What My Chinese Father-in-Law Said (#111)

IMG_5799My new father-in-law was not a talker. This was a good thing. The first thing Jay said to me was a horrified “no!” when I tried to hug him. He followed this warm welcome up a half-hour later with a Cantonese joke about giving his son a hand job. Four days later I got a long lecture, and understood none of it. (Andy says thank God, because if I had heard the religious, misogynistic instructions, I’d have thrown a drink at his dad. Also the glass. And possibly the table.)

The other seven times Jay had spoken to me in the last two years consisted of complaints. Or grunts. But I couldn’t take it personally. The man’s interaction with his entire family could be described as “mutual silent treatment.”

And then Oldest Niece arrived. Oldest Niece was three-and-a-half. She wanted playmates. Andy was her first choice, and an excellent one when she needed a horse. But when she brought out stuffed animals, Andy fell short.

Oldest Niece handed Andy a koala. “You’re Koala. I’m Flamingo. Let’s play.”

Andy, waving Koala: “Uh…do you like X-box?”

Oldest Niece, bouncing Flamingo around: “I love boxes! How do we play?”

Andy: “We sit and stare at the screen. Only our thumbs move.”

Oldest Niece: “…”

Andy: “Isn’t this fun?”

Oldest Niece: “No. Let’s play something else.”

“Okay.” Andy smashed Koala into Flamingo. “Ha! Ha! I broke your neck and will eat Flamingo wings for dinner!”

Oldest Niece: “You can’t do that!”

Andy: “Nom, nom, nom…why not?”

Oldest Niece snatched Koala and threw him at the wall. “You aren’t playing right!” She flounced off and found me.

I played “Koala & Flamingo Go on Safari” for an hour. Because I didn’t get to play pretend animal games enough with my 5 younger siblings and 52 babysitting clients growing up.

Andy’s sister and husband finally took Oldest Niece to the beach. We escaped to our hotel.

The next day, Oldest Niece pounced on me the minute I walked in the door. After Flamingo & Koala went on a cruise, got shipwrecked, and found a clothing store on the deserted island, I finally persuaded Oldest Niece to try the board game Sorry!

I let her win one game, and then brought in Andy to join us. With strict instructions for him to let Oldest Niece win. He was game.

Oldest Niece won. And not gracefully. “I’m the best! I am such a much better player than you!” She danced around the room, impervious to the glowering Andy.

He whispered, “This sucks! You never let me send her back to start!”

Me: “Not yet! She has to win a few games before she loses one.”

Andy: “You can’t coddle her forever.”

Me: “It’s not coddling. It’s variable conditioning. She gets a couple wins. We throw in a loss. More wins. A loss. If she wins all the time and then loses all the time, she won’t play. If she wins too much, she’ll get bored. But if she wins more than she loses, she’ll be hooked and then I won’t have to play ‘Flamingo and Koala Go to the Mall’ for five hours.”

Andy: “But—”

Me: “No. That’s the plan. Stick to it, or you can be the cheetah running the smoothie shop.”

Andy and I Sorry-ed the crap out of each other for several games. Oldest Niece emerged unscathed and victorious. She was hooked, and made us promise to play again the next day.

But she couldn’t wait. When Andy and I arrived the following morning, Oldest Niece had already roped Jay into playing Sorry! with her. They barely noticed when we walked past them and into the kitchen. Jay had three pieces safe at home. Oldest Niece only had two.

I muttered, “Oh, no.”

Andy said, “What? This is awesome. Someone else is finally playing with Oldest Niece.” He chatted with his mom until a wail erupted from the living room.

Jay announced, “I win.”

Oldest Niece responded with and emphatic, “I don’t like you!”

Jay answered with an even more emphatic, “I don’t like you, either!”

Waaaahhhhhhh!” Oldest Niece ran to the bedroom, slammed the door, and howled for at a half-hour.

Andy thought it was hilarious.

Until I handed him the stuffed cheetah.


Jay’s utter lack of awareness of his impact on others was more unsettling to me than it was to anyone else in the family. Andy’s Sister said nothing to her father about behaving like another three-year-old. Neither did Eastern European Brother-in-law. Sunny also said nothing.

When I asked Andy about Jay’s immaturity, he just shrugged. “That’s just the way he is.”

Great. No social skills and no empathy. Not even for his three-year-old granddaughter. I wondered if Jay had any feelings at all. I watched him for our last vacation days.

There were no kisses.

There were no hugs.

There were hardly any words, let alone kind ones.

Not even when we left Hawaii. During our airport farewell, Andy hugged his mom. She kissed him and stifled a sniffle. I gave her a hug as well.

Andy and Jay nodded at each other.

I was tired of this manly bullshit. I gave Andy a shove. “Go hug your dad good-bye, damn it.”

Andy rolled his eyes at me, but stepped forward and put his arms around Jay.

Jay said, “No!” Too late. Andy squeezed his dad.

I said, “You’re not getting any younger, Jay. Might be the last one.”

Andy snickered and stepped back. Jay narrowed his eyes, raised a hand, and pointed his index finger at me. Like a warlock about to hurl a curse.

I raised my chin and stared back. (I get brave when I’m about to jump on a plane and not see someone for a year.)

Jay only said, “Take care of my son.”

But with that one short plea, the man told me everything.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

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

28 thoughts on “What My Chinese Father-in-Law Said (#111)”

    1. I don’t think anyone could break Jay’s wall. But I think I was accepted as a family member. Or, you know, servant who’s sole purpose is to keep #1 Son happy.

      And, you know, we all need a purpose in life. :/

  1. That parting line by Jay 😀 It sounds like he reads people very well. I don’t think it is mean of him to let Oldest Niece lose; I’m all for not spoiling kids and adamant that they earn their winnings or learn their way.

    1. Maybe Jay reads people. Maybe Jay is an example of still waters running deep. I think he’s just socially hopeless. (Stay tuned for future posts with an exact pop psych diagnosis!) Or maybe he was just issuing orders to his servant/daughter-in-law, as in, “Your whole job is to keep him safe.” Like Andy was a possession, rather than a grown man.

      But whatever the reason, I thought it showed he actually cared about his son and worried. And it made me think better of him.

      I didn’t have a problem with Jay winning the game. Every kid has to learn to lose. It was the inability to laugh off her childlike reaction of “I don’t like you!” that shocked me. Seriously. Only one of them was 3!

      1. Still waters run deep. You have to be careful of these people. They might always be one step ahead of you. Well, I think all parents think their children are their possession 😀

  2. Mr. Panda’s dad also didn’t like his grandson so much, and he let him feel it. So of course grandson also doesn’t like him too much either. Years ago when he was five his mom even bought him a picture book about a grandson and his difficult grandfather so he would understand the situation better. Did not work as expection, their relationship is still difficult as ever.
    But he’s just like that with boys, and he’s nice to all the girls 🙁

  3. My sympathies are strongly with Andy here. I still bust out Beloved Goddaughter (who is now 20) critiquing me when she was five: “Uncle What’s Your Name, you stink at playing Barbies.”

  4. First you are a saint playing with a 3 year old for all those hours. I would have fed her cold medicine (and probably been arrested). Jay reminds me in a way of the father of a good childhood friend of mine. I was terrified of him not because he was physical but because he never said anything nice. I avoided him at all costs. He criticized clothes (what’s wrong with bleached jeans with a tie-dyed tee?), hair, and everything else. I was well in my 20s when my friend’s mother told me I was her husband’s favorite. It was so hard to tell but hearing it (even if it wasn’t from him) changed my feelings toward him. I was always grateful that he wasn’t my Dad.

    1. I guess some people only criticize those they care about. All others are breath their notice. 🙂

      Or maybe this dad was like a contrary cat. You know, those cats who zero in on anyone who hates cats or has allergies and want to sit on their lap.

  5. I honestly think that Jay shows love the only way he knows how. Chinese parents don’t generally tend to be all lovey and cuddly, especially the men. The fact that he actually played a game with Oldest Niece is a big step, in my opinion! He actually cared about his granddaughter enough to play with her.

    My only interaction with my maternal grandfather when I was a kid was greeting him during family gatherings, and getting red packets from him during Chinese New Year. That’s… pretty much it. And we lived in the same country, unlike my other set of grandparents! So I think Oldest Niece is already a step ahead!

      1. Coming from you, the champion storyteller, that’s a huge compliment! Thank you!

        I honestly think that most people take for granted the lenses that they grew up with, especially if they’ve not been exposed to other radically different lenses (and sometimes, even if they have)! Plus, if that’s your default worldview, you’re mostly just dealing with the rest of the world in terms of what you know.

        I’ve gotten a head start on perspectives and paradigm shifts because I’ve always been “off”, and then moving from Asia to America was another massive kick in the patootie with regards to assumptions!

  6. I agree with Kate, you’re a saint, playing so long with a three year old. To tell the truth, I was glad my three daughters were so close together and could play with each other. I liked watching over them, but I didn’t enjoy playing with them for long.

    My oldest daughter and her husband love games–card games, board games, computer games. When my grandchildren were little, they had to get used to losing. My daughter and son-in-law sometimes gave them handicaps, but they never just “let” them win. I was amazed at how well the kids were able to handle it. Now that the kids are in college, the competition is fierce. My daughter and son-in-law are determined to keep up with or ahead of their kids. Obviously, when I’m visiting, I either find something else to do or drop out when it becomes obvious how hopeless I am.

    1. Your daughter is smart — you can’t just let them win! Otherwise they expect to win and can’t cope with losing. On the other hand, if you want them to enjoy games, they can’t lose all the time. When our baby siblings were first learning to play Hearts, us older sibs often ate the Queen of Spades. Maybe it was to be encouraging. More likely it was to avoid wailing.

      But they like playing now. Mostly. 🙂

  7. Damn Autumn you’re a kid specialist. I loved that psychology used in the Sorry! game. I’ll have to try that on my niece next time.

    Seems like Jay has the tough-Asian-parent-love thing going on. In China and Japan (and most of Asia) it’s very unusual to say “I love you” and, well, actually express emotion, especially verbally. Usually mothers do it with food, while fathers just… as in Jay’s case… grunt (unless the parents are Shanghainese, then the roles are switched. Father cooks and mother grunts/screams).

    So do you think you bond better with Sunny more than Jay?

    1. Thanks! It’s nice to know I got something from all those years of babysitting and one psychology course.

      I dunno about bonding with Sunny. I feel like she could turn on you at any moment and you would never know why. Or at least this clueless white girl wouldn’t.

  8. Hugging isn’t really part of old school Asian culture. My mom rarely hugged us. In fact, I was the one who started hugging her, and the one who tried to start it with my Thai family, but I can’t hug my uncles. They won’t let me. When you mentioned Jay saying, “no” that’s what I thought of.

    And I actually don’t mind that he beat the kid. Sorry 😛

    1. I am glad you got some hugging instituted in your family. Humans are social — we need at least three meaningful touches every day.

      Yeah, it’s not the beating of the kid — though it messed up my variable conditioning project. It’s the inability to laugh of “I don’t like you” like an adult rather than responding like another child that bothered me.

      1. There’s no attempt to be smart here, but think back over your childhood. How Jay behaved was not probably the most mature effort. The thing that comes to mind for me, and I’ve had “adults” try and use it on me, is the “I don’t like you” line. And why, because they didn’t like the outcome of something. It’s not because you did anything wrong, it’s simply a mind game, to get back over you, top dog. Children are outstanding at this, Jay played her at her own game, and she “threw all he toys out of the cot” because she couldn’t manipulate him to her will. I have read all of your blogs, and there’s times I’m stumped for good reason to Jay’s behaviour. This one, I see, and hard as he was, I believe it had potential for a positive life gift for your niece. Truth is, she is not a graceful winner. Yes she is a child, so we all cut them slack, but the longer this behaviour is left unchecked, the more it is rooted in to her personality. Soon enough it is not just something she does, it is a core behaviour of who she is, and not a very nice one. I’m glad I don’t have to contend with Jay, but this time, I think he did to right thing, harsh as it was.

        1. That’s a good point, Ross, especially that the behavior cannot go unchecked.

          I think, though, that parents and grandparents should model better behavior for their offspring. They can leave it to other three-year-olds to yell, “Well, I hate you!” back, rather than rescinding the totality of their love for a child based on one unpleasant outburst.

          There should be consequences for lousy behavior, ABSOLUTELY, but I don’t think conditional love should be one of them.

          I believe a simple, “Losing is hard,” or “Losing happens,” or “It hurts to lose,” or “I don’t like losing either,” or even distracting the kid and saying, “Maybe you will win next time,” would have been a better choice. But it’s hard to do, especially if you were brought up in a different culture or generation.

  9. Interesting post Autumn! I really enjoyed reading it (along with the discussion it launched in the comment section!)

    My father (not a model father but a unique one who loved me more than anything else in his short, unconventional life) taught me to play chess and never once let me win.

    When I did beat him I knew it was because – at that moment in time – I was truly better than him but it didn’t give me any happiness because by then he wasn’t the best version of himself anymore.

    I guess what I am trying to say is winning was never as important as playing chess with my dad was.

    1. Oh, that’s another really good point. Yeah, I see what you mean. I see that in a lot of boys with dads who are super busy. They don’t care who wins basketball, so long as they have time shooting hoops with dad. Sniff. Makes me cry. Thank you for sharing your story, Cat.

      Those children were apparently a lot less competitive than the ones in my family. When my dad played hearts with us, we still wanted to crush him. 🙂

  10. This really looks like a movie scenario! Your life is so exciting! *Whispers* You got marvelous storytelling skills! I wanna be as cool as you (or near that, at least ><)!

If you liked this, let the white girl know!