Wednesday, February 13, 2013

American Fairy Tales: An Introduction

I would have never dreamed I would become Chinese. As a white guy born, raised and educated in Texas, China was simply the reason I was forced nightly by my parents to eat all of the food on my plate. “There are children in China with no food to eat!! Eat what is in front of you and be grateful!” was a nightly admonishment.  As a Texas child of the early 80s, all I knew of the Chinese was that (1) they had no food to eat; (2) they were all short; (3) they had funny shaped eyes; (4) they had unpronouncebly-long and funny names (remember the story TikkiTikkiTembo?); and (5) they were all godless communist.

Which is I suppose exactly what was running through my mother’s head when I arrived home at the age of 25 with a Chinese girlfriend- my first girlfriend I had ever brought home for her to meet.

My girlfriend and I met in grad school while we were both working towards our PhDs. She was the first ethnically different woman I had ever dated, and the first woman that I had ever fallen in love with. And I knew before I even took her to meet my family, that I would be asking her to marry me.

With training in cultural sociology, I should have known the difficulties we would face. Confronted by people’s perception of a white guy paired with a Chinese woman, being poor graduate students (we made a combined $24,000 in our first year of marriage), entering into not only a bi-racial marriage, but a bi-cultural marriage to boot, both under the stress of classes, research and uncertain future job prospects, and coming from two indescribably different cultures, a rational person would have known that success, much less happiness in such a marriage, was impossible. But we were in love, and if there is anything love is, it is not rational. And so two years after we began dating, we wed.

My parents were there, as were close friends and relatives. Due to the cost of travel and the trouble in the aftermath of 9/11 in obtaining visas, my wife’s family did not attend. Instead, we travelled to China shortly after our American wedding and had a traditional Chinese affair. Though I remember very little of the ceremony due to the copious amount of baijio (Chinese whiskey) I was forced to drink, the pictures depict a drunk, out of place white guy in traditional Chinese clothing having one helluva time. Starting at that moment, my life changed in ways I had never considered it would. With family suddenly on both sides of the world, and a child who would come several years later, at that moment, I was inextricably linked to Chinese culture. I would forever have a foot in each of two homes. As times passes, however, in unpredictable ways, my Chinese foot has become more firmly planted than my American one.

As a child, I was warned that fairy tales were not real. On an intellectual level, I understood this. But as I have grown, it seems that each new life stage is defined by the shattering of a fairy tale I unconsciously held tightly too in the previous stage. Our marriage has been defined as such. Visions of the American dream- great jobs, a nice house, a wonderful family and middle-class life of the “Cheerful Robot” as the sociologist C. Wright Mills labeled it, was the fairy tale of married life that I held on to entering the first stages of our marriage.

We’ve been lucky. Thus far, we have achieved all of these things (though Mills would not consider this any form of good luck). But my latest fairy tale was shattered when my Chinese in-laws moved in with us. And in the shattering of this fairy tale, a comedic tale of cultural misunderstanding, culture shock and trying to survive in white America suburbia when you are outnumbered by Chinese 3 ½ to 1 in your own home, has emerged to replace it.

This blog is about the daily cultural screw-ups, hic-ups, offenses and misunderstandings that are now my life. It is about me becoming more Chinese with each passing day, and my American side trying to grapple with and comprehend what it perceives to be an incomprehensible Chinese culture. It is about learning to live with your in-laws, when your in-laws are from another culture.

I would not have it any other way. Living in the chaos and unpredictability that is a comedy, beats the hell out of the orderliness and boring formulaic existence of the fairly tale, every time.

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