I’m writing from Texas, hoping you can help with a little family issue (or maybe it’s a big family issue, since everything’s bigger in Texas!).
My father-in-law was born in China, moved to the States in his late teens, and married a Caucasian woman. He tries to present himself as being "Americanized," open-minded, easy-going—you know, all the things that traditional Asian fathers typically AREN'T—but I recently realized that he's still very much a traditional Chinese man.
Since then, I've become very aware (and internally critical) of his outlook on women and parenting, because I see how that plays out in his interactions with me, my kids, and my mother-in-law. I don't agree with his views, but the Chinese part of myself makes it hard to speak up. He’s difficult to approach too, because he expects people to show respect and not question him. If he weren't my FIL, I’d ignore it, but I want to have a good relationship with him.
Even though we only see each other a few times a year, I feel like the wall between us is growing every time we hang out. It's hard for me to be around him, and I'm sure he can sense that I don't enjoy his company.
I'd love advice on how to wrestle with the desire to show respect while not sugarcoating my feelings or supporting his views.
Thank you for sharing this difficult set of feelings with us. Relationships with in-laws are among the most delicate, and you’re asking an excellent question—how can one be both respectful and critical? We brought in TWO Aunties to weigh in.
Auntie 1: Despite the Texas influence, this issue doesn’t sound big yet, but it will likely grow if not addressed. What I hear you describing is the beginning of resentment. The progression often moves like this: we start noticing a pattern that bothers us, then find ourselves critiquing and cataloguing this pattern. Before we know it, we’ve stored all the offensive things this person has said within ourselves. This is what resentment is: a mountain of grievances we hoard and hide, which eventually causes us to explode or rot from within. Resentment is toxic for close relationships, but it sounds like you are still a couple steps away from it, so let’s see if we can help you get on another track!
Auntie 2: I think there are a couple issues that are hand-in-hand here. This is a great example of how being both a woman and identifying as Chinese may intersect. First, I don’t think this is an issue that is culturally specific. Often times, the idea of being “American” or more “Western” is seen as equivalent to being more “liberal” and “easy-going” but I think even among our society in the United States, we don’t see equal treatment for women. Just because someone is Chinese doesn’t mean they are more ‘traditional’ than someone who isn’t, in other words. Maybe his actions feel very traditional and Chinese, but maybe a good first step to helping reconcile with him is to separate his behavior from his skin.
Auntie 1: People are messy. We’re not just one thing or the other. He can be fun and easy-going while also being backwards and traditional. This doesn’t mean he’s trying to “present” as something he’s not. He’s not a fake Chinese or a fake American, just a complex, contradictory human being, like the rest of us.
Stripping away the layer of cultural expectation might make it easier to look at what is actually the problem: his outlook on women and parenting. This is unfortunately a very common problem among men (and women!) of older generations (and younger ones!), regardless of culture. The good news is, progress is a-happening. The bad news is, not everyone is keeping up. It’s up to us, those who love the people falling behind, to bring them along.
Auntie 2: That is definitely not an exclusive problem among those of Chinese or other Asian descent!
Auntie 1: You haven’t mentioned your partner yet, but when it comes to in-laws, I am a huge proponent of each person taking the lead on their own family’s shit. I think it’s completely reasonable to tell your partner, “I want your father to know that I love and appreciate so many things about him, but I also want to feel respected as a woman, and it’s time for him to rethink some of his views. Go lay the groundwork.”
That’s not to say the issue will be fixed with one talk between your partner and FIL. You may well need to have some conversations with your partner about how casual patriarchy makes you feel and how it affects your everyday life. But progress can begin there. It also might be worth gauging how your MIL feels about his views on women. She could be an ally for you in this. At the very least, her perspective may help you understand your FIL’s current view.
Auntie 2: So I guess to answer your original question succinctly, simply do what you do and raise your kids and take care of your family in the way that you believe is best. In general, many parents don’t appreciate when their own parents try to parent them about parenting, so try not to feel terrible or like a bad Chinese daughter-in-law simply because you’re not following his rules. At some point, all parents have to stop backseat parenting and switch on grandparent mode.
Auntie 1: Amen! When you are ready to speak with him directly, I recommend tackling one instance that bothers you at a time. So when he says something offensive, peacefully but firmly point out to him why it bothered you, and resist the temptation to then unfurl a list of all the other things that are wrong with his views.
Auntie 2: Right. Don’t turn this into an attack on his character, because everyone gets defensive about that. When you see him at family events and he makes a demand or comment that you don’t particularly appreciate, tell it like it is and do as you do.
Auntie 1: Speaking for myself, since the 2016 election, I have been hyper aware of how women are being held down, and my temper ignites about it often. Sometimes I have to step back and remind myself that the state of society is not my partner’s fault, so I can’t bring my entire rage about the world upon him for being unhelpful with dinner one day. I have to address the situation at hand, or he will be overwhelmed and there will be no change. Similarly, with your FIL, you might have to leave some of your societal anger out of the interaction.
Change like this will take courage and patience from you, and a long time for everyone involved. It will be so much healthier than the resentment progression though. Instead of:
Awareness -> Internal criticism -> Storage of criticism -> Resentment
You can take the path of:
Awareness -> Internal criticism -> Communication -> Growth
And believing that someone is capable of growth—that is a true sign of respect.
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Featured photo by Andrew Le on Unsplash