You’ve heard of the Tiger Mom? The Panda Dad? Well, meet the Jewish Popo!

Popo is the Chinese word that in Mandarin means the mother-in-law on the husband’s side. I’ve also seen it defined as old woman (ahem!) and grandmother (someday soon, I hope). When I’ve asked my son in Beijing, Jonathan, why there’s a special name for the mother-in-law or grandma from the husband’s side, he said it’s because of the traditional dominance of that side in Chinese marriage customs: the bride would go over to her husband’s family. I’ve also seen a chart of family relationship names, and it seems that all sides have specific words for them.

Tiger Mom Amy Chua missed a terrific cross-culture educational opportunity when she wrote about her Jewish mother-in-law, the late Florence Rubenfeld, an arts journalist and author who sounded like one bright, fun-loving and accomplished woman, even though she didn’t always approve of the über-pressure applied to her Chinese-Jewish granddaughters by their mother. In other words, a normal. loving Jewish grandmother. Grandma Rubenfeld had actually directed that her granddaughters to call her Popo, a point Ms. Chua makes without defining the word. I think Ms. Chua could have cut her Popo some slack and acknowledged Ms. Rubenfeld’s apparent respect for Tiger Mom’s Chinese side of the family.

Panda Dad Alan Paul, the author of a touching book on life in Beijing with his journalist wife and three kids they plucked out of New Jersey (full disclosure: a friend of Jonathan’s whom I’ve met, and Jonathan is mentioned in the book), reacted to Tiger Mom’s parenting methods with points about raising responsible, flexible children with flexibility. This resonated more with me than Tiger Mom’s rants about everything from rigid hours of music practice to no sleepovers. Although I can’t help thinking that Ms. Chua’s most extreme bombast was geared to sell books, a Chinese-American friend here in the Bay Area confirmed that her parents were very demanding and hypercritical, too. The Amy (Chinese name Li Xuebai) in our family, on the other hand, told me that her Chinese parents in China raised her with expectations but a lot of praise, too.

I’m way past the on-site parenting stage, but I take the popo role seriously.  Amy calls me “Ma,” which delights me. The Chinese connection has enriched our family tremendously, and our Jewish family life has done the same for her. For one thing, she’s proud to be (probably) the only member of the Chinese Communist party (more a prestige/politic credential than a true political one these days) who’s also a life member of Hadassah, the nearly 100 year old organization that supports medical and vocational education institutions in Israel. When we as a family visited the main Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem four years ago, I made this point to our tour guide, who wasn’t that impressed. Jonathan also reports that Amy makes a terrific matzah brie, and she’s studying Judaism.

Because of the distance and multiple time zones between us, it’s challenging to be the mother of an expat young “Old China hand,” but being a Jewish popo is one of the benefits.

*婆 = Popo

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