“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)
Net Profit, Net Loss … and Growth?
Part II of this series ended with the idea that instrumental love won’t save the net but will delay its unraveling. Let’s look here in Part III at married Taiwanese women’s defense of the net.
Safe from what?
I asked some unmarried twenty-something females what percent of mothers in Taiwan they thought loved their daughters unconditionally. The answers I got were 15-20%. Probably most mothers everywhere help run their particular culture’s patriarchy. And I haven’t been that many places, so I’m not familiar with that many cultures. Never had I imagined, though, let alone seen, a place like Taiwan where women have so much leverage that they don’t want to use. Why are Taiwanese women in the twenty-first century not, Lysistrata-like, dismantling a cartoon “patriarchy” in which daughters-in-law are expected to “follow” mothers-in-law? The answer is obvious: they’ve escaped from patriarchy as much as they want to for now.
“Feminism? I don’t think I would like that,” a Taiwanese woman married to a European told me recently. “I want to feel safe.”
Safe against what?
“That’s the question most Taiwanese girls never ask themselves,” an unmarried Taiwanese female friend told me. “They’re afraid of that question. They’re looking for security against being alone, against facing themselves very much.”
“Guys need some anquangan (feeling of security), too,” a female university student explained. “But it’s traditional to only focus on girls needing it. I think it’s so guys can have face and feel important.”
In other words, in addition to being subject to (a) the net’s education-system-driven memes that militate against confidence and autonomy, and (b) its filial-piety memes relegating women to second-class status, women are subject to a meme mostly they themselves transmit: They can’t stand on their own.
This meme is one of several that in concert create symbioses that save people from growing up. Mothers pamper and spoil sons in a heightening of the mother role/identity that serves to exclude facing and accepting other adult roles and identities. Later, when adults, these not-fully-grown-up sons cosset in turn their not fully-grown-up mothers; for example, they blame their wives for objecting to mother-in-law whims that are wacky or selfish.
Women need to be protected, and men should protect them; to ask whether either end of this meme is true threatens asking similar questions of the codependent mother-son relationship: Is it really love when a mother spoils a child? And does the role of mother-in-law render a senseless or selfish whim sensible and just?
Instrumental love and its prescribed roles for people – its many “shoulds” – will continue to prevail in Taiwan for as long as young women (a) lack the courage to cut apron strings with their own mothers and (b) don’t start refusing to “follow” their mothers-in-law. If not easy, such new choices remain nonetheless simple.
“A lot of women younger than me won’t marry now if they have to live with their mothers-in-law,” a fortyish woman told me. “But they’ll still ‘follow’ her on holidays. Why not? It’s only 24 hours a few times a year.”
But pretending to “follow,” too, permits instrumental love to survive. Posturing is the essence of instrumental love.
“The desire for anquangan is real,” the university student said. “But it’s still important to develop our independence. Your life can’t really be interesting if you think too much about having someone take care of you. We all have to be able to take care of ourselves.”
Not necessarily. Being unable to take care of oneself will actually be cultivated when a refusal to escape patriarchy has become the key and perhaps sole means of obtaining the broader escape from freedom (see Part II). And for those too easily satisfied – those reared on instrumental love –, life can be interesting enough if someone else funds that life.
Calonice: How could we do such a big wise deed? We women who dwell quietly adorning ourselves in a back-room with gowns of lucid gold and gawdy toilets of stately silk and dainty little slippers…
Calonice is perhaps being knowingly ironic. In a comment on Yellow Fever, Foreign Moons (the blog I edit), Floyd, a co-host, wrote of the advantages many urban Taiwanese women are unwilling to risk:
More and more women are going out to work in Taiwan but the traditional structure still seems to hold. Notably the man must go out to work and be the breadwinner and if he is not the sole breadwinner he certainly should be making more than his wife. Females have traditionally controlled the finances in the relationship and took care of the house. This is quite a powerful and coveted position to be in. I occasionally meet some housewives who don’t seem to do anything. They don’t work and they hire a Maid/Nanny to take care of their house and children. They spend their days going to the spa, having their hair done and studying English. I never meet any househusbands who have this cushy role. My point is that maybe Taiwanese women do quite well out of marriage and I’m not sure how quickly it is going to change…
In short, the traditional structure has served many urban married women quite well financially as Taiwan has transitioned to a post-industrial society. Like Floyd, I have met a couple housewives that have outsourced even care for their children. They did have one worry in life, though: their husbands were working in China, and these housewives felt sure that their men had mistresses there. What if the husband wanted a divorce? One of the two women I met voiced this divorce concern to me. I could think of no tactful way to ask if it would be the man or the largesse that she would miss most after a divorce.
The case is similar with many housewives with well-paid husbands who work in Taiwan. For these women, marriage is a tradeoff that’s less luxurious but freer of worries about the husband cheating: in exchange for chauffeuring kids, cooking dinner, attending somewhat to the mother-in-law, and generally giving up weekends to the family, they, too, are free 6-8 hours per day for the spa, English classes, shopping, and afternoon tea – mostly on their husband’s nickel; they have to be more prudent with their department-store spending is all. This hands-down beats toiling at a job, right?
It only sort of beats toiling at a job. A no-challenge lifestyle, at bottom sought because maternal love was instrumental, does not allay more fundamental need and anxiety. What’s missing are (a) “excitation and stimulation” – active striving in pursuit of a goal –, and (b) “effectiveness”, meaning feeling accomplished, two of the eight basic needs in Erich Fromm’s view of human life. The lifestyle(s) described in the paragraphs above thus become not dreams-come-true but, rather, an addictive routine aimed at keeping anxiety at bay. The key passage in Fromm’s Escape from Freedom:
“There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual…. However, if the economic, social and political conditions… do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom.”
This last sentence in Fromm’s passage amply explains why most Taiwanese women, bred on instrumental love, want “patriarchy” – particularly a female-licensed-and-run patriarchy — to continue. Fromm would have been sympathetic, too; he acknowledged that the West’s rigidly-structured medieval society left people relatively at ease. Their station in life was inherited and nearly unchangeable; therefore, security was conceived by most as a simple matter of avoiding hunger, war, and disease.
Security from the self-doubt bred by instrumental love is more difficult; and the junkie’s fix of spending money and pampering one’s self may not suffice. For a third and smaller class of well-off housewives, shopping, yoga, a few English classes, and afternoon tea don’t quell the gnawing within. These women are looking to cheat on their men. Uncertain whether they’ve ever loved their husbands, they’re sure that they don’t anymore, and the more farsighted of them take out bank loans and dabble in real estate or stocks or else lazily make ready their own small businesses. Once the kids are grown and out of the house, they plan to get divorced. Contempt is different, of course, from self-respect and confidence, but when long unabated, it can finally prompt a small step toward freedom.
What would these women have done, though, for two decades without the patriarchal structure and obedience to the memes? Robbed of motivation by instrumental love and a deadening education system, trading wifely duties for plenty of time off is ideal in comparison to earning a living at the dull and draining jobs that would be open to these non-achievers, especially when there will also remain room for fantasy and perhaps even some real-life hanky-panky. Lysistrata would get no takers for big wise deeds from any of the above groups, this one least of all.
A Fierce Wife: the issue skirted … or a stalking horse?
The majority of married women of course don’t lead such charge-card-enhanced lives, and about 48% of housewives work outside the home. This group, too, though, enjoys a key privilege: as Floyd noted above, most of them, if the couple has kids, control family finances. This winter, this group in particular was abuzz about a TV series which ended two weeks ago. From the Taipei Times:
The Fierce Wife (犀利人妻), a popular TV soap opera about infidelity, came to an end on Friday night after the 23-episode drama drew high ratings and triggered heated debate.
“Women have both dreams and hatred, and what women want the most is to fulfill their dreams and banish their hatred,” said Wang Pei-hua (王珮華), producer of the series.
At the end of the story, the female protagonist decides to leave “the old her” behind and build a new life by ditching the husband who had cheated on her.
In view of the current social atmosphere and integrating the opinions of netizens and friends, Wang said she was determined to think outside of the box by giving up the conventional “family-centered” concept and adopting a feminism-oriented approach to the open-ended story.
“A mature woman knows that she cannot afford to lose herself and that she must love herself a bit more and let her man learn a lesson,” she said.
“Do women really have hatred that needs to be banished?”
“Of course,” laughed the fortyish woman. “Banish the mother-in-law, then it’s gone.”
It was neither a mother-in-law nor a mother that most of Taiwan’s office women hated, though, in The Fierce Wife; instead it was the usual clichéd target: a mistress. They admired the wife for being tough after discovering her husband had cheated on her, and they yearned for her to get together with a handsome and adventurous journalist suitor; other than to vent hatred, they, like the article above, didn’t focus on the mistress.
The were therefore baffled that the very last scene of the whole series was a several-minute phone call from the mistress to her mother, whom the mistress had blamed and avoided for years. From the accounts I was given, the mother had been nothing but kind to her daughter over the years – had been misunderstood and thus wrongly blamed by the mistress.
“But there was something wrong with the mother’s voice” (in the series-ending phone call), said an observant female student of mine who liked the unexpected ending. “It was too calm and flat. It should have been emotional in some way. It seemed like bad acting.”
I wonder: was it really bad acting? Or was it, rather, a tip-off as to where this series would have gone if it had not considered the current social atmosphere and the opinions of netizens? I wish I had seen the series myself (I didn’t even know about it until reading the Times article two days after the finale). Was there really nothing in the story, even if greatly tamped down in order to serve the audience’s taste, which explained and justified the mistress’s many years of bitterness toward her mother? Had producer Wang and the writer and director pulled punches? Thus, was the ending a conservative apologia for filial piety and traditional structure, or was it, rather, a stalking horse, a covert bellwether for media examples that seek to foment more-ambitious change and growth?
Lysistrata: … We shall surprise the Acropolis today: That is the duty set the older dames. While we sit here talking, they are to go and under pretence of sacrificing, seize it.
Lysistrata knew that it was easy to teach men a lesson and thereby change them; the trick was persuading wives and young women to agree to do it. What, in the end, got younger women to agree to initiate such positive change?
She first dealt with the older women.
Next: Part IV: Extinction Burst or Princesses Weaving Nets?