When John first told his parents about me, here’s what his father said: “You can be friends with foreign women but not date them.”
Anxious doesn’t even start to describe the way I felt after John said this to me. And, believe me, I had reason to worry. My previous relationship with a Chinese guy ended in an ugly breakup simply because he could never take me home to meet the parents. He said his mom and dad would never accept having a foreign woman in the family. Ever.
Growing up in a very white, very middle class suburb of Midwestern America did nothing to prepare me for surviving meeting the parents in China. It’s the complete opposite from the casual way I used to shake hands and chat with a white guy’s mom and dad back in America, even on the first date! How was I supposed to know that meeting the parents in China was as serious as an engagement announcement, a promise of wedding bells in the near future? For that matter, how could I have ever guessed on the many other cultural pitfalls on the pathway to becoming the foreign wife of a Chinese man?
Here are four things that I’ve found challenging about meeting the parents and family in intercultural and international relationships:
1. When the Family Doesn’t Want You to Date
When your boyfriend’s father says you should be friends but not date, it’s the polar opposite of getting that ever-coveted family blessing. And even if your boyfriend smiles and reassures you it’s not a big deal (like John did), in your mind you’re envisioning all of the future family feuding over your relationship. And, quite possibly, a breakup on the horizon.
Yes, it’s a huge headache and then some. Still, John and I survived it, all because he insisted on staying by my side. (Never thought I would say this, but thank goodness for John’s stubbornness!) We’re living proof that you can indeed overcome this, provided you and your partner are totally committed to the relationship. Just realize you might be in for a very bumpy ride if the parents initially say “no” – the kind that could make the movie “Meet the Parents” look like kindergarten stuff.
2. When Relatives Say Totally Inappropriate Things About Your Relationship
Back in May, I ran a guest post from the blogger behind Big Asian Package, a Chinese American guy who shared his crushing experience meeting the family of his white girlfriend:
“Are you happy about those secrets?” said a voice from beside me.
“What? I’m sorry?” I said. It was my girlfriend’s grandpa.
“The nuclear secrets. I know you came here to steal from us,” said her grandpa,
“I go to school…” I say, protesting.
“You’re Chinese, I know you are,” he says quietly, triumphantly, like he’s got me checkmated.
“Yes,” I say, now seriously confused, not quite believing what I’m hearing.
Oh my. There’s nothing like a racist comment or two from grandpa to turn meeting the family into one of the most chilling experiences you’ll ever have.
Sometimes it’s not even a direct attack, but an assumption based on stereotypes or prejudice. Like how I’ve heard some relatives praise John for being great at computers (because, of course, all Chinese are that way….). If only they knew that my husband calls on me for all things computer and tech-related. (I’m the one who just set up his new smartphone!)
People have even expressed concern about the fact that John and I have a bilingual relationship, and have cautioned us against speaking one language too much over another. (Insert image of me banging my head on a wall.)
What makes this super-hard is the fact that you’re often related to the people in question. You’re not exactly going to win points with family by calling grandpa a racist.
That doesn’t mean you always have to let these things go. Over the years, I’ve had some really thoughtful conversations with family about racism and prejudice. John and I have educated relatives about what modern racism actually looks like (it’s not what you think it is) and, in the process, become even closer as a family. Who’d have thought you could bond over stuff like this?
3. When the Family Gets Confused by Your Relationship
Yocelyn of My Chinese Boyfriend voiced another issue with meeting the parents:
@jossailin I don’t think our families could comprehend our relationship at first. They were too confused by it. 😛
— My Chinese Boyfriend (@MyChineseBF) May 15, 2015
I don’t think our families could comprehend our relationship at first. They were too confused by it. 😛
What happens if parents aren’t in opposition to you, but they just don’t understand why you would want to be with this person?
I’ve only ever experienced this with other expats – people totally mystified by how a white American woman would even think of dating Chinese men in China. Let me tell you, it already hurts even when someone you’re not related to suddenly thinks it’s weird to date this amazing person you’re deeply in love with. I can only imagine the pain you’d feel when people who you’re stuck with by marriage or blood think this way about your relationship.
Love just happens between two people for good reasons. Why can’t the people we care about understand why we love someone as well?
Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that everyone will always understand us 100 percent of the time, including relatives. Which means that some of us will get the questions and odd looks from family when we decide to date “outside the box”, so to speak.
I don’t know that I can say anything to make a situation like this better. I’d like to hope that things will get better for you with time, and chances are they will, but who really knows?
Still, whatever challenges you face with the family, remember that you’re not alone. There are lots of people out there in interracial, intercultural and (like in my case) international relationships who have survived all sorts of familial scrutiny. People like me, who have lived to tell the tale – and will be happy to listen to your stories, nodding as we say, “Yes, I’ve been there and I’m here for you too.”