The language barrier is an everyday part of my family life.
Given that I spend much of my time working out of my home office, it has become a bit of a routine that my Vietnamese mother-in-law or one of my aunts will pop by unannounced, sometimes dropping off items for my husband, Cavin, or boxes of giant produce bought from farmers’ stands in the Pennsylvania countryside.
My Vietnamese is lamentably bad, despite some dabbling in Rosetta Stone and such — I can say ”How are you?” (khoe khong), ”Hello!” (chao) and ”My name is Sean,” (Toi ten Sean), so I’m really not prepared for much more than a low-key Vietnamese networking event. My mother-in-law’s English is better than my Vietnamese, but still limited enough that we rely on Cavin to translate for us.
One evening, after his mother had visited, Cavin mentioned that she had said something about being able to find me at home during the day — a phrase that he was having difficulty precisely translating.
”She said you’re like, I think, ‘a woman who stays at home.”’
I thought about this for a second before it dawned on me. ”Oh my God, your mother called me a housewife!”
As someone raised on the idea that women could bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan, I was a little taken aback by the whole gender-role thing going on. But with some additional thought, I realized it was in its own way cool.
Trust me, it’s a good thing when your mother-in-law considers you the caretaker of her son, even if as the mother of three boys she never expected to have a son-in-law.
I’m fortunate that I’ve found a family in addition to a husband — marriages may create in-laws by default, but creating an actual family isn’t a guarantee. On the surface, I might have expected not to be accepted — this is a family whose conservative politics are shaped heavily by the experience of (and escape from) life under communism. But beneath that is a strong love for my husband that, to my own great fortune, was strong enough and big enough to allow me a space.
It’s that experience that I think about when Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage start yammering about their fight against same-sex marriage in terms of civil rights — namely, equating their attempts to stop gays and lesbians from getting married to the struggle of African Americans to exercise their right to vote.
Gobsmacking, yes, but I suppose we’ve come to expect nothing less from Gallagher and Brown.
But it’s striking to me that two privileged, white heterosexuals grew up enjoying the full benefits of a free and democratic society — the growing equality of women, the availability of education, even the bounty of food — and yet have devoted their lives to stopping some citizens from sharing equally in those benefits. They are uniquely and selfishly un-American.
It’s my family of in-laws, people who actually lived in a society without democracy, without freedoms, without rights, who better understand what freedom, democracy and equality mean.
Despite what Gallagher and Brown may dream, a democracy doesn’t exist to vote on the equality of others. That’s a message we need to make sure all our families understand.
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