One day many years ago, I was reading a romantic story about two lovers–one saves the other from an impending danger and a certain death. I thought to myself what my parents would do in such a situation. My conclusion was that they would certainly save each other, only for the satisfaction that they would have the opportunity to torture each other to death psychologically and emotionally later on. One’s death by any other methods sounds too much like a successful escape from their perpetual acrimony to be satisfactory to the other. Death under their own torture is infinitely more preferable, at least for one reason: it would give credit where credit is due–the sharpened sarcasm and the improved revengeful skills, which finally bring about the complete annihilation of the opponent.
I cannot talk about my parents’ tragicomic relationship without talking about the social changes happening in most parts of Asia in the second half of the 20th century. These changes, happening in a very short span of time, brought a lot of pain of adjustment to people intertwined in it.
The first big change was the end of the traditional way of living, for which members of an extended family live together in close quarters. These little family compounds could be as small as ten people with grandparents, parents, kids, uncles and aunts. It could also be as big as two hundred people living in inter-connected family courts with generations of cousins. Both of my parents lived in such a little family compound of about twenty to thirty people.
In such a place, hierarchy was strictly enforced to reduce human frictions and everybody played a pre-determined role. Human relationships in such a setting are very different from those in a nuclear family setting. For one thing, a husband and his wife spent almost all their waking hours with other people, and they only spent the bedtime alone in their sleeping quarter. Even if the couple belonged to the two types of people who could never get along, their chances of quarreling were minimized by the family environment.
For another, children were brought up by the whole extended family and not really by their parents. I read a novel about an extended family which was written in 1700s–every day the teenage son only saw his parents briefly when he paid them customary morning visits. He spent all his time with his grandmother and his cousins and his servants and his friends in school. In this setting, bad parents didn’t really matter and toxic relationship of parents had minimum influence on a child’s growth.
Both of my parents grew up in such an environment, but the society started to change during their teenager years. By the time they were getting married, they had already moved away from the rural areas they grew up to a more urban setting where nuclear families were the norm. They each loved somebody else, but each suffered disappointment. Probably the mutual sympathy as jilted lovers finally pushed them to make the decision of getting married. Most likely they didn’t imagine that they would run into difficulties in their marriage–their own parents were all in successful arranged marriages and the phrase “marriage difficulty” didn’t exist in their vocabulary.
I imagine that they were a little shocked with the nuclear family structure, in which the husband and the wife have so much more alone time, which needs to be handled with open negotiation. They were probably even more shocked when they realized that they had to bring up children all by themselves. The concept of “marriage” and “family” had shifted and they didn’t realize it until it’s too late.
(To Be Continued)