We need to talk about J

As the matriarch of our family – my 80 year old gran – had her afternoon nap at the end of the house, my aunt quickly and quietly shepherded me into the guest room to have a conversation. “We need to talk about J,” she said, gently closing the door behind us.

You see, J is my cousin (whose full name I won’t disclose), the “modern” young Chinese woman I talked about in a previous post of mine. J is my age, 27, and she lives in a centrally-located bachelorette pad around the corner from my grandmother’s house. J divorced her husband four months ago and she works during the week in the import-export business. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” J’s mother said.

I’d always seen J and her mother as two polar opposite human beings. Both were sociable, attractive and slender Chinese women, but that was just about where their similarities ended. J’s mother was highly conservative, critical and concerned about ‘keeping face’ – I didn’t really get along with her as I never really liked her parenting style or shared many of her values. J, on the other hand, broke as many of the traditional gender norms as she could, with her smoking, drinking and partying single self. “As a psychologist,” (psychologist in Chinese is the best term for what I study in Australia – art therapy) “what do you think is wrong with her?” Caught totally off guard, I made a note to take a deep breath and ask my aunt to elaborate.

It turns out J has kind of been going off of the rails. After the divorce, J borrowed large amounts of money from her then mother-in-law, her own mother, her father, her bank and her work. She lied to her parents about how much money she was earning, and she also lied about her new apartment too (she initially told her parents that it had been supplied to her by her work, when in fact she was actually renting it herself). J owed a lot of money to the bank, and without a fully functioning knowledge of what interest was, she wasn’t paying it back. And according to her mother, she didn’t seem to understand the severity of the problem. “You’ve been spending all this time with her,” my aunt said, “what has she been telling you?”

My heart started to race. She was right – I had been spending a lot of time with her. In fact, this morning I had just come back from her place, and we had been out drinking the night before. What should I tell her? I was being asked to divulge the personal life of the family member I felt most closest to, and I felt inflamed and confronted. I couldn’t tell her about how J was in love with a few young men, not knowing who she should pick. I couldn’t tell her about how one of these men was her boss, and that was why her work and her pay was getting complicated now. I couldn’t tell her that J partied so hard that she got an average of twelve hours sleep per week. I didn’t know how to tell her that to me it seemed like her daughter was struggling, hard, running from her troubles with shopping and food and alcohol, probably because she didn’t have anyone safe or caring to confide in. Her mother wouldn’t understand, and anyways, it wasn’t my place to tell her either.

Growing up I would come back to China every few years and be confronted with how different the worlds J and I were growing up in. I would come back to China after having lived in Canada or Germany or Australia, and I’d find J being pressured by her parents to do homework or being scolded for completely normal teenage-girl things, like wanting to buy makeup, or go out late, or kiss boys. Every time I came back we would have sleepovers and talk about our lives late into the night. I would bring my western influences back to China, like my girl-love of the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys or my teenage-love of Sinead O’Connor and Green Day, and J would make them a part of her life too. As we got older J would start introducing me to her secret boyfriends, or take me out to bars and nightclubs when we told our parents we were going to the movies. She’d show me a side of China that I never knew, always keeping me on the frontline of contemporary Chinese cultural developments. We’d relate to each other about having to deal with our grandmother’s anxiety, or feeling the pressure of different familial expectations, and even though we drifted apart in terms of taste in music, clothes and men, we still had a special bond.

And so it was with that in mind that I found myself sitting on the bed of the guest bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to J’s mum talk in hushed and worried tones about her daughter. In her mother’s face I could see a lot of love, but it was wrapped up in confusion, criticism, fear and anger. “How does someone get like this?” she’d say, and I’d stumble and trip through my clumsy lexicon of the Chinese vocabulary to try and offer up an answer. In probably the most broken Chinese ever spoken, I tried to explain to her that I didn’t think people who did “bad” things were necessarily bad people. In terms of J borrowing all that money, I said I think sometimes when we do one bad thing, it’s easy to do many bad things, and then it becomes too many big bad things, and then perhaps it becomes too much to face. I talked about how sometimes the people who put on the most arrogant and confident faces are the ones who are also the most scared inside. I talked about perhaps trying to step into J’s shoes to try and understand why she would do something like that and what she might need, and I gently tiptoed around the fact that perhaps J wasn’t telling her parents what was going on because she was afraid she might be reprimanded. “But in our reprimands is our love!” my aunt would say, and as a child of Chinese parents I knew deeply and truly what she meant.

I’ve been struggling to live with my extended Chinese family recently. I made a decision a few days back not to go explore far away parts of China, but rather, to stay close to home exploring if anywhere, our local province and my family’s story. My grandmother said, “you’ve got all these places to see and visit, and you’re going to stay here with me?” I replied with all of my conviction and feeling, “I’ve got you, and there’s so much that I haven’t even explored or understood about you yet. Yes.” And whilst it was a clear and emotional decision to make, it was also hard. For someone who likes to be alone on the road with my future in my own hands, living with your elderly, frail, anxious Chinese grandmother is one of the most unglamorous things on the planet. But I knew that whilst the cities and countryside of China would stay for a while, my grandmother might not.

And so recently I’ve been living with the consequences of my choice to stay. Living in the family home, staying within the city, I had just chosen to let myself get entangled in all the ties that come with living with family. Most days I spend half my time trying to get to know them, and half my time seething from the irrationality and unfamiliarity of Chinese family dynamics and customs. Half of me resents living with them, and the other half tries to whip myself into shape to try and stay detached and curious and observant. And when it was just beginning to feel like I was banging my head against a very hard cultural wall, something gave. I thought my extended family was going to be the way I’d always experienced it – closed-minded, anxious, stuck in the past and isolated – but in my conversation with J’s mother today, I started to see some cracks in the woodwork. “I think I understand,” J’s mum said. “I know I’ve been really critical of her. And I know her father has been quite harsh too.” She mhmmmed and sighed, deep in thought. “I know it must be difficult to watch J go through this,” I said, “because I imagine all you want to do is help her and change her and make the problem go away. But you can’t. The only person that can fix things is J. We as her family, can only support her along the way.” I’d said something similar to this to my grandmother recently, who has pretty bad anxiety. “You can’t completely protect me grandmother,” I said, in response to me riding a bicycle around the city, “you can’t always be by my side. If something bad is going to happen, it might just have to happen. I know it’s scary, but you know it’s true.”

These conversations were becoming more and more present in my interactions with my family. We had never really talked very deeply, but suddenly we were entering more intimate and vulnerable terrain. With my decision to stay in Nanjing, I knew the terrifying bit was that I had also made a decision to let myself be more seen. With every question or favour that I asked of them – can you tell me about this time in your life? Can you teach me this recipe? Can you help me find someone to teach me the guzheng? – I was letting a little bit more of me come into the light.

As my aunt and I left the guest room, we both were a little less anxious and a little less on edge than when we entered. The last thing I said to her – an offer for connection – was, “being a parent is tough!”. We both laughed in relief. I could see that whilst my aunt had come into this looking for an answer, she left feeling perhaps more heard. And I could see that whilst I went in defensive, judgmental and scared, I came out a little more bravely authentic, and a bit closer to my aunt in a way that I never thought I would.

I was talking to an Australian friend about China the other day, and she told me about how her Chinese coworker once said, “I have to make sure I go back every year – it is changing so fast, if I don’t I will be left behind.” I didn’t think much of it when I heard it at the time, but as the days go by here, the wise words of that Chinese coworker stay with me in the back of my mind. My experiences day to day are varied and diverse, and often I feel like that – like each and every day I am witness to a dozen new changes and differences that happen right before me. I’ve noticed the developments in technology, the amount of cars on the road growing in quantity and size, I’ve noticed Chinese people living less in the country, and I’ve noticed the increase in capitalism – but this was a change that startled me today. I came to China looking to preserve some of the lost traditional skills in the hills and the countryside far from my home, and I arrived finding cultural change afoot behind our own family door. And I’m starting to see that I’m very lucky to have family here, because I’ve got an in into the most personal of cultural situations. And whilst sometimes it’s incredibly lonely to straddle the space in between the two cultures and ways of being, on other days it proves remarkably enriching.

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