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 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.