50 Years and Counting: What I’ve Learned from My Parents’ Marriage

My parents met on a blind date in 1963 and married 9 months later.  Mama was a little “over-the-hill” at 26.  Baba had been on a bride-hunt for 2 years—as he says, “After you get your Ph.d. it’s time to get married.”  He spent all his excess salary as a post-doc and assistant professor flying across the country to meet various eligible Chinese ladies.

When he walked in the door of Mama’s NYC apartment, her father took one look and said, “Are you Mao-Lan Tuan’s son?”  Sure enough he was.  My 2 grandfathers had both won scholarships to UW Madison, both received Ph.Ds from Ivy League universities, both worked for the Chinese government, and both were known for their integrity in the midst of corruption—a reason both died poor.

Here are my parents on their wedding day:

 

And here they are this past summer:

This photo outside our home in Hawaii was the basis for the watercolor my sister commissioned–but the artist skinnified both of them! 

Despite many ups and downs in their marriage, despite both of them having some issues that might be diagnosable on the DSM, they’ve given 4 children and 11 grandchildren a strong foundation of love and affection.  For all that was crazy about growing up Tuan, overall we’re flourishing and in good relationship with one another.

Here are some of the most important things I take from their marriage:

  1. Accept and don’t try to change the other:  To quote Baba (who diagnosed the cause of a boyfriend breakup with “How much does this have to do with your intelligence?”) “I don’t care that people say your mom is domineering.  I don’t care that she talks to everyone when we go to a party.  I don’t WANT to talk to anyone at the party.”  Baba never criticized Mama’s cooking despite some doozy creations in their early marriage.  The only professor I’ve known with an immaculate office, Baba somehow survived the pack-rat overflowing home Mama managed without critique, just carving out a little space for his wallet, pen and comb.  And Mama has stuck it through with a man who doesn’t talk unless he wants (but then doesn’t stop) and a man who has some grand (read delusional) ideas about himself and his role in world affairs.
  2. Close the exits:  My parents had a rough patch when I was in high school, so much that Mama threatened divorce.  But we all knew they’d never do it—mostly because they’re Chinese and Chinese people don’t get divorced (at least in the older generation).  Yet weathering these hard times, gritting their teeth through each others’ foibles, means they’ve made it through to a place of relative contentment in their latter years—and they’ve seemed pretty darn content for the past 20 years or so.
  3. Prioritize being together as a family:  Even though Baba called himself an apostate all my early life, when I asked to go to church in 4th grade and Mama decided we should invest in our spiritual lives, Baba came along.  For years.  He told anyone who asked that he didn’t believe and critiqued Presbyterian grape juice and potlucks, but joined us nevertheless.  And years later, he somehow decided to re-commit himself to Jesus.   He’s been a benevolent mostly silent presence at all family gatherings—but he’s there.
  4. Don’t expect the other to meet all your needs:  Back when my parents married, neither larger American culture nor Chinese culture expected spouses to be all things to each other—best friends, lovers, co-parents, financial partners.  So Baba had “Boys Night” with fellow physicists and beer, Mama had her gaggle of lady friends, and they joined different committees at church.  They gave each other space.
  5. Love is a behavior:  My parents are remarkably unromantic.  Any anniversary celebration usually included us kids—after all, the purpose of a Chinese marriage is kids.  But they’ve loved each other well.  They’ve stayed committed and faithful, they talk to each other in respectful tones, they serve each other in the various ways they can serve.  No glamour, no glitz, just solid loving action.

Last month we all converged in CA to mark their 50th.  We gave them a watercolor of their home and a 200 page photo album chronicling their marriage and lives (my project that was more than full time job in November!).  And looking at the fruit of their lives—4 kids with intact relationships, marriages and kids, all I could think was:  thanks God, and thanks Mama and Baba.

Presenting the photo album


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