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December 7, 2011

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When mom is hot and spicy

CONFUCIUS said a good wife was obedient above all and the notion of subservient, gentle and deferential wives was once pervasive in China. But here come the la mas, the Hot Mamas or the Spicy Moms. Xu Wei takes their temperature.

Obedience to her husband and mother-in-law, efficiency in housework, and sacrifice for the family were the criteria for a good woman and a good wife in the old days. But times, family ties and women's roles have undergone a revolution.

Today many middle-class and upper middle-class urban mothers are well-educated, employed and often financially independent. Those born in the 1980s (the post-80s generation) are often progressive and open-minded, firmly believing that they have an identity apart from their family and a right to personal pursuits and happiness.

These women work, go shopping with their friends, attend their yoga classes and pursue various interests. It helps to have a mother, a mother-in-law and an ayi to babysit and help out with the household work. And, of course, a good Shanghai mother always controls the household purse strings.

There's a buzzword for these trendy mothers who manage to juggle work and family and still have time to enjoy themselves. La ma, literally hot mothers. La means hot and spicy in food or in personal attraction (that girl is really la;); it also conveys the sense of spirit, zest and verve.

Of course, being a spicy mom and the family linchpin can be difficult and require some juggling and deft interpersonal skills.

To recognize these forward-looking moms, the "Shanghai Spicy Mom" or "Spicy Mommie" competition is underway, sponsored by East China Radio (ECR). Since it was launched in October, it has attracted more than 900 city mothers aged from 25 to 70. Ten moms have made to the finals on December 18. The hottest moms will become image ambassadors for the ECR Love charity helping needy rural children.

Moms are asked a series of questions and presented a variety of situations to resolve or handle, such as managing a good relationship with a mother-in-law, juggling work and family, and educating children. They are quizzed on fashion trends, family health care and household finance management. They also have to estimate product prices in a supermarket. And these multi-faceted mom must sing, dance, play a musical instrument or demonstrate talent on stage.

Universal issue

The mother-in-law issue is a universal one and in China wives traditionally have been subservient not only to their husbands but also to their mothers-in-law. That too is changing, but managing the relationship with tact can be difficult, since many older women believe they know best and their daughters-in-law should obey them.

"Though a spicy mother can be a little shrewd and zuo (tricky, willful and a little childish), she is kind-hearted, confident, independent and fashionable," says Xiao Lin, deputy director of 89.9 FM Shanghai with ERC. Having a good handle on the mother-in-law relationship is crucial for spicy moms, otherwise they wouldn't have time and energy to arrange their own life and career.

A number of experts say that a woman's skill in dealing with her mother-in-law is a good indicator of her interpersonal and communications skills.

So, how do Spicy Moms handle the mother-in-law thing?

Shanghai Daily interviews three of 15 finalists on the mom-in-law question.

Yu Lisha

30, full-time mother

Yu quit her job as a senior manager after her son was born. Being a full-time mom isn't a sacrifice, it's fulfilling, she says. Yu, a Shandong Province native, likes to sing and dance and decided to enter the contest to show her stage talent.

In her view, "spicy" is about optimism, independence and enthusiasm; it's not about fashion and style.

Though Yu doesn't live with her mother-in-law, they have more contact since the birth of her son and the mother-in-law frequently lends a hand in housework.

"I never agreed with the idea that getting along with a mother-in-law is like getting along with your own birth mother," Yu say. "The relationship with your husband's mother is very delicate and fragile and requires more consideration and caution."

Her basic advice for dealing with mom-in-law is to give plenty of compliments and express appreciation for her cooking or other help to the family. Yu also buys gifts for the older woman, not just on festivals or on her birthday, but at any time "just to surprise her." She frequently says "thank you."

The biggest friction these days is about raising the newborn.

"We have different views on many aspects of baby care, such as when to start feeding solid food and if it is necessary to disinfect cloth diapers," Yu says.

Her mom thinks the baby can try some solid food these days and it is unnecessary to disinfect cloth diapers as she has already washed them.

Yu resolved tension by involving her own mother and asking her to pretend to share her mother-in-law's views. Her mother came to visit and expressed her views and then Yu cited a famous baby care book and told her mother that she was mistaken, that many traditional concepts were outmoded and unscientific - in front of her mother-in-law.

Another piece of advice: No head-on confrontation and don't tell her she is "wrong."

Yu's mother-in-law came around to her point of view.

Qin Xue

26, IT company worker

In 2009, Qin married a Japanese man who lived and worked in Shanghai. They now have a 19-month-old son. Her husband's parents are divorced, and he was reared by his grandmother. In Qin's view, the 87-year-old woman is her mother-in-law.

The 26-year-old office worker says a spicy mom should be warm hearted and have a passion for her family and her own life. Every year she and her husband return to Japan a couple of times for family gatherings and she says she is touched by her Japanese family's warmth. "Japanese people do not express their love so often but I can feel granny's deep affection," Qin says, adding that she always prepares delicious food.

The elderly Japanese woman runs her own business and has several home fashion/decorating stores. The elderly woman shares her stories of world travel and encourages the younger woman to enjoy her life and dreams.

At first the woman was not pleased with her grandson's marriage to a Chinese woman because he would spend little time in Japan. Later she was won over by Qin's devotion and Qin's many gifts, such as sweaters and cross-stitching works.

"I don't think it is hard to get along with Japanese mothers-in-law as long as the daughters-in-law are modest, caring and dedicated to the family," Qin says. "Despite different cultural backgrounds, our love for the family is absolutely the same."

Ni Huyan

31, company vice president

Ni is vice president of a machinery company and she has a six-year-old daughter.

Because of her all-around abilities and excellent interpersonal skills, her friends encouraged her to enter the Spicy Mom contest.

"My friends think that I am presentable in the living room, while I excel in the kitchen," Ni says.

Ni says modern women should never give up their personal aspirations, but they need to learn to manage their time and balance work and family.

Ni tries to finish all her work on daytime so she can spend evenings with her daughter and husband; she tries to keep weekends free and enjoys cooking for her family.

Every year her mother-in-law, a native of Zhejiang Province, usually spends several months living with the family in Shanghai and helps care for Ni's daughter.

"Because of different habits and ideas, you need to be more careful getting along with your mother-in-law," Ni says. "It is very important to maintain a moderate relationship. Distance is a good thing but you still can't let her feel out of place or alienated."

Ni is also very kind and considerate to the friends of her mother-in-law, often buying them gifts to make her mother-in-law feel happy and proud. "I sometimes make a point of asking my mother-in-law to help with the cooking, so she can feel needed and helpful," Ni says.

"In many ways elderly people are as willful and stubborn as children, so we must be more tolerant, caring and patient."

They once had a serious disagreement on whether it was necessary to store Ni's daughter's umbilical cord blood. Ni insisted it was necessary to help treat future possible illness, but her mother-in-law thought it was too cruel and inauspicious to imagine any possible future life-threatening disease for the newborn baby.

The mother-in-law's anger and misunderstandings made Ni herself feel hurt, but she didn't argue. Later doctors and her mother-in-law's own friends explained and persuaded her to accept the idea. Then the older woman apologized for being so disagreeable.

"Though I am demanding and reserved in the company, I don't want to be tough in my family," Ni says. "I'm still learning to think from someone else's perspective and so we can achieve mutual respect and understanding. I totally agree with the Chinese saying that a family that lives in harmony will prosper."

Expert judge

Lin Hua, an expert on women's issues, is a judge of the Spicy Moms contest and says she's impressed that some spicy moms claim their role model is their mother-in-law. Some moms attended the contest in the company of their mothers-in-law.

"The friction between wives and their mothers-in-law seems unavoidable if they live under the same roof," Lin says, adding that it's easier to manage these days because most couples don't live under the same roof in an extended patriarchal family. Wives should not expect their mothers-in-law to treat them like their biological mothers and they should be very careful, respectful and polite in dealing with the older women, Lin says.

For her, the spicy mom is skilled in conflict resolution and in balancing work and family life.

In the 1980s and 1990s many Chinese mothers felt guilty if they devoted too much time to their work and the acceptance speeches of most female model workers at the time were filled with apologies to their families and pleas for forgiveness for spending so much time at work.

"Some excellent women would even sacrifice their career for their husband and children," Lin says, "but many mothers today do not consider family to be the whole meaning or purpose of their life."

Confucius on women

In ancient China, women were educated in the Confucian ethics of the "three obediences and four virtues." The three obediences require women to obey her father as a daughter, obey her husband as a wife and obey her son in widowhood. The four virtues are morality, physical charm, propriety in speech and excellence in needlework.


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