The thorn in my side

We should probably sit down a bit and discuss the thorn in my side.

Everyone has the same problem.  Indeed, it is a global epidemic.  However, if you are one of those lucky souls married to a Chinese woman, it is a festering nuisance that continues to rear it’s ugly head.
I’m talking about the Chinese mother in law.

Well……there are a few tidbits of wisdom I think I’ve collected over the past 20 years, and thx to a thing called blogging, I’m here to yet again offer my unsolicited comments on that most common of scourges across all societies. 

In a nutshell, if you don’t speak Chinese, and she doesn’t speak English, you’ve got it made.   You may feel free to just move along to my next post. 
Not so fast you say?  You’d rather rub it in a bit?

Ok than. 

I understand that not being able to listen and comprehend one’s M&L ‘s insults are a blessing that keeps on giving.  It’s like going to Church everyday.  One’s stress levels, absent any  confrontation, drop markedly.   They say communication is the key?  Nonsense.  Being able to talk past each other without coming to blows is.  And not being able to express yourself to one another increases those chances quite a lot.

Here’s the rub.   I speak Mandarin.   And my M&L is a retired English teacher.   Never mind the fact she doesn’t actually speak the language.    Apparently she is able to read it.   She is able to mutter  primitive insults my way in English, which I ignore.   They like to call me “dirty cat” in Shanghainese.    So my blessed M&L says as much to me in English.   This is all she can pretty much muster.   

The insults in Mandarin cut much closer to the bone.   It’s tough to ignore those.
First a quick word about my M&L .   She is a know it all.  The stereotypical M&L that has a comment on everything.  The type that just won’t shut the hell up.  

She is very charismatic.   Can make friends easily.   Her husband is henpecked.   He does what he’s told.  It’s pathetic.  Yet he cooks, and cleans.  Buys the groceries.   He’s a good man.   A former high official in Zhejiang Province.    His wife had the audacity to ask why he wasn’t made provincial governor!  (they told her it’s because he doesn’t interact enough. )   To my knowledge relatively honest.  The only example of using his influence I can note was personally ordering a work unit to take on his daughter after graduation.   (back when graduates were assigned jobs).     His claim to fame was having a meeting with Zhu Rongji that was broadcast on the CCTV news.

 Yet like her husband she is racist “Chinese style”.  What do I mean by this?  She looks down on peasants, and social classes unbecoming her own.(to my dismay, my wife shares the same trait).    Whilst my subdivision has plenty of older Chinese grandparents walking their grandkids around at dusk, she and her husband refuse to associate with any of these people.   “their peasants”, they like to claim.
I’ve seen the wedding picture of my inlaws, back in the time of Mao.  In 67  believe.    She was very pretty and he was very handsome.   For their age they still are. (yes, they continue to dye their hair.   No, myself, the constant video blogger, they will not allow me to film it)

Yet they haven’t had sex I’m guessing since at least the 80’s.  How on earth do I know this?  When I first visited my wife’s apartment in 1991 I discovered her mom and dad slept at the foot of each other, in the same bed.    Astounding revelation.  Something I’ve never seen or probably won’t see in America.  (I told my wife only half jokingly if it ever comes to that we’re just getting divorced.   No way I’m going sexless in my marriage) So they inhabit what could be called a typically sexless marriage.   The M&L admitted to her daughter that she realized “we weren’t a good match” back in the early 70’s.   Good grief.    Now my wife and I aren’t perfect, but I’m proud to say we still have good sex.   (Much better I bet than her other friends do. ) The sad thing is you can see the same thing happening to couples all over China today. 

Those afraid of the stigma of divorce(whose rates are really very high), would rather just coast along in their marriage.   The wife takes care of the children while looking the other way at her husbands misdeeds.     I see this all the time, happening to couples from their mid to late 30’s on.   The ones that married their first boyfriend, or acquiesced to an arranged marriage.   Or married for status, and money. (he will take care of me!)  A lot of the laowai I know frequently  have affairs with these women.   These are lonely, horny women, who often rarely see their husbands.     One woman complained she gets laid “once a month”.   Another, a buyer at Target in Shenzhen, complained her husband’s lover called her to request a divorce.(I’ve heard this variation of a story many, many times, and may deserve it’s own post some day)

One thing I’ve surmised is her parents live for comfort, not for each other.  There is little emotion between them.    Over the summer the M&L broke her wrist shortly after arriving in the States.   She was jogging backwards at dusk, and fell down.   The following day she went to the doctor.   I asked the F&L how she was.   His reply with a twinkle in his eye was  “I don’t know”.  

“Did she break her wrist”?

“I’m not sure”.

So maybe I’ve hit the perfect storm.   Stuck with an opinionated, micromanaging, charismatic M&L from a different culture, who refuses to acknowledge her place within the social hierarchy she inhabits(mine!), and who has no qualms about letting everyone know how unhappy she is with whatever it may be that crosses her mind.  I must admit I am quite often, to some degree for reasons I cannot control, the target of her ire. 

You see, I come from a lower class family.  Both of my parents are high school dropouts.  They’ve underachieved.  My wives parents are both college graduates.   Until the advent of money washed over Chinese society, laying before it all the greed, and selfishness previously nonexistent, Chinese wealth was predicated on things besides money.   One’s status within the CCP was the driver of one’s comfort within China.  

One aspect of comfort was having a phone line.  Before the advent of the cell phone, only 3% of China’s population had a phone line.  (don’t ask me to cite!)    Further, if you’ve married an only child(against my advice!), than sooner or later, you will be stuck at times with living with your M&L for long periods of time.  In the twenty years I’ve lived with my wife her mom has probably stayed with us for 20% of that time.   That doesn’t count my going there.    You know in advance you will have them over.  You want them to be there.    You want their help when the baby comes.   Maybe you aren’t expecting them to stay for a year, though.

So  my M&L maintains her harbor of resentment towards me, bringing it out in the open to use as a club when she sees fit.   As her pathetic, silly condescension towards China’s lower classes so often rears it’s head in the open, so she expresses the same attitude towards my own family.    It of course crosses the line.  Culturally ignorant to the ways of others, what can be expressed, what must not be spoken, she rambles on, spewing venom upon others that cannot be taken back.  

I am very cognizant that if my wife had never married a laowai, with her status, beauty, and connections within Chinese society she would be very wealthy today, with a BMW or two, and several properties to boot.   (When she reminds me of this, I simply retort she’d be in jail, as well.) 

If your wife is the filial type, it’s worse.   Actions unheard of from an American wife are quite often the norm for a Chinese.   It’s not proper to tell your parents their out of line.  They have carte blanche to insult away.  From this point of view, it’s much better to just marry a Western woman.   Her parents would have at least a bit more respect and restraint.  The things I’ve put up with, because I speak Mandarin, and thus can actually understand the insults, is beyond printing.    

There are light hearted moments.  When the M&L was surprised upon checking her blood pressure to see it as high as it was, indeed, higher than mine, she commented it “will drop once I go back.” 
I quipped “so will mine”. (she took it to heart, and I later had to explain I was joking)

There are comical, immature, yet sadly funny moments as well. 

My F&L once walked home the 2 blocks from a local Home Depot when he and I had a disagreement over a $11 pc of wood.    He refused the ride home. 

Very sad to say, there is little emotion in a Chinese family.  My wife brags her father hasn’t hugged her since junior high.   Nor her mother.   Love is understood.

When my closest relatives passed, one quite unexpectedly, no words of condolence passed their lips. 
So as you can see, none of the above that I’d written would really be possible unless I was able to communicate with my inlaws in their language.  And if I wasn’t able to communicate with them?  Would things be easier?   Perhaps one would argue they would be worse.    I admit I’ve hit the “jackpot from Hell” with mine.  

In the interim I’ve advised my wife to send her mom to the UN in NYC.   

“Since your mom has the answers to all the problems, just send her to the UN.   She may as well solve all the world’s problems while she’s here.”

My wife laughed.


  1. just want to say - love the blog, and please keep up the candor, sense of humor, and posting frequency!


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