“Renpin” Factor—Why Asian Elders Sometimes Support Mixed Marriages

“Renpin” Factor—Why Asian Elders Sometimes Support Mixed Marriages

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Photo: Guiqiong Chen, seated in photo second from right, is shown with and her multicultural family.

Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1 here.

NEW YORK—Interracial marriages involving Asians often provoke thoughts of family conflict with older generations worried about diluting the family heritage. But not all such marriages lead to broken ties between seniors and their children.

“When people think about cross-racial marriage, everybody worries about cultural differences, but the focus is too narrow and it overlooks the concept of homogamy,” said Colleen Fong, a professor of Department of Ethnic Studies at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward, Calif.

Fong explained that “homogamy,” a sociological term, means marriage between people with similar perspectives and experience. Many seniors who are happy with their “foreign” children-in-law, translate “homogamy” into “renpin,” a Chinese word that loosely means the combination of morality and personality.

Much That Doesn’t Meet the Eye

Research in the 1980s, Fong said, that found people in cross-racial marriages often have much in common that doesn’t meet the eye, such as social class, education or spirituality--factors that can underlie common values despite cultural differences.

The renpin factor worked in Fong’s own family. When she asked her husband, Carl, how he’d feel about inviting her parents, ages 87 and 84, to move in with them, he was very agreeable.

“My husband is a white guy from the Midwest. Culturally you think he won’t be open to this. But he is from a low-to-mid-income family and grew up living with his grandmother and a great aunt. He is used to a multigenerational family,” said Fong. (Fong’s parents, both born in the United States and “totally Americanized,” declined the invitation and recently moved into a senior home.)

“As my father told me, when you choose your husband, the most important standard should be renpin. It doesn’t matter whether he is rich or poor or where he is from,” said Pauline Ng, director of the Open Door Senior Center in New York City’s Chinatown. Two of Ng’s three daughters “married out” and Ng approved her “foreign” son-in-laws based on this standard.

“One of my sons-in-law is Jewish,” said Ng. “His family is very close, and they are all social butterflies just like me. His 97-year-old grandmother often dances with us. I liked them immediately. The other son-in-law is British, my daughter’s college mate, a quiet and very polite boy.”

Ng shares such anecdotes with others at her senior center, many of whom are struggling in multicultural families.

“Some seniors told me they hate seeing young couple kissing in front of them, and it’s a habit that is too foreign to them. But I asked them, so you want the foreign family member to ask you ‘chi le ma’ [have you eaten] all the time like Chinese people,” said Ng? “The most important thing is he or she loves your child and the family.”

Grandchildren

Chen Guiqiong knew how to test the renpin of her future son-in-law. When her daughter Xing took her Italian-American boyfriend, John Maiorino, to visit the family, Chen didn’t frown. But she asked him to have her back home by 10:30. “No sleepover allowed,” said Chen. He passed the test by sticking strictly to the rule.

Maiorino formally joined the family three years later. “He called me popo [granny] after my grandson was born. He often holds my arm to help me get in the car. He helps me to take off my coat. Even Chinese sons-in-law may not be as caring as this,” said Chen.

Maiorino said there were some initial cultural shocks. For example, his girlfriend’s parents didn’t like to hug him the way his parents hugged her. Also, her family lived in a much smaller apartment in Chinatown than his own in Brooklyn. And in her family women always work in the kitchen, while in his family the gender differentiation is not so clear.

Xing said a major reason she decided to marry Maiorino was his family. “I don’t know whether it’s an Italian thing, but his family is very close. Even when we were only dating, his family always invited me and my parents over to have dinner together,” she said.

Still, Chen, who is almost 80, is like many Chinese elders, who would like to live with their children. “But in this society it is not possible,” she conceded. “You don’t expect your son to live with you, let alone a foreign son-in-law.”

“Culturally, Asian elderly parents may still expect their adult children to live with them or to live in proximity so that they will be available to provide support to them,” wrote Columbia University social work professor Ada Mui, in a 2006 study.

“Fewer accessible children may lead to the elder’s sense of social isolation and insecurity,” Mui added. “Seniors need to realize they need to have their own life, and living with the children is not their only choice.”

Chen seems to have adjusted very well. As the conductor of the chorus of the Chinatown Senior Center and the choreographer of its dancing team, she spends most of her time rehearsing and performing for community events in Chinatown. “We are popular in Chinatown and I am really busy. This keeps me happy and I don’t feel lonely at all,” she said.

The Real Challenge

The real challenge, though, may not come until dementia or disability begins to set in, and elders can no longer live independently.

Mui found that more than eight in 10 Asians think family members should share eldercare, and nearly as many believe the family should not let unrelated providers take care of seniors.

This could represent the biggest cultural conflict within a multicultural family. “The whole concept of the Asian parents coming to live with you is something that a lot of Western people don’t understand. It doesn’t mean we kick our parents out when they get ill. It only means you might expect assisted living,” said J.C. Davies, the author of the new book, I Got the Fever (DoubleWide Publications), a guide to cross-racial dating.

Davies recommends that Asians in a relationship discuss this possibility with their significant other as early as possible. “Don’t make it a surprise,” she said.

Otherwise, there can be a bitter emotional struggle.

Colleen Fong of California State University emphasized that time often can mellow such conflicts. “When people talk about marriage, they only think about the present. Few would think about the challenges of parents moving in,” said Fong.

The good news is that when seniors need care, their children’s marriages likely happened at least a decade earlier. “This is a time when there could be mind blending, and different cultures could grow into a combined culture,” Fong said. Grandchildren are often the catalyst for this.

This is what Yinling Lee is hoping. Lee’s only daughter April married a Jewish man five years ago. When they had a baby boy, the couple moved back to Chinatown and rented an apartment in the same building with Lee, and she has been taking care of her grandson since then.

Her son-in-law Robert Katz doesn’t find Lee’s way of raising the child that different from how his own parents. She likes to spoon-feed her grandson, even though Katz thinks the boy is old enough to learn eating independently. And she doesn’t like him giving the child milk she things is too cold. But Katz doesn’t mind the differences.

“These are only small things. In the long run, I think it’s good for the kid to grow up with grandparents,” said Katz, whose parents live in Philadelphia. “Western families don’t stay together that much now, but if you look at European families 100 years ago, all generations stayed together in a large house.”

At 62, Lee feels she is young enough to learn one or two Western customs. For example, she doesn’t mind hugging or kissing her children, and she is still trying to build up her English vocabulary. She doesn’t worry about her future. “I think they’ll take care of me,” said Lee.

Katz agreed, “She’s helping us a lot, and we’ll be helping her. We might hire a nurse, but I fully expect to take care of her as long as we have the means.”

Rong Xiaoqing wrote this article under her MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, in conjunction with New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.