Ask the Yangxifu: Meeting the Chinese Parents in America

Chinese parents sitting before a laptop computer
An American woman with a Chinese boyfriend will meet his parents for the first time at his graduation. How can she impress them?

american girlfriend asks:

I have a fairly new boyfriend and he is Chinese. We have been going out for 2 months, but it feels right. Anyway, down to the meat of my question. He is graduating from University in May with a Masters and his parents will be flying from China to visit for his graduation.
1) I don’t know how to greet them or what to give them as a gift. I’ve read your “
Giving Gifts to your Chinese family – A Modest Guide” and while it makes sense for if I were to travel to China, I’m not sure if it still applies when they are coming to the USA.
2) I want to make my boyfriend proud and greet them properly because I want them to still approve of our relationship when they meet me face to face. They have given approval so far, but I don’t want to mess anything up!

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Sounds like this is going to be a double graduation — with the second one being you graduating to a new step in the relationship: meeting the Chinese parents.

The good news is, his parents approve (unlike my situation). Plus, you’re dealing with Chinese culture, where people show love and concern through actions, not words. Plus, in their eyes, you’re still a “foreigner” — and that means they expect you to screw up the etiquette every now and then. (Whew!)

When you say “greet them,” I’m not sure if you mean actual phrases, behavior/appearance, or all of the above. I’ll go for all of the above (I was, after all, a big fan of “all of the above” in multiple choice tests).

First of all, ask your Chinese boyfriend how to address them — preferably in his local dialect, and according to local custom. Where my husband is from, the etiquette goes like this: you could call them Shushu (叔叔, [shūshu], Uncle) and Ayi (阿姨, [āyí], Aunt) if they’re younger than your parents, or Bofu (伯父, [bófù], Older uncle) and Bomu (伯母, [bómǔ], Older aunt) if they’re older than your parents. Just don’t refer to them as, say, Mr. or Mrs. Zhou — only strangers would call them that, and you don’t want to make yourself any “stranger” than you have to. 😉

Second, look “the part.” Remember, many Chinese parents think foreign women are Anna Nicole Smith lookalikes — doesn’t exactly scream “model daughter-in-law,” does it? No matter what Vogue tells you, when his parents are in town, showing cleavage or too much leg is definitely not in style.

Feel free to shake hands, but forget about giving his parents one of Aunt Bertha’s big bear hugs (or, for that matter, wet kisses). Chinese families just don’t show love like that.

As for your gift problem, meet my newest gift guide — Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family/Relatives. Off the top of my head, I’d say you can’t go wrong with American Ginseng products and/or vitamins, but check with your Chinese boyfriend. And don’t forget the gift wrap, gift boxes, and/or gift bags! My Chinese mother-in-law once threw a fit when she watched my Chinese father-in-law obliterate the matching gift boxes/bags that came with the smoked tofu I planned to send in the mail.

When it comes to actual phrases to use with them, here’s the deal. Simply speaking Chinese — even a little — will impress them and make your Chinese boyfriend very, very proud. You don’t need to know any special phrases or greetings, beyond what you’ll find in any typical Mandarin Chinese phrasebook (or Chinesepod for online help, or the ever-popular Pimsleur Language Series CDs). Even if you pulled something a la My Big Fat Greek Wedding (where instead of saying “come into the house everyone,” Ian announces “I have three testicles”), chances are you’ll provide some ice-breaking comic relief.

But if you really want to build goodwill, don’t forget this important phrase — chiguofanle ma? (吃过饭了吗?Have you eaten yet?) That’s because the dining room table is where the real relationship building begins. Invite the whole family out to eat. Or have them over for dinner if you’ve, say, mastered that recipe for Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork. The suggestion of sumptuous meal, together, is perhaps the best way to welcome them to the US — and bring them a little closer to welcoming you into their family.

Good luck!

P.S.: Get additional suggestions on etiquette and behavior during their stay by checking out some of my past Ask the Yangxifu answers — including impressing the Chinese parents during Chinese New Year, and building a better relationship with a Chinese mother-in-law.

What do you think? What advice do you have?

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Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

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11 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Meeting the Chinese Parents in America

  • March 4, 2011 at 2:17 am
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    I would say to just be friendly and take your cues from them, as all families are different (even Chinese families). When I met my husband’s grandma for the very first time, I had barely gotten the words, “Ni hao” out of my mouth before she wrapped me up in a big bear hug!!
    Follow their lead, and your boyfriend’s, and be yourself. 🙂

    Reply
  • March 4, 2011 at 4:14 am
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    This is all great advice! And I agree with Kelly above, definitely take the cues from the family. Who knows, they may go for a hug because it’s ‘American!’

    It’s really good that you’re making the effort to find out how to greet them, and it’s definitely a good idea to keep learning about their culture. This may sound small, but learn how to use chopsticks if you don’t know how. You’ll probably be eating some Chinese food while their stateside and maybe well into the future. I speak from experience when I say Chinese will love if you can use chopsticks like a natural.

    Don’t worry *too* much. The fact that you’re taking initiative is really positive, and just keep asking and learning. Good luck!

    Reply
  • March 4, 2011 at 5:28 am
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    ellis is Right
    just hug them (入乡随俗=when in Rome, do as the Romans do,Right? )LOL! they will love it!
    Don’t worry and Relax

    Reply
  • March 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm
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    Jocelyn, I think you got it pat down when it comes to understanding Chinese culture, especially that part about 吃过饭了马(have you eaten?). ellis, I agree with you about using or trying to use chopsticks. That will impress. I am not too sure about the hugging part, unless of course you want to give the boy’s parents a shock ! If, however, the parents are modern, not the conservative type, then it may be alright. But there is no need for rush here.

    Reply
  • March 5, 2011 at 4:47 am
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    Personally I would avoid hugging, If its there first time visiting America, Then there bound to be experiencing lots of other types of culture shock, So I don’t think it would be a good idea hugging them. I think using even some simple Chinese like Ni hao etc and using chopsticks will impress them and show them that you are trying your best

    Reply
  • March 5, 2011 at 5:11 am
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    Do not forget to ask after their other children and family members!!!! It will show them that you are not just interested in your boyfirend but his family as well. When they come to your home, have some slippers for them to wear as well.

    If his mother- or his father even, enjoying cooking, while you are eating and if you made the Chinese dishes suggested, ask about how his mother would cook it, or how her’s taste.

    Big thing I have always found with Chinese men, thier mothers feel as if we want to steal them away and not want them to be Chinese anymore!!!! Take your cues from them. You’ll be fine!!!!

    Reply
  • March 5, 2011 at 5:29 pm
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    Love truly is blind, but the true beauty of it lies beneath it. As a man that grew in very traditional Chinese (thought me my self is a rebel) value even make me prouder as Chinese rather known by my registered nationality. I knew that man from my kind of the sort never show the affection, love openly for it meant and so private for us, so please be patient and above of all be your self. For we the traditional dudes always love to seek the real thee. So don’t be another person that you’re not although you must adapt a little bit in the Chinese basic tradition.

    Reply
  • March 5, 2011 at 5:39 pm
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    And as the parents, well they love the children more than anything at all thought some quite shy to show it. If meeting with the parents then be your self and not to openly showing up unless that your man and parents give a clue to be go ahead. An open word like ni hao would do the trick if you don’t know the Chinese language so much.
    And as I said before that the parents if you can make a good impression especially at the first meeting (remember always be your self for they have very keen sense to know that you’re just act or not) as a good person that you are and you love their son above of anything, trust me soon or later they shall melt. The affection not always by the gift but also attention and care. Last but not the least we’re the Chinese if you married to us then you married to the whole package especially if a man for Chinese man has the honor to care and protect their family especially if that man the sole male in the family and like wise we also shall gave care to your family too, for this the way not only we show our love to our spouse but also it also the duty and honor that must not be avoided, so I guess good bye Elder home.

    Reply
  • March 10, 2011 at 3:01 am
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    Hugging is a bad idea. That would make you even more of a foreigner. I would approach everything with the assumption that they are still open minded upon the first impression. Make sure you make them comfortable in terms of culture and behavior. I think the blog did a good job, but I would definitely expect the ice to melt very gradually rather than right away. Once you win their approval though, I would imagine it’s smooth sailing!

    Reply
  • March 10, 2011 at 11:52 am
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    Oh thank you! I’m glad you were able to help me. I was able to ask my boyfriend to start teaching me Chinese this past weekend, and I’ve been practicing all week. I have a few words down. (I think!)

    The exciting thing is that as I learn more about the Chinese culture and his parents, I share the information with my family. Now we have started a list of ideas for gifts for his parents.

    Thankfully, I already know how to use chopsticks since I’ve used them for almost 2/3 of my life. Actually, my boyfriend has commented that I’m better with chopsticks than with a fork and knife. He told his parents and they were so excited that their son was dating a girl who could use chopsticks.

    Again, thank you for all the wonderful help and ideas. I’m so glad I stumbled across this corner of the web.

    Reply
  • June 8, 2017 at 9:51 am
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    Boy, am I glad that didn’t have to follow follow all these old traditions. I never mentioned my western fiancee to my parents because I didn’t want them to object, get nosy and keep poking as they are known to do, well intended that it might be. Living 2500 miles away ( I was in Honolulu and they were in San Francisco) really helped with my news blackout. When we decided to get married, then I introduced her to them. They had nothing to say about my choice. Both my brother and I never really took to heart the parents’ edict of “thou shall marry a Chinese girl”. Of course it helped very much that my brother and I never had to be subsidized financially by my parents. My California native cousins did and boy did their parents keep them on a short leash on a choice of mates.
    My parents didn’t utter any objections after my “unveiling” of a fiancee and they learned to accept her 100% in about a year.

    Reply

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