I’ve had a lot of comments from incredulous readers over the last few months. Apparently, no one believes that I have not lost my shit yet with my provocative Chinese-American in-laws. Not even when they nearly burned down the house and never apologized.
Spoiler alert: I have, indeed, lost my shit. It just wasn’t on my in-law’s first visit. (You didn’t think they would only visit once, did you?)
There are many reasons for not losing your shit with in-laws, of course. But the main one? Indoctrination.
In the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture of my youth, girls did not make scenes. From day one, girls learned to be kind, to share, to not make people uncomfortable. Teachers rewarded us for being forgiving, no matter how many times Entitled Dickhead Donnie jerked our pigtails around, pretending they were motorcycle handlebars. We laughed along with everyone else in the class, being a good sport, because “You know boys! They’re so silly and they don’t know any better. Not like you girls!” We preened, and congratulated ourselves for being doormats.
Our mothers trained us to be good hostesses, downplaying any awkwardness or discomfort. We were also expected to be good guests, bringing wine and hostess gifts. If someone forgot a gift for us, we never said a word, lest we make them feel bad.
Many men wonder why women don’t immediately report sexual assaults, especially when we know the perpetrators.
I don’t. I know how hard it is to break training, to be confrontational. No one wants to be the bitch who wrecks everyone’s good time or a ruin the life of “a nice boy who just didn’t know any better.” We’re trained to endure our own discomfort, not to stand up for ourselves. We worry about ourselves last.
My Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister sees the “me last” patient all the time in her oncology rounds. These are the mothers and grandmothers who ignore their ovarian cancer symptoms to shuttle kids to sports practice or help out with someone’s new baby. By the time their pain is not ignorable, their cancer is usually terminal.
Some women avoid or escape the “good girl/ me last” dynamic, thanks to therapy, or enlightened parents, or more progressive schools.
For those of us from overcrowded families and critical parents, though, the cycle worsens as we try ever harder to win increasingly elusive approval. When my mother, in the midst of a divorce, lashed out at me for making a mess, I vacuumed the house. She smiled for the first time that day and told me I was a good girl.
I was six.
Sometimes a romantic partner or dance partner steps into that dynamic, with devastating results.
Sometimes the good girl becomes good student, taking extra credits and extra majors. The good graduate becomes excellent executive assistant, coming in early, working late, anticipating every need.
And when that excellent executive assistant marries into a family with demanding Chinese in-laws?
Does she smartly say, “It’s 4 AM, get your own damned tea, I’m going to bed because normal people are sleeping now,”?
No. She thinks, “I can do this! Not only will I make them tea, I will make sure they have toast and oh, they needed raspberry jelly? Nothing’s open except…Denny’s! It’s only five minutes away and I’m sure they’ll let me buy some jelly packets, won’t that be clever and impressive and oh, my in-laws will be so happy and they’ll tell me how glad they are that Andy married me and I will be the first white woman to win the Best Chinese Daughter-In-Law Award!”
In reality, of course, I only win a few grunts of acknowledgment and dishes to wash. (I’m sure my in-law’s praise would have been effusive if Denny’s carried raspberry jelly, but strawberry was all they had.)
Normal people would decide that their in-laws are impossible to please. Normal people would stop trying.
I am not normal. I am easily sucked into Over-Hostessing Syndrome.
After the jam setback, I decide I will impress my guests with my culinary skills.
I spend several hours making Spicy Thai Tofu with Fish Sauce Noodles and homemade chocolate pudding (this recipe is on page 1019 of “The Joy of Cooking” and I heartily recommend it over mixes).
My dinner prep is repeatedly interrupted. First by The Farting Dog Episode.
Then by my impatient father-in-law. Jay wants to know when dinner will be ready. I tell him 6.
“No! Dinner is at 5:30!”
“But probably Andy won’t get home until at least 6.”
5:30 it is. I don’t boil the pudding quite as long as usual, but it’s in the fridge, chilling, when dinner is ready at 5:25. I give myself mental bonus points for seeing to
my father-in-law’s ridiculous demands the comfort of my guest.
At 5:30, Jay appears and announces, “It’s time to eat. Where is Andy?”
I check Andy’s location on my phone. “Still at work. It’ll be at least another half-hour.”
I’m wrong. It’s 45 minutes. A very loooong 45 minutes, peppered with repeated questions from Jay:
“When are we eating?”
“Where’s my son?”
“Why aren’t we eating?”
“Is Andy home yet?”
“Check your phone again.”
When Andy finally arrives, Jay is at the table, fork in hand. But now his wife is on the phone with her sister. Jay yells at her in Cantonese. She yells over him at Yee-mah in Cantonese. Andy sits down and starts eating.
I grab his hand. “You can’t start! We have to wait for your mom!”
“Forget that, I’m starving,” Andy shoves a bite into his mouth. “This is great, honey, thanks for cooking dinner.”
Jay eats, too. I give up and dig in. Sunny eventually joins us, and, wonder of wonders, my in-laws have no complaints and no criticisms. BOTH have seconds.
I’m sure I’m finally destined for the Best Daughter-In-Law Award, because I know my pudding is awesome (also made with expensive bittersweet chocolate). I even serve it with freshly whipped cream.
Jay has two bites before making his pronouncement: “It’s too watery!”
I say, “Really? You think it’s watery?” through gritted teeth.
“No, no, it’s not watery, honey, it’s perfect!” says Andy.
“Apparently not. Your dad says it is WATERY.”
Jay nods. “Yeah, too much water.” He has another bite.
I tap my fingers on the table and fume, wishing I hadn’t hurried the pudding’s boil. Maybe it is a tiny bit more watery than usual.
Jay devours his supposedly sub par pudding. He scrapes the dish with the spoon to get every bit of chocolate.
“Wow, Jay, that must have really sucked, that watery pudding,” I tell him triumphantly as he deposits the empty serving glass on my plate. I’ll pry some praise out him if it kills me.
“It’s very dry here. Not like Hawaii. I need to drink lots water,” Jay explains as he leaves the dining room.
Despite my best efforts, there was no Best Daughter-In-Law Award bestowed that evening. There was no praise at all.
My only reward was dirty dishes.
But for those of you also recovering from Over-Hostessing Syndrome, take heart.
27 thoughts on “Hostess with the Mostess…Dysfunction (#179)”
Yay! I want to fly out there and smack your in-laws in person! My former mother-in-law could be controlling but at least she did it in the normal passive aggressive way.
On the one hand, I want to smack them, too, sometimes. But on the other, it isn’t exactly their fault if I can’t set boundaries because I want to be liked too much.
What was the normal passive aggressive way? Little digs here and there?
Yes, snide comments and rolling eyes although sometimes she was more gentle, like she would bring food with her because she was terrified of what I would serve. After a while, I just went with the flow. She cooked for me and for a while when I lived next door, she would do my laundry. When you are lazy, you can let people “help” you without feeling rejected.
I need to be lazier. Or maybe less competent? Like your average white male?
This sounds so horrible. Even though my mother-in-law is a terrible person to deal with (always complaining about food and whatnot all) my wife kind of handles her pretty well. Once she even kicked her own mother out of a restaurant in China for behaving badly towards a waitress.
My MIL has somehow the idea that she is on a higher level than people who work in restaurants and stuff like that however her attitude changes completly when a restaurant is more “fancy”. Then they could even serve her rotten food and she would be still smiling and thanking them for the good work…
Ha, I’m glad your wife is able to set boundaries and not fall into the trap of trying to please her mother. Maybe I’ll get there someday.
OMG! I’m just waiting for the second visit when you blow your top. Even though I was raised to be a good girl, I’m not sure I would have made all the effort you did.
Somehow, my daughters turned out different, esp. daughter #1. She was always the good student, aggressively so, but she has never been a pushover. When she was in kindergarten, she and a little boy had a fight. The teacher asked both of them to say sorry. The boy complied, but C refused. She said it wasn’t her fault. The teacher kept pushing her to apologize, and she kept refusing. Finally she kicked the teacher, which got her kicked out of kindergarten. Fortunately she got moved up to Prep, so the outcome was good. She’s more diplomatic now, but everyone knows not to cross her.
LOL, C is awesome. I think you have to have a special groove carved in your psyche as a child to be susceptible to certain extremes of people pleasing. And it only works when hostessing or dealing with authority figures. So I can fool myself and others thinking I’m tough and take no shit, but there’s a chink in my armor.
Sure. We women know how to keep our mouth shut and do as we’re told. Or do to please, do to make peace and hope what just happened never happens again. But when we are pushed too far, it will never ever be a pretty scene.
As Timo said, the situation with your in-laws sounds horrible. Not only so demanding, but also expecting more every time. I do wonder if Jay secretly liked your pudding. He finished it all nice and clean. Maybe it’s man pride or man ego to not admit defeat.
I am no hostess and people around me know that pretty well. At work when there’s like a bit of a party with food to celebrate an achievement or someone coming or going, work knows me well enough to never ever pick me to organise it all – because somehow, I will stuff up. Like not buying enough food 😀
Jay might have liked the pudding, or Jay might just be doing the Cantonese eat everything thing. Between Andy and his dad, there’s never much left on the table. Jay actually fought me over a dessert in a restaurant once, but that’s another story.
Not enough food? My family would flay you alive (verbally, of course). You’re right, major sin. 😉
I am looking foward to that dessert story 🙂 Now, remind me to never help you cook. Even your nice china and tea sets can’t distract the fact that there isn’t enough food on the table 😉
I also suffer from this syndrome. It’s taken many years of therapy to curb but even now, my best solution is to never have dinner guests.
It’s very clever of you to have picked a career where you eat out a lot, too!
Have you watched Doctor Ken? I totally imagine Jay as the grandpa… does he have a moustache?
No, no moustache. I could not get into Dr. Ken and neither could Andy. Even though we loved Ken Jeong in Community.
Yep, Doctor Ken is pretty bad. But we’ve watched some episodes anyway xD
The way you describe the people-pleasing ways so many women were raised on (by critical parents no less) is profound. You nail it. Even that point about why women aren’t quick to report assault. Plus we are far too quick to assume blame, responsibility for things beyond our control etc. It is very hard to break those patterns. I eased my way into it and found that nothing horrible happened when I stopping being so “agreeable”, compliant, and focused on being liked. Age has helped.
Your in-laws come across as such unpleasant people (independent of whether you’ve consistently set enough boundaries or not) but maybe I’m not seeing their virtues.
That’s the first time anyone’s called me profound. I have carried “profound” off to my golden word hoard where I shall treasure it and keep it shiny. Thank you!
And good for you, for being able to escape the confines of being a “good girl.” There is hope for us all.
There is! (And it was profound and so on point.)
Respect, Autumn. I’m in awe of your patience.. and you’re so considerate! I can’t believe you got jam for them at Dennys!! Oh my god, I would give you daughter-in-law of the year award for being so sweet.
At least Jay and Sunny ate your food! Some Chinese families are so picky they refuse to eat anything that isn’t Chinese.. I made salad and pasta once when my fiancee’s parents were in town and they outright refused to eat it and instead cooked their own dinner. Ugh.
How is Andy with your family? Dynamic is totally different right?!
I think they’d prefer that I be a bitch and give them a grandson. 😉
OMG, I can’t believe they didn’t eat your dinner! That’s just…wow. I’d say rude, but maybe it’s a cultural thing? They must not be Cantonese, then. Andy and his family eat EVERYTHING. Even watery pudding.
Your story reminds me of when my brother called me from the bedroom CLOSET when his in-laws were visiting. He was getting ready to lose his shit so that’s why he snuck up to call me in secret.
What’s wrong? I asked. He tells me some funny stories, but the best one was when he told me that ‘dad’ was clipping his toenails on the couch. Seriously. He asked, “Can I start to vacuum now? Do I go around him???”
Ahhhh. I was laughing so hard.
There are just too many cultures that allow men to call the shots, say what they want and do what they want, whenever. Of course, not all men are assholes. But I thought you might enjoy this little story.
You are not alone.
Waiting for Autumn to throw a frying pan at Jay’s head.
ROTFLMAO, oh, that is hilarious. I was never in a closet, but there were many times when I went off to walk the dogs around the block. For an hour. With my phone. And laughed/ sobbed to every girlfriend I had.
Plus emails. All the stories of their visit were originally emails to my friends or sisters. I’m glad your brother could call you.
Also, I hope he vacuumed around his FIL.
Nahhh. He held off. He was trying to be a ‘good host’ and good son in law himself. 😉
Ah, emails and phone calls, thank god for friends!
The closet, though. The closet is going to have me laughing for days.