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