New America Media/Sing Tao Daily, News Feature,
NEW YORK -- When Yunmei Lai came from China to join her parents and four younger sisters in the United States in 1975, her father pulled her aside and asked her to help destroy her third sister’s planned marriage.
“My dad was very upset, he said to me: ‘You know, she is getting married with a foreigner. This is really bad.’ But I told him, they had been engaged, there was nothing I could do,” Lai recalled.
That was only the beginning. Three of the five Lai daughters eventually married non-Asians. The father, who has since passed away, had no choice but to swallow hard.
Discord to Preserve Tradition
The Lais are like many Asian families in the United States, who clash over interracial marriages. Some experts see similar cultural discord between older and younger generations increasing as some aging parents hope to preserve tradition.
Others, though, say family friction is not universal. They note that youth and elders in many families join together with a sense of “renpin,” the Chinese concept of shared values and temperament that cross ethnic borders and bridge people with friendship or love.
For Lai, her husband and her second sister’s are both Chinese. “My father was very close to them. They often went out to have tea and dim sum together and they chatted like father and sons. But between my father and the husbands of the other three sisters, there was only politeness and no intimacy.”
The tensions didn’t stop with that generation, though. When Lai’s daughter brought her white boyfriend home a couple of years ago, her husband was not happy. “His face turned dark and he didn’t talk to them at all. After the kids left, I had to warn him his attitude may turn our daughter against us. The second time the boy visited, my husband started to say hello to him,” said Lai.
Now Lai’s daughter is living happily with her white husband and two children in New Jersey. Lai and her husband, who live in New York’s Chinatown, visit them once a month and help take care of the grandchildren. But the cultural conflicts remain.
For example, when Lai feeds the grandchildren congee, the most soothing food in Chinese cuisine, her white son-in-law is not happy. “He thinks congee has no nutrition,” said Lai.
Lai has become philosophical, though. “I think whether a multicultural family can be harmonious depends more on the attitude of the older generation than the younger one,” she said. “Many of our traditional thoughts may have been outdated. We have to realize that the happiness of our children is more important than anything else.”
Twice U.S. Average Rate for Asians
According to a study last year by the Pew Research Center, nearly 15 percent of new marriages in the United States in 2008 were interracial, double the level in 1980, and an all-time high. The rate is twice that amount (31 percent) for Asians marrying out of their race, the highest rate among all groups. Overall, Asians total 4.9% of the U.S. population.
What may not immediately occur to love birds is that Asian parents tend to have higher family expectations from their children than parents in most non-Asian families. That includes keeping close family ties, involving the parents in decision-making on major issues and taking care of seniors when needed.
Whether family members can compromise may affect both the relationship of those who are younger and the wellbeing of the seniors.
“In the 1980s, it was common that parents disowned their children because they married out,” said Betty Lee Sung, a retired professor at City University of New York and author of Chinese-American Intermarriage (Center Migration Studies, 1989).
“Some parents think it is the worst thing that could happen to them. Now parents are more accepting of interracial marriage, but most people 65 or older would still oppose it at first,” said Sung. She noted their concerns about being looked down on or the focus of community gossip.
Sung added that memories of old laws in some states banning interracial marriage reinforce negative attitudes toward such unions. Also, she said, many Chinese believe non-Asians in America are more likely to have extramarital affairs or get divorced. But Sung stressed that the overriding fear is that mixed marriages would dilute the culture of the Chinese family.
“They want their children and their grandchildren to share the same culture with them in order to keep close family ties,” said Sung.
This concern is not unfounded. Ask Ms. Lee, age 78, who preferred only to be identified by her last name. Of her five children, only one son married a Burmese woman and lives in New York. But the others all married non-Asians and live in other states.
“I don’t see them very often. They come to visit me every one or two years. That’s all. They call me sometimes, but when I talk to my grandchildren over the phone, the kids are only able to say hello in Chinese. I cannot understand them,” said Lee.
Lee’s adult children often send gifts to their mother by mail on her birthday. But to her, the gifts are too “Westernized” to satisfy her practical expectations. “Once they sent me a bouquet of flowers. Why do I need flowers? I’d rather they give the money to me so I can buy something useful. Another time, they sent me a red down coat. I am 80-years-old, how can I still wear a bright color like that. I feel my children are not Chinese any more,” said Lee.
Asian In-Laws Prime Web Targets
There is bitterness on the other side, too. On websites that focus on family concerns or Asian issues, it’s not hard to find complaints about Asian in-laws. Prime targets of these darts are such worries as financial conflicts, child rearing and pet peeves.
For instance, on the website mothering.com, a white woman married a Chinese man stated, “Before we married, my in-laws did everything they could to try to break us up… They thought things like white people were more likely to divorce and didn’t cook,” wrote “veggiemomnyc.”
“My MIL is Japanese and she tells my husband that I look better without any body hair, such as arms hair! I’m a Latina, we all have hairy arms… No Asian MIL will rule my life!!!!” ranted “Mrs. Franchesca Kaneko” on goldsea.com.
“I am not allowed to disagree with anything and must do everything requested, or am labeled disrespectful and my husband told [me] that he will be disowned if he chooses to stand behind me,” said another goldsea.com user, Hannah Lee.
The lifestyle website ehow.com posts instructions for non-Asians on how to please Asian-in-laws, such as being polite and respectful and learning their languages. When all of these fail, ehow.com suggests that one “move far away from them when you get married.”
Such backlash can be painful for Asian elders. Suling Yang, age 70, said she and her husband came to the United States in 2005, to join their only son, who had married a white woman two years earlier. The family reunion was not as happy as the older couple had expected.
“Several months after we arrived, my daughter-in-law started to argue with my son frequently. We don’t speak English, and our son didn’t want to tell us what’s going on, but we knew it might be because of us. I felt if we lived there any longer, they probably would divorce,” said Yang. The older couple moved out of their son’s big house into an apartment.
Now Yang occasionally gets a visit from her son, but she hasn’t seen her daughter-in-law since. “I still cry every time when I think about my situation,” said Yang. (Yang’s son and daughter-in-law declined to be interviewed for this story.)
But it would be wrong to think all such interracial marriages lead to broken ties with seniors. The second article in this series will look at families that see cross-cultural marriage as a benefit.
Rong Xiaoqing wrote this article under her MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, in conjunction with New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.