6 Ways to Prepare for Meeting the Parents in China

“Nervous” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I was about to meet John’s parents in rural Hangzhou for the first time. After all, once John told his parents he was dating me, his father famously told him that while he could be friends with a foreign girl, but shouldn’t date her.

Ouch.

Meeting the parents inspires all sorts of anxiety no matter where you live in the world – but even more so when you’re a foreigner and you’re about to meet the parents of your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend here in China. On top of all the usual pitfalls, you’re also dealing with a different culture, language and living customs. It’s like getting ready for an exam when you don’t even know the entire curriculum.

Fortunately, I’ve survived meeting the parents. And I’ve heard from a lot of others who have successfully made it through. Here are 6 tips I’ve learned over the years to help you prepare for meeting the parents in China:

1. Ask your girlfriend or boyfriend all about their parents

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My husband’s mother is a fantastic cook.

There’s always a story behind everyone’s parents. Why not find out? It’s a great way to get to know them before you actually meet them and figure out potential ways to bond with them.

I always wish I had done this before I first met John’s parents. Maybe then I would have figured out how much his mom loves to cook – just like me — and asked to watch her in the kitchen more? Or that his dad likes to read classic Chinese texts – which I’m always interested in — so I could have asked him about, say, Confucianism or Taoist stories.

2. Learn everything you can about the hometown

John's hometown is famous for this mountain at the center of it all.
John’s hometown is famous for this mountain at the center of it all.

One thing I’ve learned from years of living in China? Everyone has a little hometown pride. So if you want to get a little closer to the parents, what better way than to learn about their hometown?

Start with your boyfriend or girlfriend first – they’re your closest experts – and also don’t forget to consult travel guides (which, depending on what attractions/history the hometown has, might tell you something). Most Chinese cities and counties even have Wikipedia pages in English, which might even teach you something your significant other doesn’t know.

3. Prepare gifts for the family

By Goaname (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Goaname (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gift giving is such an important thing in Chinese culture – so important, that you don’t want to show up to your first meeting with the parents without a gift in your hands. Chances are, they’re going to entertain you with a home-cooked dinner and even put you up for the night. There’s no better way to show your appreciation from the moment you enter their home than bearing a present for them.

I’ve written a number of posts on what to give to your Chinese family (including ideas for those of you coming to China from overseas). Honestly, I would ask your girlfriend or boyfriend first for some ideas before rushing out to the store.

But if they can’t think of anything – and you’re still stumped about what to purchase – repeat after me: fruit basket. You really can’t go wrong with buying them a nice fruit basket. You’ll find fruit baskets at any major supermarket in China or those fruit stores on the street. Everyone loves them.

4. Learn a few phrases in the local dialect

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My husband’s grandmother only speaks the local dialect.

Mandarin Chinese may be the official language – but chances are, it’s not your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s mother tongue. The vast majority of people grew up speaking a local dialect. It’s their linguistic equivalent of that comfy pair of jeans you love wearing around the house, and that’s what you’ll probably hear around the dinner table.

Just think how amazed they’ll be if you can master a handful of simple words or phrases in the local dialect! Even if it’s as elementary as “Hello” or “Thank you” you’ll probably have everyone in smiles. Or laughing! After all, you’re probably the first foreigner they’ve ever seen speaking it. (My husband always giggles whenever I try out his local dialect!)

5. Dress casual, comfortable and err on the conservative side

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Here in urban China, I’ve seen enough Daisy Dukes, mini-skirts and skorts, and tank tops to know that fashion has come a long way since the days of dull blue and gray Mao suits. And after witnessing my sister-in-law pull off an ultra-short jean skort at Grandpa’s funeral – something I would have never dared to do for a funeral in the US — I also know that my idea of what’s appropriate doesn’t always apply.

Still, if you want to give Baba and Mama a great first impression, you’re better off leaving your Daisy Dukes and ultra mini-skirts behind. Many Chinese parents feel wary about having foreigners in the family, and stereotypes about foreigners (such as the idea that Western women are promiscuous) only fuel their concerns. Yeah, I know it’s unfair, but that’s the reality.

Look at it this way. Even in Western countries – like the US, my home country – people agonize over what to wear to meet the parents for the first time, enough to write articles about it. Here’s what one of them wrote: “No matter how classy your mini-dress is, his mom will say the skirt was too short.”

Enough said.

Instead, go for something that’s casual, comfortable and on the conservative side. Think nice jeans and T-shirts (with long or short sleeves) or sweaters if it’s cooler out; for summer, you can do nice shorts or skirts just above the knee or below.

Forget about wearing a nice dress or suit, unless you’re told otherwise. This is, after all, a country where people routinely show up to wedding banquets dressed in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. Seriously!

5. Dress to stay warm enough in their home

Even though John's hometown is not that cold in the wintertime, I must wear multiple layers to stay warm inside homes without central heating.
Even though John’s hometown is not that cold in the wintertime, I must wear multiple layers to stay warm inside homes without central heating.

My husband is still shocked that I never used to wear long johns under my clothing while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Even though I faced a winter that could last as long as four months or more, with below-freezing temperatures and tons of snow, staying warm was never an issue. We had central heating at home and pretty much anywhere we traveled. Even our car had heat.

Meanwhile, my husband’s hometown sits at the very same latitude as New Orleans and Houston, and he’s spent his entire life counting on long johns to help stay warm through the fall, winter and spring. Why? Because he’s used to having no heat inside the house, wherever he is – even in school.

So don’t just look at the weather when you’re packing your bags – ask your girlfriend or boyfriend what it’s actually like in their home. Find out whether they have any heat, including hot water, and if it will be available when you’re there. Also, ask him or her what they usually wear around the house at home.

Here’s a good general rule of thumb – China’s Yangtze river is like the Mason-Dixon line of heating through the country, where North of that people usually have some form of heat provided by the government (they turn it on sometime in November and off sometime in April) and South of that people do without. That said, there are ALWAYS exceptions and it pays to ask ahead of time.

And please, if you’re traveling during the winter months, don’t forget your long johns – trust me!

6. Bring photos

I brought photos like this one of me and my grandmother to show to John's parents.
I brought photos like this one of me and my grandmother to show to John’s parents.

As the old cliché goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words – and who couldn’t use an extra thousand words or two when you’re in front of two parents you’ve never met? Photographs provide a perfect way for you to connect with your significant other’s Baba and Mama without saying a lot. You can show them your family, pictures from your hometown and even the beautiful places you’ve visited. Thanks to the photos I lugged around to my first visit to meet John’s parents, I was able to break the ice with his dad and finally make a connection – enough to make him realize I was the kind of foreign girl worth dating (and, later, marrying).

What has been your experience with meeting the parents? What advice do you have?

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24 thoughts on “6 Ways to Prepare for Meeting the Parents in China

  • November 17, 2014 at 7:28 am
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    Thank you for writing this post. With my upcoming marriage to my Shanghai born and raised sweetheart in about 6 weeks, I will be traveling there to meet the parents (and ALL the rest of the family including two sisters, their husbands and children because they were all born long before China’s one child policy).

    My problem is that he doesn’t tell me much about them when I ask about then! And since my attempts to learn Mandarin have led to laughter and tears on both of our parts, I suspect even a few words of Shanghaiese will be beyond me.

    Your advice is very helpful. I will plan on a book of pictures of my family and of us here in the US and keep trying to figure out what gifts I can bring beyond a fruit basket.

    Reply
    • February 26, 2015 at 3:56 am
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      I’m late to this post and wondering how your visit went. Meeting my Chinese-American boyfriend’s parents inspired my blog, and I always wonder how other Western women did when meeting the boyfriend’s Chinese parents!

      Reply
  • November 17, 2014 at 8:38 am
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    I first met my husband’s parents and the rest of his family at a wedding (immediate and extended). It actually went really well because my husband’s older brother just got back from studying in Canada so we could exchange stories about Canada. Plus, I used the little Chinese I knew at the time to communicate with everyone.

    Reply
  • November 17, 2014 at 2:17 pm
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    I remember meeting my mother-in-law the first time. I don’t think I was all the nervous. My husband must have put me at ease about the whole thing. I think it was kinda out-of-the-blue that he casually announced, “Let’s go out for dinner tonight, okay? BTW, my mom’s gonna be there.”

    I never thought about it much until recently, but I’m really grateful that I live somewhere (a medium-sized city in Hebei) where Mandarin is almost everyone’s first language. I’ve begun to realize that this is not the case for many places, even nearby villages. It makes things a bit easier!

    Oh, and I agree, fruit baskets are a great gift in China! I think this was mentioned in a previous post, but food and snacks from abroad (if that’s where you are coming from) is also appreciated. Chinese men usually love a nice pack of cigarettes and women love cosmetics. Many people also seem to appreciate things like foreign vitamins, too, though that might be a better gift later on. Don’t be too cheap either. Chinese people will often look up the price of stuff online to see how much you spent!!

    Reply
  • November 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm
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    Great post! Wish I would’ve read this a couple of years ago. 😀
    My husband’s family is living in a big city but I can still relate to most of your points, especially about the clothes being conservative. Definately one should learn about the culture. Always look if they need more rice, more tea etc. as if you care about them more than about yourself. It’s important to be VERY respectful. 🙂

    Reply
  • November 17, 2014 at 7:19 pm
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    Very good advice, all of them!

    When I first met my boyfriend’s parents everything went well and they were more nervous than me! I didn’t bring any gifts as we met for dinner in a restaurant, not in their place. But afterwards, every time I’ve been to Spain, I’ve brought them gifts. His mum also prepares gifts to give to my parents every time I go back. It is a constant gift exchanging and I don’t know what else I can possibly buy for them in Spain haha. Last time I told his mum this gift thing has to end!! We don’t need to buy each other presents all the time, haha.

    I have tried to learn some simple things in Suzhou dialect but OMG, they have the weirdest consonant sounds I have ever heard… it is impossible to pronounce!!

    I hear you about the long johns (I think this word is so funny, haha)! I’ve never felt more cold in my life than during winter in Shanghai and Suzhou.

    Reply
  • November 18, 2014 at 1:42 am
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    I prepared more or less in a similar way but especially learning phrases in the local dialect was especially back then impossible for me.
    Other than that I tried to learn everything about my future in-laws beforehand and bought things they would like.

    Thankfully I had been always during summer and autumn in Xi’an so it was always either too hot or warm enough that I did not have to worry about warm clothes. Now my in-laws also got a heating system installed in the entire block and the occasional visit during winter time shouldnt be a problem anymore 🙂

    Reply
  • November 18, 2014 at 5:07 am
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    This is a great post. I wish I read this before I visited my boyfriend’s family in China for the first time. I’m a very artsy, free-spirited kinda gal…conservative is not in my nature or vocabulary. I actually went out and bought some clothing on the conservative side before I met them because my style is a bit eccentric. Next time I will definitely plan on taking the time to learn a few phrases in their dialect and take a gift to show my appreciation. During my visit I went with the family on many trips together exploring different parts of China. I had my fancy camera took many photographs of them and printed after as a gift. That made them happy. 🙂

    Reply
  • November 18, 2014 at 12:49 pm
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    The first time I met my Chinese father-in-law, I’d given birth to my third daughter three weeks earlier and was worn out from that and from traveling from Seattle to Hong Kong to spend a few days with him on our way to Manila where we were moving. It was a frantic time. About all I could do was smile and follow along while I either carried the baby or held the hands of the other two (ages one and three.) All I can say was that my skirts were long enough. Also my oldest daughter got on his good side by asking for thirds on the shrimp dumplings.

    Reply
  • November 18, 2014 at 6:05 pm
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    It’s so wonderful to read others’ experiences!

    I first met my husband’s parents very late at night at the airport in their hometown and my nerves had kicked in about 6 hours before when we were delayed before our transfer flight. Smiling is a universal language and I pretty much relied on that for a few days before my Chinese started coming back to me.

    It sounds like most of the commenters here are very lucky to have welcoming and open-minded in-laws 🙂

    Reply
  • November 19, 2014 at 7:21 am
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    Wow all these tips are spot on! I think if any girl follows all six of your tips up there she’ll definitely win the parents over no problem.

    I recently met my boyfriend’s parents for the first time and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. While western parents are more easygoing and think ‘oh we’ll see where this one goes’ and laugh it off, Asian parents (particularly Chinese ones) meet their child’s special someone with marriage on the mind. Knowing this, I was waaaaaaaaaaaay intimidated and nervous.

    My Chinese boyfriend also told his parents I spoke Chinese, but neglected to tell them that I wasn’t actually Chinese. I think they were quite bewildered when they saw me and realized that my boyfriend forget one major detail.

    Anyway, it all ended well (although I wish I learned a few phrases of Sichuan dialect before going in there). I think I passed the initial test and it seems like his parents are A-ok with a potential non-Chinese daughter-in-law.

    I gave his parents a present for our first meeting, and in return his mother gave me some Benjamin Franklins in a red envelope. I was floored–even my own family doesn’t give me that much money! When I asked around my Chinese friends told me this was a normal, traditional gesture. Do Chinese parents always give money upon first meeting their child’s bf/gf? Or is it kind of a “you have my approval” type gesture?

    Reply
    • November 21, 2014 at 3:03 pm
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      When I met my ex-boyfriend’s (Cantonese) parents who were settled in the UK they gave me a red envelope when we were leaving – with £100 in!!! That’s like the amount I may get from parents on Christmas to buy a nice Christmas treat. I felt so uncomfortable as I didn’t see how I could reciprocate fully. So generous!

      Reply
    • February 26, 2015 at 4:00 am
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      That’s funny — both about your boyfriend neglecting one tiny little detail and the red envelope. I did not earn a red envelope when I met my Chinese-American boyfriend’s parents! Now I am jealous.

      Reply
  • November 19, 2014 at 12:40 pm
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    All excellent advice! I wish I’d gotten the chance to prepare before meeting my husband’s mother. Unfortunately he sprang it on me one weekend, just as I was finishing up work at a fashion eventーdressed in short shorts and rather bright clothes, and we were to meet her an hour later. It was not the first impression I wanted to make. >_> She was very diplomatic though and asked if I wasn’t cold, haha!
    I made sure to be better prepared ahead of meeting his whole family, but I7m still a little mad at him that he didn’t at least give me notice a day in advance!

    Reply
  • November 20, 2014 at 6:06 am
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    6 Ways to Prepare for Meeting the White Parents in the US?

    Reply
  • November 22, 2014 at 2:11 pm
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    #5 is the one I wish I’d understood more fully before I went to China to meet the in-laws over Xmas. Having spent winters skiing in Vermont, I’d assumed I’d be ready for whatever Wuhan could throw at me. However, I didn’t realize how truly miserable it could be to feel unrelenting cold from when we left our hotel in the morning until we came back at night (tourist sites, museums, restaurants, department stores, all unheated). It also didn’t help that everyone likes to leave the windows wide open in the middle of winter. I actually found Beijing more pleasant because you could always step into a shop to get a respite from the cold.

    Reply
  • November 23, 2014 at 10:03 am
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    My English is poor,but now I am learn english very hard. I am glad to hear about you .How it going now?ahout you parent’s attitud to chiese guy.I pay close attention to you story.

    Reply
  • November 26, 2014 at 5:04 pm
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    I always freak out about #3 as I am so bad at picking presents and frankly my boyfriend’s family is not the easiest to please. I almost always end up buying chocolate and sweets at the airport just to avoid to show up empty – handed.. I count on their sweet tooth! Am I so bad of a girlfriend?

    Reply
  • December 8, 2014 at 2:31 pm
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    If the time ever comes, thanks for the tips 🙂

    Reply
  • December 10, 2014 at 6:14 am
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    Breathe. 😀 That is my best advice, along with your points. I was also anxious to meet hubby’s parents. This meant lots of high pitched giggling and wheezing but my future inlaws were laid back and lovely.

    Reply
  • February 26, 2015 at 4:10 am
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    Wow. I wish this post had existed and I had read it before I met my boyfriend’s parents. He’s American born, but his parents were raised in southern China before fleeing to Hong Kong and ending up in Hawaii. Although…I probably didn’t have a shot at being modest without suffering heat stroke, since I met them in Honolulu in the summer.

    My boyfriend gave me very little background information on his parents, and I stupidly did not press for more details. So I would suggest getting your significant other drunk and then asking the probing questions. 🙂

    Reply
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  • June 9, 2017 at 11:07 am
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    I just love reading your blog. I feel like we’re cut from the same cloth.

    I’ve been dating my boyfriend for almost a year now and we were discussing meeting his parents. Unfortunately they only speak Cantonese, so I’ve been trying to learn the basics. This post and all the discussion is helpful!

    Reply

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