I started teaching English in China this past fall, and met a wonderful Chinese man. I never expected to have a Chinese boyfriend, or expected it so soon! But we’ve been dating since October, and are very much in love.
However, I am really starting to freak out because he asked me to spend Chinese New Year at his parents home. I am so concerned about meeting his parents. I know family is a really big deal in China, and it seems that if they don’t like me, my boyfriend and I don’t have a future. I really need to impress them! I’ve only started learning Mandarin, so I’m barely proficient, but I guess a little is better than none at all.
I’m definitely going to bring gifts (thanks so much for the great suggestions!).
But I was wondering what other advice you might have — specifically, what should I do to make the visit go smoothly? I really could use some help! Thanks!
First of all, congratulations on finding a wonderful man to date! I wish the both of you a wonderful relationship.
I can understand your concerns. Not long ago, I too faced a Chinese New Year visit with the family of my then-Chinese boyfriend (now husband). I had never met them before, and all I knew of his parents was they had said it was okay to date a foreign girl, but not marry her. Not exactly what you’d call the basis for good first impressions.
But, I eventually charmed them, and married him.
One thing that might help to remember is this — In general, Chinese don’t date casually. They date with the intent to marry. You’ve been together for more than three months, and he’s taking you home to meet the parents — all good signs.
Every Chinese family, obviously, will be different, and react differently to you — so I can’t guarantee marriage for you too. But there are some things you can do to improve your chances of making a smashing first impression:
- Gifts are a must for the family, as you already know. It’s the best way to create goodwill from the first “Ni Hao” (after all, Chinese people tend to show their feelings through indirect means, such as gifts, so it’s a language they understand). I’d follow the gift-giving suggestions I’ve laid out, leaning towards vitamins for his parents and grandparents. Find out what other relatives will be present and bring something for them, too. And don’t forget the “emergency gifts” (you know, for the unexpected friends or relatives). Since you’re based in China, I’d recommend local specialty products (great if his hometown is outside of where you currently live), nice tea, or Western-style pastries as emergency gifts.
- Avoid physical contact with your Chinese boyfriend in front of his family. I’ve never seen my husband’s family members hug, kiss or even hold hands in front of us. Additionally, it will only reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that all Western women are “easy” or “seductresses.”
- Defer to his family, especially the elders. Chinese families prize filial behavior and deference to elders. That means being more passive — let his family “set the schedule” and be in charge. Don’t worry, you won’t be “hostage.” If anything, you’ll have a lot of free time, because it is Chinese New Year (a holiday that, as Peter Hessler once wrote, seems to be built around watching lots of television). But if they plan meals or have outings or other activities, go along and be a good guest (such as, being the last to sit at the table). Avoid complaining in public, even about annoyances like smoking (try, instead, to resolve issues with the help of your boyfriend). They will appreciate you for this.
- Bring photos to share. They’re a great way to “break the ice” with his family and make a personal connection. Things were pretty tense that first Chinese New Year I spent with my Chinese husband — but when I brought out the photos of my family and vacations, suddenly his parents began talking with me. It was a real turning point.
- Don’t talk about your relationship with his family, unless they ask you. I doubt they will — love is still an embarrassing, highly personal topic in China.
- Don’t talk about where you might live in the future. I’m assuming your Chinese boyfriend is an only child. If he is, his parents might worry that a foreign girl will take him away from China — leaving nobody to care for them in old age. If anyone presses you about staying indefinitely in China, simply give a vague, noncommittal answer, such as “that’s interesting.”
- Bring a nice, new outfit to wear. In Chinese New Year, everyone wears new clothing on the first day of the new year for good luck — so why not take the opportunity to impress your potential inlaws? When I first “met the parents,” I had a Tang-dynasty style jacket and skirt tailor-made just for the occasion. Of course, it was freezing and I only wore it part of the Chinese New Year’s day. But it left a lasting impression. Now, whether it was the clothing, or how fast I changed out of it, I’ll never know.
Good luck, Kelley — hope the year of the Tiger will be auspicious for you, especially in love!
P.S.: While this is written for a woman with a Chinese boyfriend, it essentially applies to men with a Chinese girlfriend. Men, your additional problem will be pressure to drink alcohol or smoke at the table, especially the alcohol. Even though Chinese see drinking and smoking as a way of expressing friendship or building relationships, you won’t offend anyone if you refuse. However, you may need to refuse strongly, because Chinese can be pretty heavy-handed (and, sometimes, even sneaky) about getting alcohol into your glass.
Do you have a question about dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, Iâ€™ll choose one question and answer it on my blog. Send me your question today.