“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)
Lysistrata and the Net; Every Fish Gets Caught
Many Taiwanese women are charming, polite, good-humored, intelligent, resourceful, and possess a great capacity to endure. They can be tenacious in pursuit of educational or career goals, too. Almost none are Lysistrata-dauntless, though. In twenty years in Taiwan, I’ve met only one who was: an ex-girlfriend. “Boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend,” she exclaimed in disgust to her young work colleagues one day. “Can’t you ever talk about something more substantial?” Like what, they asked, astonished. “Us as persons and our lives as women, not just as girlfriends,” she said, showing them a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
More dauntless at 26 than any person I’d met anywhere, she dazzled her colleagues with her daring. They begged her to take them with her to clubs, taking nights off from their boyfriends to tag along; and they limited boyfriend talk around her. Given such magnetism, I thought she’d forever persevere, forever stay undaunted – but I was wrong. “The society is like a giant net here,” she explained to me three years after we broke up. “Every fish sooner or later gets caught.”
Most of the fish get caught in other societies, too, including those like the U.S. that stress individualism. “Where did I write the book?” said Erich Fromm when asked if Escape From Freedom was about human behavior in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, meaning that he was equally speaking about people around him in Manhattan – was speaking of the mass of people everywhere.
Without a doubt, however, though they are not large in number, the U.S has its dauntless spirits, and plenty of them are female. They have influence, too; their voices count; their no-limits choices inspire, open new social and cultural spaces, bring changes. Examples that instantly spring to my mind: singer Patti Smith, artist Georgia O’Keefe, and a late aunt of mine who believed a woman could do whatever she put her mind to doing and spent her life proving it. In Taiwan, though, as I said, the only one I’ve met in two decades here surrendered.
The net is terrible … let’s keep it!
Wait a minute, you say: Hasn’t Taiwan had a female vice-president, something of which few countries in the world can boast? Also, isn’t a female campaigning for, and possibly about to win, her party’s presidential nomination? And don’t women compose a healthy percentage of Taiwan’s legislature?
I don’t see, though, that any of this makes much difference in women’s lives Taiwan society. Female politicians as well as their male counterparts nearly all come from — and are perceived as coming from — an elite that possesses exceptional educational background, powerful-and-old family influence, a lot of money, or any combination of those three. Almost all non-elite children, in contrast, are taught by their parents that politics is a dirty game to be avoided. Parental injunctions alone, however, don’t adequately explain why few citizens ever think of writing letters to a newspaper or calling a TV station to complain about sensationalism’s crowding out of hard news.
Hierarchal thinking, on the other hand, does explain this passivity. “What can I do? I am just a common person” is the most frequent, partly-colonialism-derived refrain in self-talk in Taiwan. This refrain serves as the lens through which nearly all women – and men, too — look at these examples of female aspiration and success. (Of the thousands of high-school and adult students whom I’ve taught in Taiwan, none of either sex has ever talked or even joked about running for office.)
Such self-declared “common persons” don’t see themselves as potential agents of change. Among married women age thirty and above, this especially means an unwillingness to openly deviate from mainstream social practices. “If I had gone out to the living room, what would the family think and say about me?” explained Jerrie, a well-educated, attractive woman in her early thirties, when her mother-in-law told her that she wasn’t needed in the kitchen for preparation of the Chinese New Year’s Eve meal. “Join the others and have fun,” this mother-in-law had kindly said. But Jerrie stayed tight in the kitchen. Even when given license to loosen the ligatures with which families and culture have traditionally bound females, Jerrie wouldn’t do it. Yet in English class, she complained along with the rest of her female classmates about male privilege within families in Taiwan.
Understanding the net
Jerrie is a working wife with a stable job of above-average salary and no children. Meaning she and her husband are DINKs. Such couples in Taiwan tend to split expenses and keep own incomes. Financial concerns did not, therefore, play into her choice to stay in the kitchen with her mother-in-law, which makes this story an unadulterated example of a fish caught in the net.
I felt no need to ask my ex-girlfriend to spell out what she meant by “the net”; during our time together, she had explained with scattershot, yet comprehensive, clarity. The Net is a weave of the master memes of Taiwanese society. Its apparent warp and woof unspool from three spindles: (1) education-system conditioning that inculcates obedience, “life is competition,” “one correct way” thinking, “don’t think too much,” and the notion that only authority is entitled to unabashedly voice opinions; (2) the “harmony” value, which (a) formally licenses the supremacy and prerogatives of authority and custom and (b) helps authorize the belief that people are responsible for each other’s feelings; and (3) the ancient Confucian construct of filial piety, it’s co-authorization of responsibility for others’ feelings, and its derived axiom that a parent’s love is somehow selfless.
It’s an ingenious means of control; remove one of these three strands and the other two will unravel. Only through inculcation via the education system, for example, could the selfless-parental-love axiom and, thus, filial piety hold up. But only with the “harmony” value can the authoritarian education system be preserved. And only with the selfless-parent-love axiom drawing its dictates into the heart of people’s emotional lives can the “harmony” value keep making persons feel generally responsible for each other’s feelings.
It’s like an immune system. The moment any single concept is attacked, consequences for memes in all three strands are instantly perceived by a fish in the net. A mass mobilization of these other memes is thus invoked in her brain. Each meme has all other memes’ backs. And that is the ingenuity: through the interdependence of the strands, the net polices against threat; despite its many openings, it has superb ability to filter and dispense with any antithetical thinking.
The invisible strand
Can even something as formidable as the net bear up, though, against the tide of economic development and cyber-charged globalization? I can’t imagine how; probably only a reversal of these forces can at this point save the net. (Reversal is a possibility, though; think peak oil and economic contagion on a broader scale than the 2008 crisis.)
The net has a fourth strand, however, that is likely to delay its being rent. That the net defines people instrumentally is clear in Confucius’s five hierarchical relationships; what is never discussed is the degree to which this means people are loved instrumentally, too. This fourth strand – instrumental love — is not apparent, goes unacknowledged, and isn’t taught. It has and needs no direct axiom, no meme. The greatest difficulty for those not loved for themselves – not loved for their personal value — is letting go of that which failed to love them. Moving on means facing that they may never finally get what they feel they need most – means initially, and at intervals after, invocations of terror.
It may come as no surprise that my ex- was estranged from her parents. Further, her parents were divorced. Unlike my ex-teacher (see Part I) though, she considered advice I gave her on her relationships with her parents and decided to try it out. She was stunned and gratified by the results with her father. “I have an interesting daughter,” he told her. “I should have noticed earlier.”
She got nowhere with her mother, though, who, from what she told me, was a grasping, miserably-“small” woman only interested in meeting when my ex- had gifts for her. “Maybe it’s time to tell Mom off for her choices all these years,” I said. “And expect that it will make no difference for your relationship with her anytime soon, if ever. But won’t it finally make a difference for you?” Like my words to my ex-teacher, though, this advice asked a step too far.
Jerrie, most of her female classmates, and many middle-aged women I’ve met also remain tied to their mothers to a degree that stops their own lives from moving forward. In Jerrie’s case, her parents (her father as well as her mother) opposed her quitting her job to enter a professional school; she herself was willing to stake her job on the uncertainty of gaining entrance to school; but she did not want to “make her parents unhappy.”
Another married classmate (childless) gave up most weekends and some weeknights, also, to spend time with her mother in hopes of making the latter happy; the mother remained redoubtably negative, though, in the face of every effort by her daughter, leaving the daughter drained of passion and enthusiasm. The daughter fended off, though, all suggestions that she abandon her efforts to cheer up her Mom.
A third classmate was focused on getting her father to treat her mother better, not recognizing that in codependent relationships, the “victim” is getting secondary gains and indeed may not even be the victim – and not recognizing that “fixers” are best-advised to fix themselves.
Three basic ways to escape from freedom, Erich Fromm said; Jerrie and her classmates provide examples of the escape he called “automaton conformity”: employing socially-prescribed behavior to avoid feeling alone, and, in the process, surrendering the opportunity to possess one’s self.
A mother’s many “you should(s)” voiced during childhood and supported by the memes of the net becomes the adult’s internalized “I should”; fixations are born, self and others are not squarely faced, and the pain remains. Instrumental love probably can’t save the net, but it can delay its unraveling. Indeed, as development and globalization assail Taiwan’s net and suggest Lysistrata-like possibilities, consequences of instrumental love are manifesting themselves in new phenomena: many Taiwanese women are defending with an adaptable vehemence the ancient memes of Confucian patriarchy. Parts III and IV will take a look at some of the different faces of this struggle.
Next: Part III – Net Profit, Net Loss … and Growth?