There are delightful tea ceremonies in many cultures. There’s the British afternoon tea, paired with finger sandwiches and scones. There’s India’s chai tea, sold on every corner by chaiwallahs with the latest gossip. Russians invite friends into their homes for zavaka, traditionally prepared in samovars. Japan’s elaborate Tea Ceremony is famous for its green tea and tranquility.
And then there’s the Chinese Daughter-in-Law Tea Ceremony, which is none of those things. It’s all about putting an incoming bride in her place in the household hierarchy.
FYI, her place is at the bottom.
I did not even know there was such a ceremony until I was in the thick of it, instructed to serve –but not drink!—tea from an ancient, lead pot with my new, Chinese-American in-laws.
In exchange for practicing my position as an unpaid servant, I received Chinese “lucky money” in a red envelope from both my mother-in-law and her mother. My husband Andy thought this was a good trade, since we lived 3,000 miles from his family and I couldn’t actually be expected to serve them on a regular basis.
So of course they came to visit us. More than once. And yes, they definitely expected to be waited on. No, I couldn’t just leave them to fend for themselves; the one time I tried, they nearly burnt down the house.
They required a servant and supervision.
I gnashed my teeth and bided my time. Andy had a younger brother, Denny. When Denny finally got engaged, I rejoiced. His bride would also have to go through the Daughter-in-Law Tea Ceremony. Now SHE would be at the bottom of the pecking order.
“So she’ll have to wait on me, right?” I asked Andy on our flight to Oahu. Denny’s fiancée was Taiwanese-American from Los Angeles. Unlike me, she leapt at the chance for a wedding in Hawaii. My mother-in-law Sunny was handling all the details.
“I’d like to order Denny’s Bride to entertain Baby D for a few hours so I can get a nap,” I said dreamily. “Or maybe I can send her to Starbucks or something.” Baby D was four months old and down to one half-hour nap a day. If people weren’t constantly interacting and entertaining him, he protested. Angrily. Loudly. Incessantly.
“Well, Denny’s Bride should get us Starbucks at least twice, considering how much money they’re getting as a wedding present,” Andy grumbled. “And it’s not like Denny gave US a wedding present. Didn’t we fly him to New Hampshire and pay for his tux and hotel?”
“Yep. And he ran up the open bar tab. I’m not sure which part was the most expensive.”
“The bar tab,” Andy muttered darkly. “Definitely the bar tab.”
We arrived in Oahu a week before the wedding. We planned on having a little vacation while showing off the number one son of the number one son.
Sunny and Jay cooed over their giant grandson and his mighty thighs. Popo did as well.
And then they put us to work.
When I wasn’t nursing, burping, or keeping Baby D entertained, I stuffed favors into boxes and mesh bags or folded programs.
Andy helped his father with air malfunctioning conditioning units, landscaping, gardening, and other home improvement projects that needed to be finished before other guests arrived.
Baby D’s grandparents took us out for Dim Sum a few times, but not once did they offer to babysit so we could go out alone.
Instead, Sunny would sneak in when Baby D was napping and say, “Uh-oh, baby pulled his blanket over his face a little bit, maybe he can’t breathe?”
I’d whisper, “He does that sometimes. He’s fine. Don’t touch it, he’ll wake up.”
“Maybe I move it just a little—”
Too late. “WAAAAH!”
Denny and his bride finally arrived. The Daughter-in-law Tea Ceremony did not.
“Ask your mom when they’re having the ceremony,” I badgered Andy.
“She’s busy,” Andy responded. “I don’t want to bother her.”
“You mean you’re hoping they forget so you don’t have to give your brother another red envelope.”
I gave up on my husband. The day of the wedding, I cornered Sunny in the church and asked when and where we were having the Daughter-in-law Tea Ceremony.
Sunny waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, we’re not doing that this time.”
“But—what? But—why?” I sputtered.
Sunny mumbled something and hurried away. I never did find out why Denny’s Bride didn’t have to serve us all tea.
Maybe my in-laws, like my husband, felt they’d spent enough money on Denny.
Maybe Popo was content with one Daughter-in-Law Tea Ceremony.
Maybe they all realized risking lead poisoning wasn’t worth it.
Or maybe they only hauled out this archaic tradition to force potentially rebellious daughter-in-laws knuckle under.
Maybe they realized it didn’t work.