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!
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.
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?
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.