“I want to tell her ‘Get over it. And whatever you do, please don’t give us a third book about your relationship with your mother. Writing’s supposed to be cathartic, not fixating.’” – an American friend’s words after finishing Amy Tan’s second book, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)
Instrumentality and Fixation
What do you think our biggest problem in Taiwan is? – my Chinese-language teacher asked.
I blinked, shifting back in my chair. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve only been here six weeks.”
She was already on to her answer, though. “I think we’re too easily satisfied.”
My ex-teacher meant everything: living spaces, quality of service, manners, education system, government, boss-employee relations, depth of conversation between friends, and, most of all … … …
A couple years later, her mother was dying. “She’s never told me she loves me,” my now-ex- teacher said. “I want more than anything to hear it. It’s what I need more than anything else.”
“Why not tell her you love her and keep repeating it if she looks away? And not get angry if she says nothing or at any dismissive words she says? Even if you don’t get what you want, won’t you be saving your own life by doing your best on what matters most to you?”
“No,” she said, abstracted, misty-eyed, shaking her head. “No. No.”
This was eighteen years ago. Taiwan has made notable progress in every category my ex-teacher listed above, including even family relations; I have a few adult students today who say they want their children to be independent and happy above all else – something I never heard voiced eighteen years ago. In the words of one such parent, “My son has his own personal value.”
These parents are still a minority in Taiwan, though, and their voices appear to have little influence outside their own families. Further, from what I’ve seen, the voices belong to mostly fathers: the wife of the guy I just quoted does not share his view on their son, he says, and he feels it’s “too difficult” to try to get her to see their son in other than instrumental fashion. Thus, such voices are, so far anyway, of little use for helping someone get what my ex-teacher wanted; in the part of life that most counts emotionally, as new generations mature, children are still settling for far less than they would like … as the decades roll by….
Like America in the 50s, yet behind the ancient Greeks
In the Greek comedy Lysistrata, written 2400 years ago, the eponymous heroine summons the women of all the warring states of Greece to her Athens for an undisclosed purpose. Waiting impatiently with her friend Calonice, Lysistrata declares that the women would be on time if the appointment were for wine and dancing.
Calonice: My dear, they’ll come. It’s hard for women, you know, to get away. There’s so much to do: husbands to be patted and put in good tempers; servants to be poked out; children washed or soothed with lullays or fed with mouthfuls of pap.
Lysistrata’s plan, unbeknownst to her friend, is to get the women to cooperate in stopping their men from fighting each other, and thereby end decades of civil wars. Specifically, she wants them to withhold sex until the men lay down their arms. Subjugating the men proves easy in the end; Lysistrata’s chief obstacle, it turns out, is persuading the women to follow her plan. Simply put, they don’t want to give up sex. For the sake of a goal that benefits all, though, the pan-Greece women finally agree to unified action.
Lysistrata is, of course, a fictional character, and she was created by a man (Aristophanes); in real life, Greek women 2.4 millennia ago lacked the vote in “democratic” Athens and had access to no top jobs except a priestess post here and there. Taiwanese women today, on the other hand, are equal before the law and can achieve financial self-sufficiency to a degree their grandmothers when young would have found as implausible as auguries of global warming; availing themselves of the same opportunities as men to higher education and good jobs, some young women today even buy their own apartments. Taiwan’s ascent to the rank of developed nations has reduced, too, and, in many cases, has eliminated altogether, the actual, though not necessarily the supposed, need for women to concern themselves with their parents’ retirement finances. And Taiwan’s world’s-lowest birthrate coupled with formidable education costs has made it far more acceptable for Taiwanese women to not have children (15-20% of my unmarried female students say they don’t want kids). In short, long gone are the agrarian economy and the stark economic inequality between genders that for thousands of years drove women to zealously divine the personal finances of potential mates.
Further, Taiwan has the highest-percent Han-background population in the world: 98% to China’s 92%, with Singapore’s checking in at a measly 74%. Different from immigrant enclaves such as Amy Tan’s Oakland and Santa Clara, there is, therefore, no apparent need to adhere rigidly to tradition in order to sustain cultural identity.
These factors combine to better position women in Taiwan to emancipate themselves from patriarchy than has ever been the case in a Han-background culture. But symbolically-significant and economically-consequential pillars of patriarchy do remain: wives still are expected to “follow” their mother-in-law; and daughters continue to be excluded from family inheritances, though the law says they are entitled to equal shares.
Simply stated, Taiwanese women, though economically self-sufficient, and despite having received the same voting rights as men during Taiwan’s democratization, have not yet initiated a first wave of feminism. Indeed, a cliché among North Americans in Taiwan is that the island, socially, is like the U.S. in the 1950s. Meaning Lysistrata be damned: women could be pursuing economic equality within their families but instead continue to trade sex and companionship for personal gain. What I make note of most, though, is that I’ve been hearing this “like America in the 50s” cliché for twenty years now. Umm… aren’t decades only supposed to last ten years?
A patriarchy perpetuated by mothers
To their credit, quite a few young women in the past ten years (20% or more of my students) have told me that they don’t judge guys by their money when sizing up boyfriend candidates. And the percent who strongly resent pressure to marry is as high or higher. But in many cases pressure finally becomes decisive, and when it does, a partner’s finances become paramount. Almost none will marry a man their parents don’t approve of; and, though there are exceptions, most mothers will not give sanction to a daughter marrying a man who does not own or cannot make a case that he will soon enough own a house. Otherwise, what would a mother (and grandmother) have to quietly boast of when comparing her daughter to those of her relatives, colleagues, and classmates? A daughter’s educational achievement is yesterday’s laurels once the girl’s education is finished. Marriage of a daughter to a financially-secure man, though, can be retailed for the rest of a mother’s life.
Thus, though the economic need for it is largely gone, the meme that holds male money to be decisive remains – passed on most of all by mothers. Sons suffer, too, by this meme if their families are not wealthy enough to give them houses; real estate in Taiwan is some of the more expensive in the world. Yet few sons buck cultural imperatives, because they are generally allotted an automatic degree of their mother’s affection; indeed they are often doted on and babied, excessive doting being a key symptom of instrumental love – of “love” that fails to reckon personal value, that instead sees another primarily as an extension of self and is concerned foremost with getting the other to satisfy own needs.
Clear favoritism is the other key symptom of such love; daughters therefore so often get short shrift. Certainly this is not true in every family; Taiwanese families in which daughters are loved equal to sons by their mothers can easily be found. (And I’ve seen a few mothers being harshly abusive to young sons.) In general, though, daughters are still less valued — and by enough mothers, quite obviously so.
It is this deprivation, felt by mothers, too, in their own childhoods; by grandmothers in childhood before them; and by women back a hundred generations that today perpetuates all remaining patriarchal Chinese memes. Yes, foot binding is long gone, but caricature-silly patriarchy still has legs in Taiwan – today less because of men, I argue; rather, mostly because of mothers’ fixations. That some mothers do equally love daughters alters the percentage but does not jeopardize the meme that daughters are worth less, because this fundamental meme licenses other patriarchy-serving memes which, in feedback loops, keep nourishing the “daughters are worth less” meme – and will for some time continue to nourish this meme even as more parents – including mothers — do love their daughters equally.
These other memes, which I will examine in upcoming parts of this article, bring an interlude of short-term benefits to women before (and in some cases, after) marriage settles them, in turn, into the role of chief perpetuator of patriarchy. It’s a bad deal for everyone; patriarchy damages men, too. But few Taiwanese men complain about having to eat poorly-baked cake; women, though they arguably get less of that cake (and also, arguably, in enough cases get more), are, as I will show later, often trying to have it and eat it, too. And they’re pushed and harangued into this effort by mothers and quasi-mother figures.
Until a few Taiwanese women choose open emotional independence from their mothers and simultaneously band together to encourage other women to choose the same, mother-driven patriarchy will continue. The American 50s will last for decades more in Taiwan unless a generation of daughters decides to end it: successors to my ex-teacher will keep failing to get what they need most; Amy Tan-style fixations will lurk unresolved; patriarchal memes will persist; and romantic as well as familial relationships will be characterized foremost by instrumentality.
Without a few Lysistratas, “No… no… no” will still be the response to what matters most. Everyone will keep settling for too easily satisfied.