Those of you with long memories but short social schedules may remember that in past columns I have lavished praise on both my son’s ayi and Chinese granny. (To summarize: Nowhere inside or outside of Christendom was there an ayi like her; uninterfering mother-in laws like these don’t grow on trees.)
Well, we are currently sharing Su’s parents’ 100 sqm apartment while waiting for our new pad to be ready, and I’m prepared to admit that, while the accolades were all true – Daniel’s caregivers have tirelessly looked after, played with and fed my son, not to mention generally respected our space – it hasn’t all been smooth going.
As anyone who has ever been married will tell you, living in a goldfish bowl tends to magnify warts. And recently, the sides of the bowl have been pressing in a little bit.
Nobody is without blemishes – nay, dear reader, not even I – and cultural differences further exaggerate them. Though some frustrations may go deeper, many are silly which-end-do-you-break-your-egg stuff: You drink hot water, I drink cold. Big deal.
But even in the case of the fairly silly things, it can be disorienting to watch your son being formed in a very different mold from the one you were raised in. A few examples: When I was a little angel, I was taught not to shout in the house; Daniel, on the other hand, is encouraged to yell “Ei!” in response as loudly as possible whenever his name is called. Where I was encouraged to eat slowly and chew with gentlemanly repose, Daniel is exhorted to race Baba to wolf down his meal.
Perhaps most notably, whereas in genteel British society discussion of stools is generally confined to the doctor’s surgery, Daniel’s doings are regularly picked over (metaphorically speaking, of course) at the dinner table, their consistency considered with an un-English frankness. No big deal perhaps, but often a long way from my albeit culturally conditioned ideal.
The differences in manners are, in Chinese understatement, not a few. And I have spent a fair amount of time pondering them of late, though not always with complete equanimity. This led to a realization. Somewhere in the course of trying to work out which of my hang-ups were trivial cultural differences and which might be worth clocking my head off a brick wall, I stumbled across an insight. I realized that I tend to set up all this cultural guff as a proxy for something else: a reluctance to let go.
Let go of Daniel, that is. I’m not talking about letting him fly the nest – he’s only two. Rather, I’m talking about my resentment of needing to outsource Daniel’s care, which is inevitable when baba and mama both work and sometimes even want to go out to play. Since we moved, it has been especially difficult to see a lot of the decisions that I used to make during the daytime being outsourced to the grandparents.
Perhaps it’s a basic human instinct – the parental protective imperative? Or is it an untamed tinge of jealousy that comes from hearing Daniel playing merrily with others while I am obliged to slave at my proverbial typewriter? Or is it because I have been brought up to expect that, in an ideal world, mummy looks after kiddy? Whatever the reason, I’m not sure whether my insight will help readjust my ego to fit the size of my goldfish bowl. Roll on May, when we finally hope to move to our new place. Still, perhaps peeling back another layer of my tormented psyche will help me to be a better dad for a bicultural son.
Shortly after performing this piece of self-psychoanalysis, I had
occasion to face my paranoia head-on when Su and I decided to go on a long weekend away, and dumped little Daniel on an extended caring team. His 80-odd-year-old great-grandma was roped in; don’t underestimate her – she leaps into action sharply enough when Dan gets into mischief, for instance, by going fishing in the toilet.
Shortly before D-day I had a last wobble about leaving him, and considered canceling. Still, in the end I managed to overcome it, and that’s what counts. You’ve got to leave them sooner or later. Though, I confess, the lure of the bright lights of Shanghai may also have helped a little.