This essay, Chapter 6 from the author's work, Remaking Chinese America: Immigration, Family, and Community, 1940-1965 (Rutgers University Press, 2002) is reprinted by permission of the publisher.
The transformation of the Chinese American community from a bachelor society to a family society in the late 1940s was not an easy one. Large numbers of families were united almost overnight. After many years of separation, many Chinese American married couples gradually realized that it was difficult to adjust to each other. Some were disappointed, frustrated, and confused. The unification of their families after the Chinese exclusion created unanticipated problems.
Beginning in late 1947, many discussions of marital problems and gender relations appeared in community newspapers. The debate inspired more controversy than most other issues, and it attracted opinions from different groups of Chinese Americans: war veterans and war brides; Americanized men and the new immigrant women; newspaper writers, columnists, and editors; and general readers. Marital problems among Chinese American couples were by no means new, but they had remained largely hidden from public view before World War II. The huiguan, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA) provided little support for families once they were united. When young couples needed guidance to sort out their problems, they found it difficult to make their private problems public. Like their mainstream American counterparts, they sought advice through community newspapers, where they could find sympathetic listeners. Writing under pseudonyms, they could also protect their identity. (1)
The importance of the press in analyzing gender relations has been explored by Valerie Matsumoto in her study of second-generation Japanese Americans, and by Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter in a study of Chinese women. (2) Using newspapers as a forum, the community was presented to itself. Although not every Chinese American man or woman was troubled by the same problems, the debate indicates that many in the community were deeply concerned about these issues, including those who may have had perfectly happy marriages. The debate helps us understand the process of transition from a bachelor to a family society; it illustrates the increasing pressure on the community to take women into more serious account. If marital problems and gender relations were issues of great community concern or controversy during an important period of historical transition, these issues could also be identified with the development of a new set of community values and interests.
HUSBAND VERSUS WIFE, AMERICAN VERSUS CHINESE
Issues of marital problems were first raised by male Chinese Americans. Most noticeable was a series of essays written by one Lao Heng (Old Henry), which appeared in the Chinese Pacific Weekly in 1947. According to the essays, Lao Heng had been born in the United States. He was educated in American schools and served in the US military. His wife, referred to in the essays as laopo (the old woman), had been born and educated in China. She had recently come to the United States under the War Brides Act, and she disagreed with Lao Heng on almost every detail concerning their household affairs. The author was probably a regular contributor to community newspapers, although the pen name was used exclusively for this series. It is unclear whether Lao Heng's account was authentic or fictional, or if he was invited to write by the newspaper, but there is no question that his stories included very realistic details. Most striking was the author's openness in discussing aspects of private life and his ability to shift from a personal story to one that represented a group experience. The issues he wrote about, as he indicated, were often discussed by men who had brought war brides to the United States. (3)
Lao Heng's essays included complaints about his wife that ranged from her relationship with his mother to her appearance in public. The couple's small conflicts over household affairs were often seen as cultural conflicts that developed because of their backgrounds. Lao Heng wanted a modern American wife rather than one who reflected the traditional values and social mores that were still dominant in the Chinese American family.
Lao Heng and his wife were brought together by his mother, who came from China. By age fourteen, he found that he and his mother had little in common. But subsequently his parents insisted that he get a wife from China. When he hesitated, his mother stayed in bed for several days and called him an unfilial son. Under pressure from his mother and his friends, Lao Heng finally gave in:
My parents (mainly my mother) were willing to pay for my trip to China for two reasons. First, my mother comes from China and does not know any English. She would probably like to have a daughter-in-law who does not speak English either. A chicken gets along with chickens and a duck gets along with ducks. A duck would like to have a few more ducks around to keep her company: that is understandable. Second, my mother thinks that American-born women would not respect her authority or obey her. My brothers all married American-born women, so she has never had a chance to enjoy the power and prestige of a mother-in-law. That is the sorrow of her life. I am the youngest. If my laopo is also a chicken instead of a duck, she will not be able to find peace even after she dies. (4) After his wife arrived in San Francisco, Lao Heng realized that what his mother wanted was not a good wife for him but a companion for herself. On one occasion he planned to go to see a movie with his wife, but his mother took her to meet friends instead. Lao Heng could not change his mother, but he would not let the old woman control his own family. The two women did not get along well under the same roof in any case, so Lao Heng found a job in Oakland and the couple moved out of his parents' house despite his mother's protest. He hoped that he would be able to exert more influence on his wife and eventually make her his own companion. (5)
Yet Lao Heng found himself losing the competition with his mother for his wife's affection. His wife was not looking for his emotional support, and she made no effort to become like an American. Instead, she became closer to his mother:
You can't change one's habits.... Every weekend that we came to San Francisco she went straight to my mother's room and the two talked for two or three hours. She would go to see a Chinese opera with my mother and let me suffer all by myself in the movie theater. Whenever we had an argument ... she would use my mother's words against me. The most unbearable blow to me as a husband is that she always goes to mother instead of me for advice. Maybe she would like to move back to San Francisco. This is a triangular tragedy. There should not be such a relationship among a mother, a son, and his wife. A married couple cannot be happy if the wife is too hostile or too close to her mother-in-law. (6) In one of the essays, Lao Heng described the communication difficulties he and his wife had. In rural China, a husband and wife were referred to in public as laogong (the old man) and laopo, but there were no terms for them to use with each other. Lao Heng's friends, he said (himself certainly included), were mostly men who had had "a lot of experience with love affairs" with women in the United States. These men were used to calling their lovers "dear" or "darling," but they did not know what to call their own wives. When his wife first came to the United States, Lao Heng told her that they should call each other "darling" according to American custom, and that the word should be spoken in an affectionate tone. All that he had accomplished, however, was that his wife now addressed him as "Henry" instead of Wei! (Attention!). He reasoned that he had to live with this: "You can't expect someone who does not speak English to say the word 'darling.' She might manage to say it with an effort, but that would be meaningless." Hence "darling" was used only when he spoke to his wife. (7)
The trouble came when Lao Heng tried to speak to his wife at a party in front of their friends. She was so unprepared to hear the word "darling" in public that she did not respond even after Lao Heng had called her three times. "Everyone was looking at me. My face was red with shame, but she was standing like a wooden chicken! My God! What an embarrassment!" Lao Heng wrote. (8) After that, the word "darling" disappeared from the couple's conversation. After all, he reasoned, it was awkward to have the word "darling" followed by a conversation in Chinese.
Lao Heng said that he was not the only one facing the problem. Many Chinese couples were in a similar situation, including some staff members of the Chinese Pacific Weekly. He was eager to find a solution: "If there is no word that a married man and woman can use to address each other, the couple has to start the conversation without creating an atmosphere of gentleness and softness." He believed that "if we could use words such as 'darling' for each other, maybe the relationship between husband and wife could be improved." Lao Heng suggested two things that could be done to solve the problem. One was to "make the wives read more English until they could understand and use the language so that they could say 'darling' to their husbands naturally." The staff of the Chinese Pacific Weekly could also come up with a few Chinese substitutes for "darling": "After all, many of them have wives and children. They should tell us how they and their wives communicate with each other." (9)
Lao Heng was dissatisfied with his wife because she was not intimate with him no matter whether the couple was in the bedroom or in public, and he again spoke for a community group as well as for...