PDA

View Full Version : Chinese-American customs and forms of address



Jill_Blake
09-30-2018, 02:52 AM
Am writing a contemporary story with a 40-something female physician who is from a Chinese-American family, living in California. Her mother was born in China but lived in US most of her life, and the physician is US born.
Mother has a close female friend. That friend has a nephew. The older women conspire to play matchmaker between the physician and nephew.
My questions:


when mother and daughter are talking privately, how would mother refer to her friend? (e.g. by first name, or first and last name, or nickname, or title...?)
what would the daughter call her mother's friend in this private conversation with her mother? (e.g. some version of 'auntie' or...?)
how would the mother address her friend directly (e.g. first name, some form of diminutive nickname...?)
how would the daughter address her mother's friend directly?
how would the mother refer to her friend's nephew when talking about him to her daughter?
how would the mother address said nephew?
what would the mother call her daughter when speaking with the daughter directly (first name or some other term?)
how would the daughter address her mother when speaking with her directly?


Are there any particular turns of speech or phrases that might distinguish the mother's speech, make it sound more authentic?

Later, the daughter gets together with a colleague who is not Chinese-American (Caucasian).
Would the mother object to having a white son-in-law? Is that even an issue these days in Chinese-American families?


(Sorry for ignorant and non-PC q's.)

TIA

Al X.
09-30-2018, 06:37 PM
As a casual observer of Chinese families in California, second generation US citizens are for all intents and purposes Americanized, particularly among educated families. Having a white son in law would not be an issue. Whether or not there might be some internal resentment among the older Chinese I can't answer, but for perspective, it does not seem to be much of an issue in China and Southeast Asia today. Personally, I think you could assume that if the mother lived in the US most of her life, old Chinese customs regarding communication with elders can be abandoned.

Snitchcat
10-01-2018, 02:40 PM
Look for the POC subforum and do a search. It should turn up a lot of the info you're after.

frimble3
10-04-2018, 12:52 AM
There could be so many variables, as well.
Some immigrants keep up 'the old ways', some want to 'fit in' ASAP. Admittedly, my experience is chiefly from Eastern Europeans coming to Canada.

But, young white guy at work fell in love with the daughter of Korean immigrants. They were teenage sweethearts. Her family disapproved of the match, not because he was white, but because he was kind of a loveable slacker, and they were suspicious of his ability to support a family.
The day he was promoted to supervisor, he proposed. He said it was remarkable - the first time her father had actually spoken to him, rather than grunting acknowledgement through the newspaper he always seemed to be reading.

People are variable, and have their own little quirks.

LJD
10-04-2018, 02:02 AM
Her mother was born in China but lived in US most of her life, and the physician is US born.

As said, it may vary, but one of the reasons I have no idea how to your question is the above line. I assume the mother is maybe in her seventies. Does "most of her life" mean she came her when she was in her twenties? Or did she come here as a child? Because that would likely have an impact...

(My mother's family is Chinese-Canadian.)

NatGSharpe
10-04-2018, 02:10 AM
As folks have pointed out here, there are a lot of variables. Are you envisioning this... Okay, let's start at the beginning, because I'm guessing you don't know anything about Chinese (or Asian in general) family dynamics from these questions. I'm half Chinese (from me Mum) and in no way can I speak for all Chinese, Asian Americans, or any other group.

Firstly, what on earth do you mean by address? Are we speaking in English or not? (Because you can't technically speak Chinese, you're speaking Cantonese, or Mandarin, or Shanghainese, or Taishanese etc etc) It's not uncommon for ABC's (a term for Australian or American Born Chinese) to speak, or not speak, their parents mother tongue. You also get fun dynamics like parents speaking in Cantonese and children responding in English. One of my full Chinese cousins would do that (and now super regrets it because he needs to use Catonese in his life.) Quite a few of these dynamics have to do with white people racism, which is a whole other can of worms, and this post is already going to be long.

Now for me, all of my mum's close Chinese friends are auntie or uncle, in chinese. This term of course varies dialect to dialect, and also culturally. For example, in Cantonese I'd call my aunties "ze ze," when speaking directly to them, and "[name] ze ze," when talking about them. (Note one, romanization is stupid, this is not pronounced how it looks, unless you're a witch.) Ze ze is technically older sister, but it's polite to call your aunties that. Again, I can't speak for other dialects and Chinese folk, but Cantonese (at least HK Canto) is just like that. It's also totally acceptable to try to get your waiter's attention by saying, "Pretty lady," or "Pretty man." (Oh, also Chinese is a tonal language. Dialects vary on how tonal, but Cantonese is very tonal. The word for pretty and thug are the same word with a different tone, and guess who's made that mistake?)

Now for anything in English? Just auntie or uncle. I will note that I find us Chinese folks elevate folks to auntie or uncle faster than Americans seem to. All my parents friends were auntie/uncle [first name]. If they're not close enough to be an Auntie or Uncle, why hang out at all??? My yougner cousins, when speaking in english, will call me, "Nat cousin." It's cute. It's also polite. (Leaving off titles is impolite, as well. Calling an auntie Ms. Name is really rude. Always auntie.)

So, basically, I can't answer a lot of the "what would you call people," without knowing if we're speaking English or Cantonese. BUT Chinese does have very clear words for a lot of family relations (like uncle on your mother's side is a different word than uncle on your father's side). I'll give it a try though!

When mother and daughter are talking privately, how would mother refer to her friend? (e.g. by first name, or first and last name, or nickname, or title...?
The mother would say, "You know your auntie [name.]" I've literally never heard my mother say, "My friend," and it's always your auntie or just auntie. Huh. Hadn't really thought that was super standard english till it's pointed out.

What would the daughter call her mother's friend in this private conversation with her mother? (e.g. some version of 'auntie' or...?)
Also just auntie.

How would the mother address her friend directly (e.g. first name, some form of diminutive nickname...?)
Oh they'd have nick names. These are realllllly specific. My mum's little fish. Her youngest brother has a nickname, but is usually called dumb shit instead by his siblings. My mother calls my sister and I both unsavory nicknames, but none of the rest of our family can use them. I used to have a friend who called me fat girl and I'd call him fat boy. So, yeah, varies a lot.

How would the daughter address her mother's friend directly?
AUNTIE.

How would the mother refer to her friend's nephew when talking about him to her daughter?
So the mum might bring it up, "Do you remember Auntie [name]'s nephew, [nephew's name.]" Which brings us to...

How would the mother address said nephew?
A fun dynamic I haven't mentioned yet! Generational hierarchy. You're always polite to old people. You just are. If someone is older than you, you be politer. So the mum can call friend's nephew just by his name, but he needs to call her auntie.

What would the mother call her daughter when speaking with the daughter directly (first name or some other term?)Again, nicknames. Sometimes your name. It's like in English too (although this could be something my mum picked up from living in the west), where when you're being yelled/it's serious at it's your name not your nickname.

How would the daughter address her mother when speaking with her directly?
Mum. In either language.

Are there any particular turns of speech or phrases that might distinguish the mother's speech, make it sound more authentic?
Oph, so yes, and no. There's certainly common mistakes in English the Mum would make, but unless you're Asian I wouldn't recommend this. Unless you do a lot of research and actually talk to some more Chinese folks at best you'll come off racist. At worst you'll come off really racist.

There are idioms/phrases that are Chinese specific that my mother would say in English translated poorly. One was, "Your head." It's like... "That's ridiculous/you're crazy." So a conversation might go like this.

"Can I go to Sam's house?"
"Your head you're going to Sam's house." Which of course means, "You're crazy if you think you're going to Sam's house." The "your head" can also go at the end of the sentence. It's flexible!

She'd also say, "Frog in a well," in English which is an idiom about how a frog in a well only knows the well, so it doesn't know or understand the world outside. It can be used to call someone narrow minded, but she'd also use it in place of, "Can't see the forest for the trees." I imagine every family has their own ones of these.

Later, the daughter gets together with a colleague who is not Chinese-American (Caucasian). Would the mother object to having a white son-in-law? Is that even an issue these days in Chinese-American families?
Yeppers and it varies a lot. Again, huge can of worms if you want me to go into racism issues, but my mother is a bit cheesed that my sister and I are both dating white people. She did tell us not to marry first born Chinese sons as well (this is a somewhat my mother specific gripe, to do with how first born sons are raised differently in some families, very spoilt and ill mannered, and not a good match for women who value independence.) But my mother has bluntly told me she has more issues with me dating a white person than my partner being a woman.

I have friends who were disowned for dating outside their race, and I have friends whose parents couldn't give a shit. I even have friends whose parents encouraged them to date white people, since white people run the country.

Hopefully some of that is helpful! Again, I really want to stress that this stuff can vary, a lot. China, like anywhere, is not a monolith. There's lots of different cultures, and different and valid ways to be Chinese. Please do try to talk to other Chinese Americans (and there's other research you can do like reading forum posts or reading books by Chinese Americans.) But really, the biggest take away is how we're all different and research is good!

Jill_Blake
10-04-2018, 04:32 AM
Hi LJD, you're right --I imagine mom's age at time of immigration would make a huge difference. Assume she came around age 20 and is now in her late 60s.
thanks,
jill

Jill_Blake
10-04-2018, 04:52 AM
Hi NatGSharpe, Thank you so much for your very detailed answer! This is exactly what I was looking for. It's the details that can make something sound plausible or take a reader out of the story. For example, my family is originally from Russia, where as a sign of respect I would call anyone who is older (non-family) by first name + patronym, whether that person was a close family friend or a stranger. I have friends from India whose family would be appalled if they dated anyone non-Indian, but others whose families don't seem to care either way.
For the sake of my plot, I needed to know if my 60-something mom who'd spent the last 40 years in US could plausibly have the list of "desirable" traits for potential son-in-law include being Chinese-American. Sounds like the answer is yes.

Thanks again for your help!
jill

Jill_Blake
10-04-2018, 04:54 AM
Hi Snitchcat,
Thanks for the the tip!
jill

NatGSharpe
10-04-2018, 05:30 PM
Glad it helps!

snafu1056
10-05-2018, 01:50 AM
You can see why the Chinese came to love nicknames so much. In past centuries given names weren't very descriptive. I was reading a collection of Chinese legal cases from the 12th century and pretty much every given name translated into just a number (and occasionally an adjective--"Big Six", "Little Twelve", etc.). I wonder if it was expected that a child would eventually adopt their own name, so the given name was just a placeholder. I'm guessing that naming conventions have changed over time.

Shoeless
10-05-2018, 03:10 AM
I think for the purposes of your story, you should probably "get the family's story straight" and nail down some of the things you want to define for their characters. For example, how "embedded" is the migrant, first generation Chinese mom in Western society, versus Chinese? If the family moved into a Chinatown area, or a suburb/neighborhood of some city where many Chinese or other Asians have congregated, then she might still be primarily speaking Mandarin/Cantonese/Hokkien, whatever dialects she's familiar with, still reading a daily Chinese newspaper, if the city is big enough to support that kind of publication, and still largely working, speaking and living within a Chinese community, with only occasional exposure to American influences. And this would mean that daughter also grew up with one foot in Chinese America, and the other foot in America, America, possibly effectively bilingual.

On the other hand, if the family migrated and made the decision to integrate, then the mother might not know many Chinese at all, and the daughter really doesn't have a sense of her own people, language and heritage, and may even have grown up wishing she were "really white," because all her friends were. She might even be embarrassed by her Chinese heritage and looks because she doesn't "feel" Chinese, which is a cultural symptom common to a lot of second generation, born-in-North-America Asian kids.

There's also a matter of outlook based on the type of Chinese background the family has. If the family is from mainland China, that's going to be very different from Chinese that come from Hong Kong, especially since, until 1997, the HK Chinese were WORLDS apart from mainland Chinese, due to their British colonial heritage, and thus had a very different outlook on white people, especially British white people. The same is true if these are Chinese that migrated from Singapore, which was another British colony, or even if they were ethnic Chinese from non-Chinese nations, such as Malaysia or the Philippines, which have pretty substantial Chinese populations, that are still integrated into those societies. There are plenty of Malaysian and Filipino nationals wandering around with last names like Tan and Wong.

So it's important to get down some of the family background basics first. Because geography, dialect, and even perception of colonialism are all going to play into just how the Chinese family in your story view their American living situation, as well as what they think of Americans.

And yeah, Asians can be racist too, so there is always this possibility to play with.

Jill_Blake
10-05-2018, 09:19 AM
Hi Shoeless, Hmm, definitely food for thought. Setting is Arcadia, a town about 45 min from LA. Very small Asian population until late 80s-90s, when a big influx of folks from HK boosted growth of Asian community. By early 2000s, 60% of Arcadians were of Asian descent. Mom came in early 70s, daughter born there in late 70s, demographics were changing as she grew up.
Not sure if this would make mom more or less likely to cling to old traditions and have insular mind-set regarding her daughter's dating...?
Jill

Shoeless
10-05-2018, 08:44 PM
That sets up some interesting situations for you. Is the mom also from HK? If not, then which part of China, or what other nation with Chinese from Asia? Does this mean that she's considered the "first wave," and when the second wave of immigrants came, they naturally rallied around her as one of the "anchor points" for Chinese immigrants to go to to figure out how to integrate, where to go and what to do? Is she like the "elder" for the Chinese immigrant community because she got there first and knew all the stuff they needed to know, or did she isolate herself from the rest of the second wave?

If the daughter was born in the late 70s, and is a Gen X American Chinese, did the mom choose to raise her purely American? Or did she try to inculcate some Chinese culture and language in her? When the second wave arrived, was this daughter already speaking Chinese? Could she, in a similar fashion to her mom, been the "anchor" for Chinese immigrant kids, because she could speak English and they couldn't, so they also rallied around her as the "gateway" to American kids? Or did they shun her because she was bilingual, or even couldn't speak Chinese at all, thus alienating her from the other Chinese kids?

A lot of the personality traits developed here might hinge on the mom's decision to embrace or reject that second wave, and how the daughter reacted to it as well. So you actually have a ton of potential character/dramatic situations to play with here based on these reactions and choices.

Jill_Blake
10-06-2018, 04:55 AM
All excellent questions, Shoeless, and very helpful in drilling down to particulars I might not otherwise have considered.
Mom would have to be from mainland China (if from HK I would imagine she'd be more westernized?), and would likely have socialized with other college students from China when she first came over. Daughter grew up speaking Mandarin and English, but may have felt somewhat marginalized in a mostly-white school. I don't think mother would have had much in common with the 2nd wave of immigration mostly from HK bc new immigrants spoke Cantonese and were of different social status --mom was solidly middle class (nurse) while many of new immigrants came from privileged background, fleeing uncertainty in yrs leading up to handover of HK back to China. As an adult, the daughter has completely assimilated and moves to westside of LA which is more diverse overall but has a (relatively) smaller concentration of Chinese-Americans than Arcadia.

Does that seem plausible?
thanks,
Jill

Shoeless
10-06-2018, 05:21 AM
If you're going for historical accuracy, then the time period you're talking about, the 1970s, for immigration, makes it a little less likely that the mom was a mainland Chinese immigrant. China was pretty closed up at the time, and it was only in about 1977 that more immigration from the mainland came about, as they finally opened the gates to the west and more openly accepted foreign investment, factories building western goods, etc. During the 60s and 70s, the majority of Chinese immigrants came either from Hong Kong, which was still a British territory, or else from Taiwan, from those Chinese that had fled the Cultural Revolution that caused China to go communist and close up in the first place.

So while it's still possible for this mom to have come from mainland China, at that period of time, she would have made it to America under much more extraordinary circumstances, more like refugee or defection status, rather than straight up immigration and naturalization. But for HK or Taiwan immigrants, it would have been what you'd typically expect. If you target 1977 onwards though, that's when China finally started allowing college students and other professionals to travel abroad and immigrate if they wanted to.

Jill_Blake
10-06-2018, 06:55 AM
...it was only in about 1977 that more immigration from the mainland came about, as they finally opened the gates to the west and more openly accepted foreign investment, factories building western goods, etc.
If you target 1977 onwards though, that's when China finally started allowing college students and other professionals to travel abroad and immigrate if they wanted to.

Appreciate the tip! Nice thing about plotting fiction: flexibility. Post-1977 it is. :-)

-Jill

Snitchcat
10-06-2018, 03:57 PM
Even after China started opening up, as a Mainland Chinese you would still have had a special permit to cross the borders. And Hong Kong was the main gateway into China.

Also, what was the mother's background? Wealthy? What conditions did she emigrate under? Did she know any English (very likely only the basics)? Which part of China is she from -- this will inform whether or not she would have a integrated with the local community and how traditional she would be.Her family background and access to education levels would also impact her social skills, knowledge of China beyond where she grew up, and certainly knowledge of the rest of the world and other cultures.

In short, even if you have the mother moving after 1977, there are plenty of factors that would have influenced how she settled in her new home.

Furthermore, I need to stress that getting to university would be extremely unlikely for rural Mainlanders, unless they were inordinately rich (extremely unlikely at the time). And don't forget that if she did make it to uni, she would have been from a very well-off family. And it was likely Beijing or Shanghai university; probably the former. But if she got married first, it would make more sense that she did not get to university. Therefore, she would not have associated with uni students.

Her education level would likely have hit maybe junior school or perhaps the first three years of secondary if she was very lucky.

If she did get to Beijing university, and before she emigrated, would she have witnessed the Tiananmen massacre? I expect she'd've watched it on TV anyway, or heard it over the radio, or others would have brought her the news. How would that have affected her? Affected how she brought up her daughter or taught her daughter at the time?

BTW, does the mother have any (older) brothers? If she does, the brothers would have taken precedence in education and favourability within the family. And many (if not all) values would be Confucian.

I assume the mother was born in the 1940s/1950s. In this case, a very traditional family background, values, and outlook. And the family may well have still been recovering from WWII; even if they had been wealthy prior to the war, they were likely impoverished.

Oh, and language: Main language was Mandarin, but what was the mother's home dialect? That will influence everything too, especially phrasing and understanding.

In summary: there's a lot of research that seems to not have been done. Highly recommend you immerse yourself in the Chinese culture of the time before assuming anything else about the mother.

(And the daughter may not have been an anchor at all, especially if she's fully integrated / westernised. This will also be extremely unlikely unless she made a deliberate choice to throw away her heritage. If she did, then her relationship with her (traditional) mother will be strained at best, or outright explosive otherwise.

Look into third culture for a taste of how the daughter may have grown up and what she may have gone through.)

Additionally, I didn't see mention of superstitions, Feng Shui, and the Chinese Zodiac -- this would have impacted the mother, and she would have (subconsciously) passed it onto her daughter. Not to mention the cooking skills.

There's more, but there are plenty of books written on growing up as a third culture child, as well as books on what it was like on the Mainland in the 1970s/1980s. Please read them and study the history of this period of China.

Again, I strongly suggest going through the POC forum -- there's a lot of information in there. And take a look at the Chinese language thread in the International District sub-forum -- there's more information there, too, and plenty of examples of the written language.

frimble3
10-07-2018, 08:29 AM
If the mother was born in the 40's or 50's in China, might a white boyfriend be more acceptable than a Japanese one? Even an American-of-Japanese-ancestry one?

Snitchcat
10-07-2018, 10:38 AM
Japanese-anything would be rejected immediately.

The WWII atrocities were still very fresh in people's minds. Even to this day, the older generation remembers and the fury is as strong as ever.

Snitchcat
10-07-2018, 10:41 AM
A white boyfriend, American, could be a remote possibility.

More likely, a 100% Chinese boyfriend would be a must, or at least the first choice. All other nationalities would be found unsuitable (best case scenario); worst case, the mother would drive off the boyfriend and be even more controlling of her daughter's choice of suitor.

"Tiger mum" is a very real thing and it's a different world to "helicopter parent".

frimble3
10-07-2018, 11:39 AM
Japanese-anything would be rejected immediately.

The WWII atrocities were still very fresh in people's minds. Even to this day, the older generation remembers and the fury is as strong as ever.
I kind of got that impression from things I've read and people I've known. A quick way to infuriate your mother.

Snitchcat
10-07-2018, 06:05 PM
I kind of got that impression from things I've read and people I've known. A quick way to infuriate your mother.

Hahaha! The fastest ever method!

However, this would depend on how much of the learned rascism and fury influences the daughter vs how deep the mother/daughter bond is.

Want to tie the daughter in knots as well as the mother? 50% Japanese, 50% Indian (India) boyfriend who also has Malay and Filippino heritage/roots. Want to know why? Research cultural clash and relations of SE Asia.

(Chinese vs Indians is another explosive ethnicity relation. Ask if you want to know.)

Shoeless
10-08-2018, 12:20 AM
Want to tie the daughter in knots as well as the mother? 50% Japanese, 50% Indian (India) boyfriend who also has Malay and Filippino heritage/roots. Want to know why? Research cultural clash and relations of SE Asia.

(Chinese vs Indians is another explosive ethnicity relation. Ask if you want to know.)

Holy crap, am I ever flashbacking to some major family blow outs now. Had no idea this thread was going to be so triggering...

Snitchcat
10-08-2018, 10:04 AM
Holy crap, am I ever flashbacking to some major family blow outs now. Had no idea this thread was going to be so triggering...

*Hugs*

I hear you.

Jill_Blake
10-08-2018, 10:27 PM
Thanks to all for pitching in w info! Snitchcat, you're absolutely right, I have a lot more reading to do...
jb

Jill_Blake
10-09-2018, 04:43 AM
Have been skimming POC forum and Chinese language thread in International District sub-forum. Very useful info, thanks. Also reading some history on Chinese immigration to US.

But I was hoping to also ask a few more questions of those of you who've been very generous with your time and knowledge... (and again, my apologies for ignorance of subject):

- What kind of bgd/education would the wife of a Chinese engineering grad student in 1970s/early 80s have had? (assuming both grew up in Beijing, born in mid-50s, married in late 70s)
- what educational/work opportunities might this woman have had in her 20s, immigrating to US from Beijing in late 70s-early 80s as wife of grad student? Could she have enrolled in school (college? nursing school?)? Gotten job as teacher in a Chinese school (there are a number of schools in LA area that offer after-school/weekend/summer classes in Mandarin/Cantonese)? Gotten a job in a local small business (restaurant? retail shop?)?
- same woman, mid 90s, widowed - if she hadn't worked outside the home to date, what might she have done to support family after husband's death?

thanks,
-Jill

Snitchcat
10-09-2018, 07:51 AM
You need to research the era in the US State for job types available at that time. I suspect all of them would require a level of English the wife may not have had. And don't forget, the Chinese were (and still are) seen as second-class citizens in many States; even if qualified for whatever job, the wife / husband would have been rejected. You're looking at deep-seated racism manifesting in all the nastiest, most discriminatory and bigoted ways possible. What Chinese schools? Were there any and would they have been obvious during the time the pair entered and settled in the State?

Enrolled in a nursing school? Only if on an exchange programme, most likely, and there were precious few of those. Most likely, the exchange programme would have been via HK to the UK, rarely the US.

Getting into college? On what basis? Limited admissions means anyone not white American didn't get in. And the wife's level of English would have disqualified her, even if she was fluent.

Also, why would her husband's background influence the wife's education/background? Separate issues. However, you need to research caste issues: family status on both sides would have impacted the marriage -- arranged, elopement, blessings from both families, etc.

And if they both grew up in Beijing, why did they want to leave? Mao's regime? Also, since they both grew up in Beijing, why would either of them know Cantonese? The vast majority of immigrants to the States at the time were Cantonese speakers, mainly from HK or Guangdong. Dialects would have included Hakka and Fukkien, but Mandarin? Not popular at the time.

Widowed, mid-90s woman. Does she have a pension or some sort of money left to her by her husband? Does her daughter take care of her? If she's never worked outside the home before, she's dependent entirely on her daughter. Unless other relatives / cousins also came to the States later. And if her daughter is fully westernised, chances are, the daughter would have put her in an elderly home.

Seriously. All these questions you're asking can be answered through research on the Chinese culture, and the America and China of the time.

Do your research first then ask questions that the research can't answer.

Where do you start? Hit the library. History hasn't changed that much; it's only been updated with new information.

Snitchcat
10-09-2018, 07:58 AM
Btw, are you writing this story as an #ownvoices story? I ask, because if you're not part-Chinese, and did not grow up in the community, I highly recommend you do not label this story #ownvoices, or anything similar. The backlash can be nasty.

I believe I posted a link to an article or something in the POC forum or in this Research forum about a British author who claimed to have studied Chinese culture for 6 years and said she was Chinese. However, during a panel or whatever it was, she identified as British. That was a mess. And her book about a Chinese taxi driver got slammed for her cultural appropriation.

Which reminds me: research "cultural appropriation", too. Make sure you understand exactly what it is you're doing and writing: Writing a story of a 40-something Chinese-American physician, yet not being (part) Chinese, can be considered cultural appropriation. And that's another topic. (There's a huge thread (or several) about this topic somewhere in AW; you'll need to search for it.)

frimble3
10-09-2018, 09:56 AM
To know what the mother did, I think you have to figure out what education and skills she came over with, then added to in the US. Unless her English was H.K. flawless, why would a chiefly white American business hire her?
If her English isn't good enough, I doubt she could even get a job as waitress in a Cantonese-speaking restaurant, if she's a Mandarin speaker. She'd immediately stand out as 'not one of us', and, I suspect 'uppity'. (Especially if her husband is working towards an engineering degree.)

Also, did she come because of her husband's educational aspirations? I don't know all the ins-and-outs, especially at that time, but would a husband's student visa allow a spouse to work?

Related question: they came over for the husband's grad studies, were they intending to immigrate, or did they decide that later? When did they become citizens?