Dear Prudence

So Funny I Forgot to Laugh

My white in-laws make Asian jokes in front of me—and I’m Asian.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I am an ethnically Chinese man who is married to a white woman. Her family has been very welcoming toward me, but, on occasion, they still say racially inappropriate things to me. They make “Chinese fire drill” jokes, suggest I write birthday cards in Chinese, and ask my wife if she’s comfortable being driven around by an Asian. I tend to join them in the assumption that “this is being said in good fun,” since I don’t genuinely believe they dislike me or my ethnicity. However, this behavior does annoy me, and I don’t feel like my Chinese heritage should be reduced to a party trick for their amusement. Quite frankly I don’t see these jokes ending anytime soon. My question is: Is this the sort of thing that warrants a family meeting where I air my grievances, or is this something I just need to come to terms with?

—Interracially Incensed

I think the defense “it’s all in good fun” is one of the more spineless, craven excuses ever to slither down the pike. It’s telling the listener it’s his or her fault if he or she chooses not to enjoy the joke in question, which is absurd. If you’re not having fun hearing it, then it can’t be in good fun. I’m sure your relatives do like you, but they are repeatedly making racist remarks about your ethnicity, and you have the right to ask them to stop. I wonder what your wife’s response has been, if she’s been around while your family members crack jokes about your driving—does she notice? Laugh it off? Join in? I hope at the very least you can tell her how much it bothers you. It would be helpful if your wife would run interference for you, since they’re her family members, but you’d be perfectly right to say, “I’ve noticed you often make the same jokes about my driving and the fact that I’m Chinese, and I’d like you to stop.” If they protest that it’s “all in good fun,” you can counter with, “But now that you know I don’t enjoy it, and that it makes me feel put on the spot and uncomfortable, I know you’ll respect my wishes and find something else to talk about.”

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I both use Facebook, but I am a much more active user than he is. For special occasions, such as my birthday, it would make me feel very special if he’d write a post about me, which is what I see a lot of friends do. I know it’s silly, but I like it, and it would mean a lot to me. My husband refuses to do this, because he thinks it doesn’t matter and that he doesn’t need to put those things on Facebook. Currently, I’m pregnant with our first baby and would have loved a post for Mother’s Day, but he wouldn’t do it. Am I being ridiculous for getting my feelings hurt over this? Can I ask him to make these posts, or does that make it less genuine?

—Afraid to Ask

One thing I believe to be mostly true is that having hurt feelings is almost never ridiculous. You might not be justified, and you might not decide to let these feelings drive your next actions, but the simple act of being hurt is not ridiculous. That said, your husband is well within his rights not to want to write a Facebook post praising you. You’ve already asked, and he’s said no, and I think you ought to respect his decision. Not everyone is suited to write moving and meaningful public declarations about his or her partner, and it doesn’t mean that your husband doesn’t care for you very much. What’s important is that your husband generally demonstrates love and affection for you and finds some way to make you feel cherished on special occasions. If he’s already doing that, and your only point of contention is that he’s failing to do so on Facebook, I would urge you to let go of your resentment. If he’s not even privately affectionate, you’re well within your rights to have a conversation with him about demonstrating appreciation. You can’t always dictate the exact form affection takes, but I hope you find a way to ask for it that your husband is able to fulfill.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’ve admired a woman from afar for the past year. She recently broke up with her boyfriend. They still live together, but she’s trying to move out. Since the breakup, we’ve often seen each other at get-togethers. At one of these events I mentioned that I was planning a trip to Tahiti this summer. Weeks later, she texted to ask whether I was still going. We have since talked about going together, which I would love. I’ve asked her out a few times, but she only joins when other friends are involved. Recently, she said that while we can be great friends, she doesn’t think we should date. She also said that once we get to Tahiti, we shouldn’t hesitate to split up and go our separate ways. I dread the thought of getting stranded alone for two weeks of holidays. She’s an academic, so the Tahiti trip corresponds with her annual sojourn. Should I call off the trip with her now, so that she doesn’t rely upon me for her holiday? Or should I continue planning for the trip and hope for the best?

—Romantic Getaway or Free Ride?

Bail out. Bail, jam whatever eject button you can find on the control panel, and abandon ship. My friend, you must know as well as I do that your friend has negative interest in dating you and that all she sees in you is a familiar face who’s more than willing to save her a seat on the plane to Tahiti and leave her be once there. I think what you are searching for is gentle confirmation that there is no hope with this woman. Let me say (gently) that not only is there no hope she will want to go out with you, there’s no hope she would even make a companionable travel buddy. A magazine with a wig taped to it would be more engaging. What it sounds like she needs is to go on vacation alone; let her. Make other arrangements for yourself.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I fell in love with a co-worker and kept the feelings to myself for one year. She is single, and I am separated. Recently I talked to her about how I feel—we are friends and have known each other for more than 10 years—and she listened and understood but did not reciprocate my feelings. We keep being friends, but I am tremendously jealous when she talks in a friendly manner to other male co-workers. Even though I know she does not love me, I still like her a lot and cannot avoid feeling jealous. Should I talk to her about my jealousy? For work reasons, I cannot (and don’t want to) avoid her completely. Should I learn to live with the jealously?

—Jealous at Work

No, you do not have the right to tell your co-worker (who has already politely declined your romantic interest!) that you are jealous of the other men she talks to at her place of work, while doing her job. If you were her husband, it would still be creepy and possessive; since you’re only her co-worker, it’s also inappropriate and unprofessional.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My brother-in-law got very drunk on New Year’s Eve and said some very rude, offensive things to me, finishing with, “And I could go even deeper with this.” I understand he was drunk, but to me that just means he said what he really thinks without his filters. I always thought we had a good relationship, but I’m really at a loss here. I understand he’s family, but I don’t trust him now, knowing the awful things he said. How do I approach this? He hasn’t said a single word about this, even though he remembers what happened.

—Forgiving Family

Approach it by telling him you’re still angry that he insulted you and you want him to apologize. There’s a chance he’s been too embarrassed by his behavior that night to have brought it up himself, and he’ll do his best to make things right between you once you broach the subject. If he doesn’t, you’ll know his being drunk had very little to do with how he spoke to you.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My mother is a terrible exaggerator. I regularly catch her making wild guesses based on minimal evidence, intentionally omitting key details, and altering the timeline when she tells a story. I’ve asked her not to discuss my personal life with other people as a result of this. Recently I shared with her a challenging situation I faced with my ex-husband and our son. Later, she mentioned that she asked several of her friends what I should do about it. This time I lost it. I told her I wanted her to stop talking about my personal life with her friends because it made me feel embarrassed and exposed. I got really angry, but by the end of the call I apologized for my tone. She is now sulking and refused to take my calls. My sister just doesn’t tell her things. That feels wrong. I don’t know how to fix this.

—At a Loss

Your sister’s strategy may feel wrong to you, but I’m afraid she’s right. I understand that you don’t love the idea of not being able to share your personal life with your mother, but I don’t think you have much of a choice. You’ve already apologized for losing your temper. You shouldn’t apologize for trying to set a boundary. You can’t force your mother to honor your request to keep private stories private. You could, I suppose, apologize for asking that of her in the first place, pretending her indiscretion doesn’t bother you. This might get her to stop sulking temporarily, but it wouldn’t solve your problem. What you asked of her was eminently reasonable. Don’t give up your privacy just to please your mother.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My cousins had very dysfunctional childhoods and have had some problems with substance abuse. Despite this, we remain fairly close and still visit often. Last Thanksgiving, I was surprised to see one cousin (Fred), with his girlfriend at the time (Nancy) and their toddler in tow. His girlfriend is educated, sweet, kind, and an amazing mother who has devoted all her time to a baby born with some developmental difficulties. While Fred and Nancy are no longer together, he is convinced they will reunite someday, and he refers to her as his fiancée. The major problem, his mother revealed to us, is that he fathered a second child with a one-night stand while he and Nancy were together. He is a charmer but no prize and, I sense, abusive. Nancy has asked us for advice on how to handle Fred’s drinking or obnoxious behavior. I feel more of an obligation to Nancy than I do to my own kin, who is a lying cheat, but he is still family.

When I asked Fred how long he plans to run this charade, he replied, “Forever.” To make matters worse, after Nancy left on Thanksgiving, he proceeded to show off photos of the “other” baby. Fast forward to this past Mother’s Day: Fred arrived with his other daughter and was oblivious as to why the family was so disgusted. How can we avoid hurting Nancy and unwillingly supporting him? Should she just receive an anonymous letter one day explaining it all? We felt forced through these surprise visits to go along with this lie and to act as though his second indiscretion does not exist.

—Fair-Weather Cousin

Oh, come now, this is entirely too much. You can take “avoiding hurting Nancy” directly off your list of tasks you hope to achieve. Go ahead and throw that idea out of the window, because hurting Nancy is inevitable and, in fact, necessary, in order for her to act in her own best interest. No, you should not write this woman an anonymous letter. You say you consider her a member of your family; treat her like one. You should tell her immediately, in person, and with as much tact and sympathy as you can muster. The alternative is waiting for her to find out—and she will, eventually, find out—by other means and seeing her shocked and humiliated by Fred’s deception. You can at least give her the chance to hear about it from someone who cares for her. Let that someone be you.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
After witnessing so many people lose their homes during the recession, my husband and I made the decision to buy a house that was easily affordable, rather than a bigger, more expensive one. Our house is enough for a family of four and is located in a decent neighborhood. This decision has allowed us to save for our children’s college education and an early retirement fund. My sister-in-law and her husband earn much less than we do and bought a larger, more expensive house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. They’ve always made snide remarks about how much nicer their house is than ours, even refusing to stay overnight when visiting from out of town because “it’s insufferably small.” Two months ago, she lost her job, and they have fallen behind on their mortgage payments. My husband and I have the money to help them out, although it means cutting back significantly on making contributions to our retirement savings and no more family vacations until she can find a new job. In the past, I have been more than happy to help other family members when they need it. Is it vindictive that I do not want to help my SIL out of her financial mess? Do I need to be the “bigger person,” as my husband has argued?

—Smug Sister-in-Law

Helping out your relatives whenever possible is a wonderful act of kindness, not an obligation. Because you have been generous in the past does not mean you must be uncritically generous every time someone you’re related to runs into financial trouble. If giving your in-laws money to continue living in a house they cannot afford would mean no longer contributing to your own retirement fund, don’t give them money. 

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