The holiday dilemma: What to call the in-laws

Why is it so difficult for this young married woman to call her in-laws 'Mom' and 'Dad'?

When the holiday season rolls around, my friends worry what gifts to buy for family members. Or maybe they skip the visits home in favor of a tropical Christmas. Me? I get out my "good-girl mask." Since I married three years ago, family gatherings have meant choosing between being myself – a 27-year-old Brooklynite who attended a women's college – and playing the good Taiwanese daughter-in-law.

Even a simple "hello" can spark what seems like a minor nuclear crisis. That's because I don't know what to call my husband's parents, who, like my parents, are immigrants from Taiwan.

They are so Americanized that they root for their home team, the West Virginia Mountaineers, and croon John Denver's "Country Roads" on car rides.

Yet they retain old-fashioned values from when they emigrated 35 years ago. We can never be on a first-name basis, but I also can't bring myself to call them Mom and Dad, as tradition dictates. Instead, I try to fill the space of a name with something else – "Hi, how are you?" or "Hi, it's so good to see you!"

One night after an eight-hour drive from New York with my parents to visit my in-laws, we sat down to a formal dinner. Tradition dictated our seats: my husband's 90-year-old grandmother at the head of the table, flanked by fathers, then mothers, and finally, my husband and me.

As our chopsticks clicked away at a feast of steamed lobster, braised fish, and Chinese greens, my husband's tiny grandmother began a speech about our two families uniting as one. My mind wandered as a number of Taiwanese words I didn't know flew past me. But suddenly what I understood brought knots to my chest.

"It's about time that we started paying proper respect to our parents," the grandmother said. Gesturing to my parents, she commanded my 31-year-old husband: "Go ahead, Eddie, call them 'Mommy' and 'Daddy.' "

He obliged. "See, Eddie knows how to respect his parents," she boasted. "Now how about you, Michelle?"

An icy silence filled the room.

My mother-in-law, putting aside her true feelings to rescue me, said, "These things don't really matter to us."

If I complied, I would make everyone happy, especially this elderly woman whose only wish was to see all her grandchildren married with kids. What was the big deal? But I kept a frozen smile on my face and shook my head.

I wanted to explain to Ed's grandmother – who had been a feminist in her time, teaching in Japanese schools – that in my life back in New York, no one praised me for cooking or washing dishes.

Instead, I brought home a paycheck from a demanding job, and my marriage was an equal partnership. After all, my parents were immigrants, but they also had shed the old ways after 20 years in New York.

Still, I hadn't made it easy for my in-laws: I didn't take my husband's last name. When we tied the knot, I wore a sky-blue dress, and no one gave me away or used the phrase "honor and obey."

Yet in my in-laws' house, I gave nice-girl answers to political questions and didn't confess that the prospect of never having children had grown appealing.

Instead, I lugged bamboo and bok choy from Chinatown to West Virginia. In return, I accepted paper towels and cans of tuna and corn, knowing they were trinkets of love.

When in doubt, I just smiled.

Back in the dining room, I summoned my toddler-levelTaiwanese vocabulary and squeezed out the sentence I'd spent the past few minutes mentally crafting: "I have my own way of thinking."

Hard of hearing, the grandmother managed to be the only one who missed my weak protest. My mother-in-law shouted into her ear: "She has her own way of thinking!"

"Oh? And what way is that?" She wasn't going to let anyone forget that she was the matriarch. "Go on. Call them 'Mom' and 'Dad,' " she pressed again.

To everyone's horror, I refused a second time.

The funny thing is that I'd already become more of a good Taiwanese daughter than I ever thought possible. After a quarter century spent adopting America, I turned around and married into my parents' culture.

I've also realized that although my new family and I will always have our differences, we'll also never stop searching for common ground.

In the end, Ed's grandmother dropped the subject, but not before she chastised my parents for not teaching me proper values.

The dads flew to the living room for some male bonding in front of the television while the women talked this out.

Me? I did the only thing I could do: I cleared the table – with Ed's help.

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