My Chinese-American husband grew up to be a successful engineer with two advanced degrees — and a disappointment to his parents. If he got a 4.0, his father Jay would grunt and his mother Sunny would mention a cousin graduating with honors. When Andy got a job at large company, Sunny told him that a government job would be more secure and have better benefits. When he started running and working out, Sunny praised his other cousin for losing twenty pounds. When Andy brought home a video of his awarding-winning dance routine with his girlfriend/ dance partner, his father Jay shook his head and said, “Oh, she’s pretty. You’ll have a hard time hanging onto her.”
When we did get married (cuz that pretty dance partner was me), his parents threatened to disown their son over the wedding location, the invitations, and hyphenating our last names. When we opted not to have children right away, Jay made angry, weekly phone calls that consisted of yelling, “Where’s my grandson?!” and then hanging up. For years, Andy was subjected to sigh-laden conversations about how his “obedient sister” presented his parents with a granddaughter nine months after getting married. (In vain did I argue that this surprise niece was clearly a sign that both doctor parents should have flunked out of medical school.)
When we did decide to have a child – after many years and much negotiation – I didn’t want to tell Andy’s parents until we knew if Baby D was a boy or a girl. The last thing I wanted was for Jay to get his hopes up for a boy and then vent his sexist resentment on a granddaughter. But Andy was unable to keep a secret, and Jay started thinking up Chinese middle names immediately – long before we knew the baby’s sex.
Our baby did his best to hide from the ultrasound specialist, but we learned it was a boy at seventeen weeks. Andy had wanted a girl, but adapted to having a boy immediately.
I did not. I cried the whole way home.
Andy, bewildered, said, “I don’t get it. You’ve been saying forever that Baby D was a boy. Why are you upset?”
“Because this means I’ll never have a girl. All the stuff it took me forever to learn, I won’t be able to pass on. She won’t carry on the fight against the Patriarchy! Now I have a boy and he’ll be the Patriarchy! Wahhhhh!”
“Um. Pretty sure no boy raised by you will ever be the Patriarchy. You’ll teach him to clean, I’ll teach him to cook, and if he ever calls a girl ‘bossy’ or tells her to hush, you’ll…you’ll…”
“Come down on him like a ton of bricks,” I finished, and immediately felt guilty for being disloyal to my future feminist son by wishing he was a daughter. How was I any different from my father-in-law, favoring one sex over another? I sifted through my sorrow, sniffed, and told Andy, “I think it’s because I know we’re only having one kid. Either way, there’s a loss in knowing you’ll never get to experience raising the gender you didn’t have.”
Andy looked slightly less bewildered. Slightly. “You mean you’d be sad if it was a girl, too? Because then you wouldn’t have a son?”
“Exactly!” I agreed, and cried some more.
Andy patted my leg and wisely said nothing.
As soon as we were home, he called his parents. Of course I listened in.
Andy: “Ma? Get Dad on the phone, too.”
Sunny: “Why? What’s wrong?”
Andy: “Nothing’s wrong. Just get Dad.”
Sunny: “Then why you need to speak to both of us?”
Andy: “Can you just get Dad? Please?”
Sunny: “Is it about the baby?”
Andy: “Maybe. Just get Dad.”
Sunny: “Is everything okay with the baby?”
Andy: “It’s fine, Ma. Just get Dad.”
Sunny: “Okay, okay, Jay! Hurry up! Andy wants to speak with you!” A flurry of Cantonese followed, with Jay questioning the need to hurry and Sunny haranguing him to get his butt to the phone.
Andy: “We found out the baby’s sex today, Dad.”
Jay: “What? Is it a boy or a girl?”
Andy: “Guess, Dad. Guess!”
Jay was silent for a moment. Then he sighed, exhaling a lifetime of disappointment and five thousand years of Chinese fatalism: “It’s a girl.”
Andy shouted, “NO! You’re wrong, Dad! It’s A BOY! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!”
Jay couldn’t speak.
Sunny yelled, “It’s a boy?! Are you sure?!”
Andy laughed again. “Absolutely, Ma.”
“How do you know, they can’t always tell so early!”
“He was playing with his penis, Ma!”
Sunny laughed delightedly. “Hamsup! My grandson is hamsup already! Hahaha!” (Note to white people: hamsup is the Cantonese word for “randy” or über masculine.)
Jay whispered, “Boy. A boy.” His voice trailed off while Sunny told Andy how now she knew how her own mother felt when Sunny had Andy.
Andy asked, “Ma? Is Dad okay?”
Sunny: “Oh, Daddy’s fine. He’s just walking around the house saying, ‘Oh, boy! A boy! Oh, boy! A boy!’ over and over again. I think that will be all he can say for a while.”
My husband is an American success story. The child of refugees who didn’t learn English until elementary school, Andy achieved advanced degrees, learned to cook, learned to dance, bought a house, and had a happy marriage. Yet the only accomplishment that ever rendered his father speechless was the one thing that a) he had no control over, and b) took the least effort of his entire life.
Oh, boy, indeed.