One might think that Chinese New Year is a time of rest and joy, of warmth and love. And to a certain extent it is. Family members eat together, exchange ‘red envelopes’ (i.e. cash gifts), chat and relax. Yet there is more behind the apparent happiness of this event, a less bright and merry side. As the family holiday par excellence, Chinese New Year is also a period in which people face a lot of pressure, a pressure that is often quite unbearable.
In Taiwan as in the rest of the Chinese-speaking world, the family was traditionally the most important thing in one’s life. What a single family member did – his or her job, relationships, offspring, property and reputation – were not individual matters, but collective matters that concerned the entire family. Although in a weakened form, much of this still holds true.
The proof of this is the number of articles published in Taiwan before Chinese New Year which discuss how to deal with family pressure and with the dreaded ‘questions’ that relatives will ask to the younger members of the family – usually those in their twenties and thirties.
What people are so afraid of are questions regarding their private lives, and especially family planning and work. That’s because, due to the specific social structure of the Taiwanese/Chinese family, which I have discussed in other posts, family members are extremely competitive and “face”-oriented. Not that this doesn’t happen in Western families, as well. But since there has never been in the West a kind of family ideology as powerful and institutionalised as in Confucian societies, in the West family pressure is, as a rule, less fierce.
According to a poll conducted by Apple Daily among its readers, the most feared questions are:
- Do you have a boyfriend / girlfriend?
- What is your job?
- How much money do you make?
- When will you get married?
- How much was you year-end bonus?
- How did your exam go?
- What rank did you achieve in the school exam?
- Do you still remember me?
- When will you buy a flat?
- When will you have a baby?
An interesting article published recently on a Taiwanese parenting website sheds some light on what goes on in Taiwanese homes during Chinese New Year. The article does not analyse the theoretical foundations of the Taiwanese family, but it is, in its unconscious acceptance of Confucian-based norms, perhaps more revealing than many theoretical works. The purpose of the text is to advise readers on how to cope with and react to relatives’ indiscreet questions.
Of course, Chinese New Year is a holiday filled with an auspicious atmosphere, but despite the happiness and good mood, there’s no way to avoid the remarks of those elder relatives whom we seldom meet but who always have lots of suggestions for us …
The author explains how elder relatives start a conversation and then begin asking personal questions:
Usually relatives will start asking general questions about your life, and then they will begin – making comparisons.
In fact, in Chinese/Taiwanese families comparing people’s achievements is a widespread habit that has three purposes. First and foremost, it is an educational tool which generates pressure; the elders set standards according to which the younger are judged, and the latter feel that they are losers if they don’t live up to these standards; in this way, children are taught the desire to achieve exactly what the elders think is right (marrying a certain type of person, achieving financial security and, if possibly, wealth, etc.). Second, it can be used as a way for certain individuals to make themselves feel better by showing off what they have achieved and indirectly condemning those who have achieved less. Third, it can be simply a topic for discussion if no others are available.
But how to answer these questions? What if you don’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend, but your relatives keep asking you about it and you can’t stand it anymore? The article’s answer is, more or less consciously, quite traditional: avoid confrontation and be patient, and if you can’t stand it anymore, find an excuse to go away or change topic.
If you find yourself in this kind of situation there are three possible solutions. The first one is: run away. Find an excuse, say that you want to get some more food, that you have to wash the dishes, or something like that. Deprive your elder relative of his/her target.
The second one is: listen and nod. Keep saying “yes yes yes, right right right, true true true”. Sooner or later your relative will get bored and go to look for someone else. But this method requires a calm and unperturbed heart.
The third one is: shift the focus. Steer the conversation away from the question or change subject. This has to be done in a natural way. Then it will become just a normal chat.
However, one should not assume – as some Westerners do – that Taiwanese are simply ‘indirect’, As I have explained in the past, Taiwanese are not indirect in all situations. Whether to be straightforward or not has to do with specific social roles and hierarchies, it is not a universal rule to be applied at all times. The author of the article is well aware of this.
It might be that people who aren’t married will be asked “Do you have a partner?” If you have a boyfriend / girlfriend, relatives will ask, “When are you getting married?” If you are married, they will ask, “When will you have a baby?” And if you already had your first baby, they will ask “When will you have a second baby?” The questions relatives ask are always direct and personal (直接又很私人), or, simply put, they are impolite (try to ask them how much they earn per month and you’ll see how they’ll react …).
It is clear that the elders can be impolite because, in the network of social roles and hierarchies of the family, they are superior thanks to their seniority. They can not only be straightforward and rude, but, to a certain extent, everyone expects them to be, since they would not be fulfilling their roles if they did not put pressure on the younger generation to achieve the goals which the older generation regards as filial duties.