The Daughter-in-Law Tea Ceremony (#100)

Not actual Tea Ceremony teapot. (Actually teapot under a house in Honolulu.)
Not actual Tea Ceremony teapot. (Actually teapot under a house in Honolulu.)

So this is my 100th blog post! Imagine confetti everywhere!

I’m shocked. I mean, not shocked I’ve written approximately 400 pages. All y’all know by now that I’m a loquacious monster with polysyllabic tentacles. Standard blog posts are apparently a page or less. Mine are more like 4. But that’s fine. I take pride in the fact that my blog is for people with above average powers of concentration (or possibly extra-long train commutes).

No, what I’m shocked about is that it took me ONE HUNDRED posts to get to the Daughter-in-law Tea Ceremony I promised you on my welcome page.

Talk about not cutting to the chase.

Sorry, everyone. Without further ado, we —

CUT TO:

INT. WONG HOUSE – HONOLULU – EVENING

It was a hot and steamy night. No, NOT that kind of steamy. There’s a grandma in this scene, for crying out loud. We’re just talking the usual 98% Hawaiian humidity, okay? You need some sexy steam, head on over to Big Asian Package.

My new Chinese-American mother-in-law, Sunny, helped her mother, Popo, unpack a large box in the kitchen. Out came a brown teapot. The pot was older, squatter, and far less elaborate than a typical English teapot. Sunny and Popo unwrapped small cups without handles in a matching brown.

The teakettle boiled on the stove, because, you know, we had to get to 100% humidity if possible. Especially since we were all dressed up for the after the fact Chinese Wedding Banquet.

But before the banquet there was this tea-drinking thing. Yes, that’s exactly how I thought of it at the time. “Tea with the in-laws.” Big deal. I love tea, my family and I drank it all the time, usually over card games.

Big mistake. Again, the history major hangs her head in shame and mutters a lame excuse like, “But, but… I was so TIRED after fighting all the wedding wars.”

After unpacking the teapot, Sunny arranged three chairs in the living room. She muttered, “Jay sit here. Popo sit here…”

I am super helpful and show initiative (or so all my report cards said). I lugged a chair in from the kitchen and said, “How many more chairs do you need? Where do I sit?”

Popo gasped in horror.

Sunny yanked the chair away from me and barked, “You no sit! You serve!”

And that clued me in on what the Daughter-in-law Tea Ceremony REALLY is – the establishment of the hierarchy in the Chinese household. I did a little research much, much later – probably just as well, because if I had done research first, I might have refused to serve tea at all, and wouldn’t that have created all kinds of stress and havoc.

I discovered that the Daughter-in-law Tea Ceremony has been around for centuries. No, MILLENNIA. It’s traditional for the son to bring his bride home to (shudder!) live with his parents. The men are technically rulers of the household, and a woman (according to Andy’s oldest aunt), must first listen to her father, then her husband, and finally her son. In theory, anyway. I have my suspicions about who really runs Chinese households. In any case, the women have their own pecking order.

A pecking order that is literally codified with this tea ceremony. First, I had to pour the tea for Popo. Then I presented it to her with a bow. Jay snapped a picture to ensure that my servitude was caught on film for posterity. Popo pretended to drink the tea.

Finally, a red envelope. Or servant's pay. You decide.
Finally, a red envelope. Or servant’s pay. You decide.

She then presented me with a red envelope. Red envelopes usually contain cash, cuz you know, you always give gifts down the hierarchy (just like Christmas gifts in corporate America). Jay snapped another picture to capture the matriarch paying giving her servant granddaughter-in-law cash a generous gift.

Next up was Jay. He handed the camera to Sunny. I poured his tea and presented it to him with a bow. He held the cup to his mouth but did not drink it, same as Popo. I wondered why the hell we boiled all that water if the tea was just for show. Maybe the red envelopes were also just for show, I thought, as Jay handed me a second one. Maybe his envelope AND Popo’s were empty. Huh. Wouldn’t that suck.

IMG_4666Finally, I served Sunny. Another bow, a smile for the camera, and a third red envelope.

The household hierarchy was set. Popo was on top, then Jay, then Sunny. And me? I was at the bottom, and my job was to serve my in-laws. Nice, huh?

Andy and I stood by the teapot while his mother and grandmother chatted in Cantonese and laughed.

I must’ve had a not-so-happy look on my face. Andy whispered,“It’s not so bad, honey! You got red envelopes!”

“They didn’t even drink the tea! Did they think I was trying to poison them?”

Andy choked a little. “Honey, the teapot is old and made with lead!”

“Why not get a new one?”

Andy shrugged. “I guess it’s special. Popo’s had that teapot for a long time.”

And then it hit me. Andy had maternal aunts ONLY. 3 of them, to be exact. Popo had never had a son. The only male cousin older than Andy was clearly – at least to me – in the closet (but, as always, that’s another post). From the day she had been forced to perform the Daughter-in-law Tea Ceremony, Popo had been waiting. Waiting for the day when she would be served the symbolic tea denoting her rise to matriarch. She’d hung onto to that toxic teapot, through World War II, through civil war, and even as her family fled the communists. Despite being a nearly penniless refugee family in Hong Kong, the teapot had never been pawned.

She had saved that teapot for decades. Just for this ceremony.

For me. Well, for Andy, really. The shining grandson.

Technically, serving Popo first was a breach in protocol. The daughter-in-law is supposed to serve the paternal side of the family first, as they are higher on the ladder. But Jay hadn’t said a word. His family wasn’t even invited.

And even as my feminist soul railed against yet another example of the Chinese preference for sons, I understood how important this was to Popo. She had kept that teapot as a show of faith – or perhaps defiance — in the face of her female brood. To finally use it now was a triumph. A tangible sign that her family hadn’t just survived – it had thrived. And it would continue.

With me.

No pressure.

I nudged Andy. “So this is all just to establish that I’m the lowest person on the totem pole.”

Andy, “Ahhhh…”

Me: “I thought so.”

Andy: “But – you’re smiling.”

Me: “Well, this position is only temporary.”

Andy looked confused.

“Denny,” I explained. “Your younger brother’s got a new girlfriend, doesn’t he? And it’s serious, right?”

Andy nodded.

“When he marries her, there’s going to be ANOTHER Daughter-in-Law Tea Ceremony,” I cackled. “And then I will sit in a chair, and she will serve me!”

Andy laughed. “Welcome to the dark side, honey!’

I don’t believe the Daughter-in-law Tea Ceremony lasted for millennia because it’s beautiful. It’s lasted because Lord Acton was right. Power corrupts.

Even if it’s just power over the tea service.

IMG_5096

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

41 thoughts on “The Daughter-in-Law Tea Ceremony (#100)”

    1. Nice catch, Yueni.

      I just yelled into the other room, “Hey, did you have to serve tea, too?”

      Andy, “Yes.”

      Me: “Huh. Are you sure? I don’t remember that.”

      Andy: “YES!”

      Me: “Did YOU get red envelopes, too?”

      Andy: “Yeah.”

      Me: “So we both got red envelopes?”

      Andy: “I think so.”

      Me: “How much money was in YOUR envelopes?”

      Andy hesitates: “I…don’t remember?”

      It’s better if no one knows where the conversation went from there.

      1. lolol. I think your side of the family got gypped.

        Most tea ceremonies (especially ones held in modern times) include both the bride’s and the groom’s family, and both the bride and groom serve tea to their elders. This includes married older siblings, who of course, should be giving monetary gifts or gold jewellery to the married couple. In some more traditional tea ceremonies, the bride and groom are literally dripping in gold at the end! =P

        Maybe it’s just as well you guys had the ceremony in Hawai’i instead of New Hampshire!

        1. Yeah, we totally got gypped. Once I saw other stories online and did a little research, I realized there was no jewelry! Not a single phoenix bracelet! Nary a necklace!

          What a great image, the bride and groom dripping in gold. 🙂

  1. Another great post!

    It’s fun seeing how you are evolving in your relationship with your in-laws.

    Oh btw, regarding the family line continuing through you–all my Asian great grandmothers (2 from Japan, 1 from the Philippines) had 6 kids each. That’s continuing the family line.

    How many kids will you and Andy have??

  2. Thanks, 808!

    But “evolving?” I kinda think I am devolving. Down to servant status.

    Yes, yes, I know. It’s a story as old as time. All I have to do to raise my status in the eyes of my in-laws is bear a boy child. And then another. And then another. Until I rival your great-grandmothers!

    But seriously, there are more than enough Ashboughs in this world. My mother and father saw to that.

  3. I was grinning when I read that you wanted to sit with the elders during the tea ceremony 😀 Popo is certainly a determined woman, and props to her for keeping the teapot in one piece. It must have seen better days.

    Male cousin in the closet? I would love to read that post when you write it.

    1. Actually, that teapot was in perfect condition. Just very old. And, you know, made with lead. It had been wrapped within an inch of its life.

      I will get to Cousin Freddy and Yee-mah one of these days. Fear not.

  4. You catch on fast, Autumn. I’m not sure I would have known to bow when serving the tea. And I may have asked why nobody was drinking it. 2 strikes against the stupid new bride. Popo must have been happy to have her tea set finally used.

  5. Great story, as usual. And congrats on 100 posts! I love those milestones, although I recently hit 600 (!) and for the first time I forgot to acknowledge it. Haha.

  6. Another great post! Your 100 post is one of the funniest, I was literally laughing out loud at work!

    I had no idea about this tea ceremony thing. You may have prepared me for future events yet to come (I wonder if all provinces in China do this? I’m sure, maybe a variation…).

    Seems like all throughout Asia, women are meant to pour. While I didn’t marry anyone in Japan, it was always my duty to make sure everyone’s beer glass was full. At first I just watched in amazement as all the women went around the room filling up glasses, until one of my coworkers shoved a bottle of beer in my hand and said “get to work.” I guess being a foreigner, you can’t run away from all cultural duties (as sexist as they are).

    1. Girl, what are you doing at work today? That bites. But thank you for the compliment.

      YOU HAD TO POUR AT WORK?!! And it was only the women? I think I’d have frothed at the mouth. Or was this after hours? I mean, yeah, a good host and hostess always make sure their guests’ glasses are full, but all women? Always?

      Okay, is there a return perk? Do the men keep the plates full of food?

  7. The giving of Red envelopes…thus carries a tradition down to your children. I’ve gotten red pocket money from my parents every year since i was young enough to receive it , and tradition means I receive red pocket money until I get married.

    1. Thank you!

      Sadly, Tea Ceremony pictures were lost with hundreds of other photos. I literally woke up one day to find the entire file of photos gone from the computer. We tried everything, and never got them back. I only have wedding photos because I took pictures of the pictures in the physical album. However, Jay did print out pictures of some of the dishes at the banquet, so I might be able to use a few of those. If I can find them!

  8. Congrats on your 100th post! Autumn the Prolific xd

    Where is Andy’s family originally from in China? (I’m sure you’ve said it many times, but I am a forgetful old lady). I don’t think the tea ceremony is done here. I think southern Chinese, Taiwanese and Chinese abroad kept all the traditions…

    1. I will have to ask Andy, but I think Popo was from the south — Cantonese was her main language — and then they fled to Hong Kong. Her husband was a military judge of some kind, possibly from a little further north.

      There’s something to be said for keeping certain traditions alive. I don’t know about this one, though! Maybe I’d have liked it more if we had gotten jewelry. 😉

  9. I saw the tea ceremony once when my sister-in-law got married and I specifically my husband that I would not be doing it.

    Oh, and congrats on 100 posts! One of your posts written awhile back recently helped me and I am so grateful to you for writing it and to Nicki for her response. [I know I am so vague – don’t you love that about me!]

  10. How I do love your writing. Your suspicion is correct! At least in my household. Ma runs the show for sure… leading to the necessity of my father’s insistence on appearing to run things.

  11. A great 100th post. Worth waiting for.

    We didn’t have a tea ceremony. My in-laws were in Singapore; we stayed in the US. I did get the gold jewelry, though, all from my mother-in-law–gold necklaces, a bracelet, and a string of pearls. Also later smaller gold jewelry for our daughters. I guess I lucked out.

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