As I once touched upon in ‘Fog City Night Tales,’ there’s a colourful facet to domestic relations that eminates from a divide in mentality, namely between Mao era generations and those born post economic reform.
Speaking in generalities, parents born mid century tend to be more thrifty, traditional, rurally orientated, with narrow horizons, while younger generations are more extravagant, free willed, urbanised, and see the world as their oyster.
Bear with me, I will explain in time.
Since multiple generations commonly live in close proximity, if not under the same roof, so there’s little surprise their opposing value systems lead to regular conflict over lifestyle, housekeeping, economics, and childcare, to mention only a few.
My original plan was to cover the subject in a single post, but soon discovered that exploring the entirety of depths and angles indeed warrants a series unto itself, and that audiences will appreciate the extremes of delight and despair through bite size chunks.
Without turning to melodrama, my focus in each post takes root in personal experience, resonating further through stories both shared and echoed with friends of similar matrimonial background.
Neither do I intend to pass judgement on the rights and wrongs either side of the fence, but rather attempt to bridge the generation gap for my audience, all whilst depicting the ways such a divide manifests in real life situations.
All renditions in my generational chasm series are my own subjective thoughts and feelings, which may differ greatly according to personal circumstances, and regions outside of southwestern China.
I hope you will enjoy my posts on familial matters that are a contradictory source of both great amusement and frustration, laughter and tears, conflict and reconcilement, all of which stand on common ground in one crucial aspect, benign yet misplaced intentions.
Also, please do share my post with friends!
The generations born mid century grew up under great hardship and scarcity.
In the case of my Chinese in-laws, none of the elder family members received education beyond junior school, and instead performed manual labour in agriculture and heavy industry from an early age. Others met with army conscription that lasted decades.
On top of harsh regimentation, many lived in crude dwellings made from wood and mortar, vulnerable to the elements, yet devoid of basic ultilities such as running water or electricity.
Despite their potential self-sufficiency, they had to live off meagre rations apportioned under a centralised redistribution system, and relatives willing to recall the period told of eating leaves and roots in their younger stages of life.
Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that hoarding even the slightest quantity of food or resources could help make life more bearable, and secondly, how such a mentality became so ingrained there would be impossible to ever reverse completely.
Although they now live in relatively plush modern surroundings, the scars of years past continue to manifest in the form of compulsive behaviours, namely an inability to part with household waste.
Instead, materials like plastic bottles go to inappropriate and unsightly uses, such as repackaging medicines, storing beans, makeshift plant-pots. Larger, dirty cooking oil bottles silently pile up in hidden corners, until the day comes they can be exchanged for a few cents from proxy street recyclers.
Always keen to avoid direct confrontation over the matter, we wait until the coast is temporarily clear before discarding all the accumulated waste in one foul swoop.
Interestingly, despite a few initial words of dissatisfaction, the culprits soon put the episode behind them, and the whole process may slowly go full circle once more.
Actually, I have experienced little conflict over the few traditional home rituals to which elder family members still adhere, but it’s interesting to observe how younger generations watch on, yet would rarely perform on their own accord nowadays.
On certain days of the year, such as the commemoration of venerated ancestors, it’s customary to lay out a table of simple rural dishes, boiled rice, small glasses of tipple, and along with chopsticks and chairs ready to use.
At the head of the table, candles and incense stand alight, while the door remains at least half open for spirits to enjoy the hospitality.
Everyone present bows a number of times with hands clutched together, and after a few auspicious words, the table is left in peace for around half an hour.
Once this proceeding called ‘Gong lao ren供老人’ is over, the family then consumes the food along, unlike what I understand the Japanese do in equivalent rites, where they instead empty the rice into a river or stream.
Another practice elders follow is calculating birthdays with the Chinese lunar calendar, as are many national holidays in China.
This matter now holds some inner contradiction for myself, as I acknowledge the western calendar makes zero sense, and that a year obviously has thirteen months of 28 days each, in perfect sync with the moonphases.
Nevertheless, most younger generations now seem to follow the Gregorian calendar for most public and private affairs.
The scrubbing board.
I’m glad you’ve followed me thus far, as we will now see arguably the greatest source of domestic strife, especially in multi-cultural familes where foreign spouses are unaccustomed to some rural tendencies of elders.
In the countryside, most households build waist-high cement wash basins with a sloped edge, perfect for scrubbing dirty laundry by hand and cleaning dishes.
While they’re great in a rural setting, my main objection is the aesthetic carnage they inflict on modern interior design, and the fact I prefer normal basins while washing machines do away with the need to scrub everything by hand.
Also, Chinese people have a different concept of country life to westerners. Again, where idyllic cottages sit amongst modern hamlet communities that face towards the pristine, rolling hills of the English shires, the exact opposite springs to the minds of Chongqing locals, backwardness and poverty!
My wife ultimately won the heated battle over wash basins with her mother, but still compromised with a modern version that incorporates a smaller, more eye pleasing scrubbing board to one side.
Another argument where she prevailed was the blank refusal to allow stacks of traditional souvenir bowls into the apartment.
Back in the country, people commemorate major birthdays of elderly relatives by firing sets of souvenir rice bowls for guests and personal use.
These ceramic products often feature a portrait of the individual in question, and emblazon their name, age milestone, and auspicious messages wishing them health and happiness.
While I think it’s quite a touching thought, a similar issue to the srubbing boards exists, the fact the design can be highly unappealing, and urban dwellers don’t want guests catching sight of these rural artefacts in the home.
Again, following some vocal exchanges, the souvenir bowls stayed in Hechuan, with a select few permitted for the occasional ritual offerings we talked about earlier.
Meats and sausages
I’m sure most readers would raise an eyebrow at reams of sausages and slabs of meat swaying along with your latest batch of laundry.
Opinions and reactions differ on this matter. While I know a fellow countryman who has left the country for weeks, even months on end over such issues, it’s the fact I enjoy eating them so much that compensates for any personal objections.
When the Chinese New Year arrives, millions of people return to their ancestral homes in the country, reunite with family members they see only once a year, and tend to the graves of ancestors.
In anticipation, rural families slaughter a farm raised pig, then cure the slabs of meat as a gift for relatives to take away and consume over the year, hanging them on balconies for a few weeks in the meantime.
I’ll leave you with an amusing anecdote that illustrates how older people here enjoy travel abroad, but find it difficult to adapt their thinking to local practices, with occasionally embarassing results, but also funny ones, too.
My mother in law visited the UK in 2015, and certainly enjoyed the trip, particularly the charming sights of Oxford, Edinburgh, and my home county of Leicestershire.
However, her lack of any English skills, and familiar comforts back home meant her two week stay was just about right.
Perhaps owing to her ealy life hardships, she still associates the basic cost of staples with the overall suitability of potential living environments.
On a visit to Leicester Market, she inspected the vegetable stalls one by one, armed with notebook and pen. We translated her brief conversations with the stall owners, and she eagerly jotted down the unit price of each produce.
At the end, she shook her head disapprovingly. How could anybody live in England when a pound of carrots sets you back 10 yuan!
The memory still brings laughter to my face.
Stay tuned for more!