This is the second part of the article. Read the first part here.
Cantonese-American women who date white men are almost always considered questionable by other Chinatown Cantonese. Even if they marry the man there is something clearly wrong with them, as well as with their family for tolerating it. Her parents may never express this, but like the character flaws that produced a girl-child in the first place, it is an ever-present concept in the social environment and reflected in the language.
In Chinese family where relationships are hierarchical and male-dominated, the woman who marries the kwailo and her husband will rank lower in the estimation of her relatives than almost anyone else. Technically, the couple does not even have any standing within her family; she married out, she’s now part of his family. And the fact that his kin are not part of any recognizable social or cultural variant on Chineseness is not something to boast about.
In the case of my friend’s wife, she is now considered by her own mother one step above the level of prostitute. And because her husband is NOT Chinese, and so the girl has NOT really joined someone else’s family (white people don’t really have familial bonds, and besides, they divorce at the drop of a hat), to her mother it’s like the girl is still a liability, even more so than when she was living at home.
That she even treats her son-in-law as a human being shows how gracious she is (and how adept at hiding from the stupid foreigner how much righteous anger she feels), and it is manifestly a privilege for him to be occasionally included in family events (and be expected to chauffeur around people he doesn’t know).
What she cannot hide is that having a white son-in-law is an immense stroke of bad luck, and she has no idea why she of all women deserved that. It’s so unfair! My friend carries the guilt of having married someone else’s daughter with grim good humour. My friend is lucky.
The big hairy unknown
Savage Kitten and I have lived together for nearly two decades (we split up last summer, but we’re still apartment-mates and good friends).
She never told her family about our relationship, nor exactly where she lived. For years she was terrified that her mother would discover everything and arrive on our doorstep all spitting fury and venomous rage. Which was not an unfounded fear – Cantonese old ladies can be quite monstrous. Savage Kitten’s mom exemplifies the type.
When one of her brothers refused to even date the woman that mom had picked out for him, he was disinherited and cut out of the family for several years. At family gatherings mom happily produced photos of the grandkids that could have been hers if her stupid son had obeyed her. Another son was severely humiliated for once taking a white girl out to dinner.
Savage Kitten has been blamed for causing the deaths of several relatives because she is not a perfectly obedient daughter, and all of the children have been held responsible for any and all health-issues the old lady ever had. And, thanks to their upbringing, they feel guilty about it, even though they know how ridiculous the accusations are.
Savage Kitten has consciously struggled to never ever be like her mother. In a large part she has succeeded – for which, truth be told, the mother must be given some credit, by reason of having been such a loathsome example.
Like many Cantonese girls in San Francisco, Savage Kitten has been scarred by her upbringing, and it has shaped how she thinks.
Despite never having met her mother, I have frequently been outvoted by the old lady, and even though she is no longer fully sentient, that woman’s lifelong tyranny continues to influence her daughter. Her mom, without even knowing it, bears a large part of the responsibility for our break-up.
A bit of perspective
My colleague’s mother-in-law, and Savage Kitten’s mom, represent a segment of Chinatown society that is still firmly rooted in the countryside (鄉下) that they left decades ago. They are not exposed to much outside of the neighborhood, and do not understand more than a few words of English despite having lived in the United States for most of their lives. They are speakers of Toishanese (臺山話), rather than City-Cantonese (粵語). They still think of Toishan (臺山) as home – America is merely the foreign country that surrounds them. In describing such women, the terms ‘flawed’ and ‘dysfunctional’ come to mind.
Not all Chinatown mothers are like that. One old lady I know couldn’t be happier about her half-white grandchildren, another thinks that her Caucasian son-in-law is just perfect, though she doesn’t quite understand how her daughter could be so fortunate.
I should mention that both of these women are widows, speak English in addition to Cantonese, have few relatives (neither their own nor their husbands) in the United States, and also that there is more to their lives than just San Francisco Chinatown. Their children are exceptionally well-adjusted. Which is quite unusual, considering their peers.
In some ways I can claim to understand the Chinatown environment better than even some of its natives; I am the outsider looking in, so I see what they do not. And I speak and read Cantonese – which does not win me any points, by the way. A lofan who speaks Kwangtungwa (廣東話) is an anomaly, and interesting to know. But not one of ‘us’.
Now, lest you think that I am too judgmental about Savage Kitten’s mom, I also know whereof I speak in that regard.
Indeed, I never actually met her – but I have seen and heard her in front of one of the family properties scolding a tenant on more than one occasion – which was very educational, that woman has quite a vocabulary – and after the Loma Prieta earthquake I telephoned to make sure Savage Kitten had come home safely. Which yielded a tortuous conversation. Who was I, how did I know her daughter, where was my family from, was I married, did my parents own real estate, what was my father’s profession, which subject was I studying, when was I going to graduate, and what would I then do for a living……… it took all my linguistic ability to dissimulate.
After half an hour I was finally grudgingly informed that yes, the girl-child had come home. She sounded disappointed when she said that.