Relative shock of home trip

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 February, 1998, 12:00am

I caught up with friends recently, not having seen them since before the Lunar New Year.

Dennis, a Jewish-American married to Jean, a Chinese-American, is one of those Westerners who can make many overseas Chinese look bad. (OK, we do it to ourselves, but he certainly didn't help.) Eating dinner at a vegetarian restaurant one night, Dennis effortlessly translated the Chinese menu and sauce labels for the returned overseas Chinese sitting at the table, except for his wife.

Anyway, the couple went to meet Jean's relatives in Taiwan for the first time over New Year and since Dennis had spent a year studying Chinese on the mainland, they expected her monolingual relatives to be impressed.

The nieces and nephews, all under nine, never questioned Dennis about his fluency, assuming it was natural for a Westerner to speak their language.

The more disturbing cultural shock was gender-related. While being generously chauffeured and escorted everywhere by her relatives, Jean faced several classic cases of sexism, also from her relatives.

Dealing with family members who are sexist is like dealing with death: first comes shock, then denial, and finally, acceptance. We excuse our relatives usually for their cultural or generational differences, as they do ours, but certain values are difficult to reconcile with our own beliefs.

For Jean, who believes in the equal treatment of men and women, a few of their practices made her feel awkward, if not wronged.

The men in the family were always served a meal first, women afterwards. When Jean played dumb and asked why the women were not joining them, one uncle replied: 'Not to worry, there is always enough food for them.' When alcohol was served, women were exempt. Drinks were poured for the men, including Dennis. The rest of the women left the table. As a guest, Jean got to stay, but was denied an alcoholic beverage.

Jean realised it was not her place to say anything about these arrangements, since she was their guest. The trip was only for a few days, so she was thankful she remained an observer, and not a participant in their lifestyle.

Another friend, Sharon, found herself in a similar situation when she first arrived in Hong Kong and a family friend invited her to stay with him. She was appalled when she realised that as a woman, he expected her to wash his dishes. He had a maid to do the rest of the household chores.

Given that he extended his hospitality to her with the expectation that she do one simple, daily chore, she decided to stay. She was not impressed with the underlying principle, but decided she needed shelter more than he needed a dishwasher.

In a reverse situation, another couple, Brad, a New Zealander, and Alex, a Singaporean, paid a visit to Alex's relatives in a village close to Guangzhou over the Lunar New Year. Alex had only met them two months earlier, when he took a trip up himself.

The couple decided not to put anyone in an awkward situation, and played it as though they were friends, not partners. Alex's mother is in denial about their relationship, and persists in asking him when he is getting married. He was not about to spring the nature of his relationship on relatives whom he did not know well enough to predict how they would react.

The lifestyles of relatives can be difficult to predict, but observing them can help us appreciate values we often take for granted.

Take Tammy, who was invited to spend her holidays in a village in Guangdong with close friends of her father, one of whom a local tycoon.

Tammy's immediate family is well-to-do back in Canada. But her family friends in Hong Kong travelled to their ancestral home in a more privileged fashion than she was used to: in a limousine with a police motorcade clearing the traffic.

This is not the way most people see the mainland for the first time and Tammy found the contrast between the rich and poor more difficult than usual to stomach, perhaps because she was looking at villagers through the smoked glass of the limousine.