The culture of using wife as a shield
A CityU friend is helping the University to solicit donations. We were having lunch one day when he expressed his disappointment about a close friend of his who had originally pledged to donate HK$5 million. When he had followed up on his commitment two days later, his friend had told him that he needed to "consult his wife". Nothing materialised in the end. So in his household it seems like it's his wife who is calling the shots?
I comforted this friend, telling him that, according to my experience, it was not uncommon for married men in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China to use their wife as a shield. I had quite a number personal experiences similar to the story he told me. He then said he would make a donation to CityU even though his friend had backed out. I expressed my deep gratitude, secretively throwing a glance at his wife, who was sitting next to him at the lunch. She didn't seem to have any opposition to his generous proposal. I thought my friend was a "real" man: he must have communicated with his wife in advance.
It is common practice to use one's wife as a shield in Taiwan as well, especially with men in official circles. A man who wants to run for office will announce that his wife wants him to "sacrifice" his personal time to serve the public. The same man will decline running for office by saying that he wants to spend more time with his wife and family at his wife's request. Only Heaven knows what is true and what is false.
While I was serving as the department head at Texas A&M University, I hired an outstanding professor from Taiwan with a fairly generous offer that he was happy about. Nevertheless, just before he signed the contract, he emphasised that his wife would be happier if his salary could be increased slightly. While I was serving as the dean of engineering at the University of Tennessee, a Taiwanese professor, and a friend of mine, would beg in a humble manner for an extra raise during the annual salary adjustment cycle, saying that it would satisfy his wife's expectations.
After years of experience and having been exposed to all kinds of people, I have discovered that Chinese men across the Strait also like to use their wife as a bargaining chip. On a business trip one time, a professor from mainland China said that he had to consult his wife first or otherwise he would have a hard time when he was asked to stay on for one more day. I happened to bump into his wife in the street and asked her to grant permission. She replied that her husband was chauvinistic, and that she never knew where he went or how long he would stay.
Several years ago, I went on a trip to recruit a world-class professor from the mainland. After several rounds of persuasive talk, he finally said that his wife didn't like Hong Kong and therefore he didn't want to move. Later on, I got to know his wife and tried to convince her over the phone. But before I could start to explain what Hong Kong and CityU was like, she said in exasperation, "Who said I didn't like Hong Kong? It's nonsense!" In the end, she brought her kids to Hong Kong for her own interviews elsewhere first and was accepted. Later on, the world-class professor followed her to Hong Kong, and never tried to use his wife as an excuse again.
There are various kinds of wives, just as there are various kinds of husbands. It is a virtue to respect the opinion of one's wife. But a chauvinistic man frequently using his wife as an excuse has to be unique in Chinese culture across the Strait.
2 May, 2018
（原文刊載於2018年5月2日 President’s Blog – The Way）