BEIJING DAYS: Dispatches From the Middle Kingdom
The Little Flower Has Thorns
Her name is Hua Hua, Little Flower, and at a group dinner the other night she told a story that caused chopsticks to clatter onto plates.
Hua Hua is a modern Beijing woman. Fortyish, sophisticated. She flies to Las Vegas and Macao on gambling excursions. She invests her own money and drink hard liquor with the men on outings. She’s on her second marriage.
But here’s the thing: She once admitted over dinner that she and her second husband often wish they’d never had children.
I respected her for that kind of candor. It’s a phrase I’ve never heard any American utter, even though I’ve seen it though the actions of many parents.
Hua Hua’s son is 24 and recently returned home for a spell. One morning, she told the dozen of us, she was doing laundry and wanted to make sure she got the last scrap of dirty clothes in the load.
She walked into the room where her son was sleeping and without trying to wake him, pulled off his underwear to throw them in the washer. He woke up and was angry.
“Mom, you can’t do that,” he complained. “I’m a grown man, not a boy.”
Hua Hua told the story without a shred a embarrassment. Women in the group clucked their tongues. Men shuddered at the thought.
The way Hua Hua saw it, she was completely within her rights. She saw no invasion of privacy, no inappropriate behavior.
“I gave birth to him,” she said with a wave of her hand. “He came from my body.” It was normal: she was doing the laundry; the underwear were on her son’s body. She took them off. End of story.
After 20 years traveling in Asia, there are still aspects of the cultures there that mystify me. And the relationship between mother and son is one of them. While living in Korea, I blanched at the way grown children, especially sons, bent to the iron wills of their mothers.
It was more than a sense of duty. Often, it seemed to me, a bit of fear was involved.
I wanted to challenge Hua Hua, to see how far her convictions went.
“What if,” I asked, “the roles were reversed and the father was doing the laundry and pulled the panties off his daughter?”
“The would be disgusting,” she said.
“What if your son was doing the laundry and pulled off your panties?”
That question made no sense to her or the group: In China, the son would never do the laundry.
I couldn’t shake Hua Hua from her pedestal as appropriate mother who ran her own household as she saw fit.
In the end, it was another addition to the list of things that baffle me about life in Asia. Much of it is not only different, but an improvement over life back in the West.
I like the respect given the elderly, how mothers and fathers are thought of first. On each outing, I’m automatically given the seat in the car next to the driver. They all say it’s because of my long legs, but I realize now, as I get older, that I have gained respect here due to my advancing age.
I like the easy camaraderie that my wife’s mother shares with the 24-year-old grandson of her brother. On a recent trip, they shared rooms, with double beds, and they laughed and shared jokes, sweetly, with the easy interaction of old friends.
He calls her Lao Lao, grandmother. Once, riding in the car, he put his arm around her and squeezed her tight. “Do you feel your heart flutter, like the old days?” he asked.
I will never understand my wife’s trigger for her tears. In all the years we’ve been together, I’ve only seen her cry a few times. Each time, the tears flowed, they came as a surprise. When I expected her to cry, she never did.
I respect the bond that exists within my wife’s family, one that is not easily joined, even after so many years.
One day at breakfast, my wife’s father asked why I didn’t sit in the main chair across from him, instead leaving it open for my wife or her brother.
I knew the drill.
“Because that seat is for a member of the inner circle; either you or your children. I take the seat to the side. Here.”
He smiled and said to my wife. “He really knows our family.”
The mysteries of Asia; they keep me coming back.