sisterhood of joy and excitement and delight in the life I am making with a man who I cherish and admire, whom I can work with and fight with in a healthy way, who helps me and respects me. That's something to celebrate, and I want to do it girly-style.
So this is thing one that Lisa See, in her literary wisdom reveals to me. Thus, the second:
As in most marriages, the most important person for me to build a relationship with was my mother-in-law. Everything Snow Flower had told me about Lady Lu following the usual conventions was true. She watched over me as I did the same chores that I did in my natal home--making tea and breakfast, washing clothes and bedding, preparing lunch, sewing, emboridering, and weaving in the afternoon, and finally cooking dinner. My mother-in-law ordered me about freely. "Slice the melon into smaller cubes," she might say, as I made winter melon soup. "The pieces you have cut are fit only for our pigs." Or "My monthly bleeding escaped onto my bedding. You must scrub hard to get out the stains." As for the food I brought from home, she would sniff and say, "Next time bring something less smelly. The odors of your meal ruin the appetites of my husband and sons." As soon as the visit was over, I was sent back home with no thank you or goodbye.
Oh, yes, this the most important relationship to be cultivated. The text seems to make this relationship seem like the best of it is what you can read above, and the worst of it is your mother-in-law calling you a dog, a useless worthless nothing, a hole that she and her son must feed but who brings nothing but shame and bad fortune to the family. Again, the pesky fact of the 21st century make this reality different for me. My future husband and I will not be living in his parents' home (God willing, protect us from the circumstance that would drive us there.) There is no laundry that needs to be boiled or water to be hauled from a well, no animals to be slaughtered, and shi fan, while it still takes hours to prepare, can be done so on the modern convenience of a stove. Sigh.
And yet. I can't help wondering if the taciturn civility that sometimes feels like it borders on brusqueness with me is born out of a frank and legitimate disdain for the woman I am who is marrying their son. Perhaps they feel I am not a good match for their son. I hesitate to say this: I know my sweetheart's dad is able to see the softer parts of his son, is proud of the man who is a writer and not just a software consultant. He said to his son while he was home recently that he is glad his boy has someone like me in his life, glad we have each other to take care of each other (and note the egalitarian language). But his mom: it is as if she has had all of the sensitivity and thoughtfulness, any instinct that would have any interest in anything different than a tiny square of the world bred right out of her. I wonder what hardships she has had to endure which have given her such thick skin and such a hard head, that she cannot receive and share kindness, but can only think and act with a stubborn, practical brain. She is focused to the point of tunnel vision, and would rather do the thing she wants to do regardless of how it makes someone else feel. I don't think she's heartless--she cares for her sons--but she doesn't listen. If she wants to buy them a plasma screen tv, well, she's gonna do it regardless of how much they protest. (Who would protest a plasma screen tv? My future husband, before we met. She returned it. Our tv is ancient, without a working remote, and we like it that way.)
I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how my in-laws function. I talk to a number of my girlfriends and ask about their in-law experience. I read everything that flows past my eyes even remotely connected to Asian American family experience. This weekend, I am not ashamed to say that I watched a movie called Red Doors, in part for entertainment, in larger part as a cultural study of the kind of family my betrothed comes from. (It's good: Eat Drink Man Woman is better. Check it out.) Is watching movies as an attempt to understand my fiance's culture as racist as him watching Tyler Perry movies to understand mine? Maybe. Do I think it's permissible? Sure: Ang Lee is a far superior filmmaker to Tyler Perry. But I do these things to try to figure out my future in-laws' culture. Hanging out with them costs me too much relational capital.
I am not the future-daughter-in-law who is considered a useless branch by her fiance's family. But like the women in this novel, I function as largely invisible within the context of his family. It may be because the needs of the men are paramount to all else; sometimes this is true in my sweetheart's family, whether my sweetheart can see it or not. It may be because the matriarch's tunnel vision simply excludes me with her blinders. Why I am invisible doesn't really matter: it doesn't change how often I am hurt by feeling this invisibility. It still hurts. I read an incredible post about forgiveness today, about the nature of keeping a wound and healing it on your own, instead of spreading it around or giving it back. I don't want to say anything pious or holy about God's purpose for putting me in a family like this one; I'll just try to grope my way into a place that is a decent reflection of who He, and if I'm lucky, it might spare me some pain.
But probably not.