My Chinese In-laws’ No-Drama Goodbye

A rubber yellow hand on a stick, as if waving goodbye
The way my Chinese in-laws said goodbye to John and I, it could have been any other morning. But it wasn't -- we were leaving for the US, for another two years. (photo by Alexandre Caliman)

It looked like every other morning when I’d left my Chinese in-laws’ home this summer. My Chinese mother-in-law grumbled about how large our bags were, but then proceeded to push more honey pears and mooncakes into our backpacks. As usual, my Chinese father-in-law paced around the first floor like an expectant father – and only stopped when we climbed into my oldest brother-in-law’s car. Through the window, they appeared with the same calm and content face I remembered every morning, pushing heaping plates of breakfast my way (on this day, I had vegetarian dumplings stuffed with tofu and pickled vegetables and sweet fried rice pancakes) while asking why I’d risen so late from bed.

But this was not just any morning. John and I left his home for the US – which meant we wouldn’t see his family for another two years. When I waved at my Chinese mother-in-law and father-in-law through the window, that was the closest to a “goodbye” that we had.

As I thought about that moment over and over at Shanghai Pudong Airport, I couldn’t help but wonder – is that all there is?

Goodbyes – especially when they have to last two years (that’s how often we get back to China) – are the stuff of theatrics in my family, even though we’re as reserved as Midwestern Catholics go. My grandmother starts crying even before we’ve said farewell, prompting another round of hugs and promises to call her soon. Even my dad – “Mr. unemotional” – gets choked up and even sheds a tear or two when we have to leave each other for a long time.

“They didn’t really say they would miss us,” I told John after dinner at the airport.

He gave me the kind of grin that meant he thought I was both funny to think so, and a little ridiculous at the same time. “No need to say such things to family. It’s unnecessary. Anyhow, they show their feelings through actions.” Now that I thought about it, my Chinese mother-in-law did make me enough breakfast to feed our entire household. And days before we left my Chinese father-in-law tucked another stack of RMB into John’s wallet, insisting we didn’t have enough.

“But they don’t worry about the fact we’ll be gone for two years?”

John laughed. “Of course not! They know we’ll be back in two years, so it’s fine.” Which begs the question, would it be any different if we were, say, leaving for good? I don’t know.

But maybe it’s easier this way, with the kind of goodbye that suggests this is just another day — and not the day we’re leaving for the US. After all, I could use a little less drama in my life, for once. 😉

How is it when Chinese family or friends say goodbye to you?

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18 thoughts on “My Chinese In-laws’ No-Drama Goodbye

  • August 22, 2011 at 2:36 am
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    Hi Jocelyn,

    Thank you for sharing. I grew up in a Chinese family in Hong Kong. Though I have spent the last eleven years in Melbourne away from home, at the end of every rare visit I have made to Hong Kong, my family will nag me (though I am thirty years old now!) how I should pack my luggage and what to bring along with me, instead of spending some quality time with me as a family.
    Asians, especially traditional parents, are just not very good with words. For many years, I wish I had grown up in the west in a culture whether physical affection is shown. Let’s put it this way: my love languages are physical touch and quality time! And I don’t ever get any in that culture.

    Being more mature and being in a relationship with a wonderful caucasian girl in Australia, I have started to appreciate their cultural limitation in expressing themselves. While I don’t expect to ever change their perspective (we are all shaped by the environment in which we live, arent we?), I am grateful for the opportunity to go overseas given to me by my parents, so that I can experience and learn the differences between the cultures.

    p.s. I can’t wait to see how my gf will find my parents when we travel to Hong Kong later this year! Any advice from you will be appreciated Jocelyn.
    (Extended reading: The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman http://www.5lovelanguages.com/)

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 3:14 am
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    last week i had so many farewell dinners with chinese classmates who were going back to China for good. I felt rather sad about it but I felt confort knowing that its not good bye forever, we can still chat and qq and me and my boyfriend are going to China next february. I know that I am going to be able to go and visit them.

    But I think if they were leaving and I knew i was never ever going to see them again, it would be a different story.

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 3:22 am
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    Hi Sarah,

    Where are you from? I guess you are in US? What you have shared sound so familiar. Every year I have gone through so much pain of losing friends who came from overseas (e.g. Singapore, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, England etc) and are to return to their home countries.
    While I understand why many locals in Australia would prefer not to make close friends with these students so as not to have to go through that pain, I am sure you will agree with me that it’s so much to learn from those intercultural friendships, and even romantic relationships for some.

    Victor

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  • August 22, 2011 at 5:25 am
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    That’s how the Chinese handle goodbyes – little theatrics and no hugs! But of course they keep the feelings inside. We have not been brought up to show too much emotions. I don’t know whether this is good or not. But when some friends from England left recently, I made an effort to hug them and I am glad I did.

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 8:06 am
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    They made dumplings, too.

    Our ayi always made us dumplings for the last meal before we went back to the US or on any extended trip where she would not see us for more than a few weeks.

    My husbands parents also did the same.

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 9:05 am
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    My boyfriend’s parents are like that…..lot’s of fuss making sure we’ve packed everything, had enough to eat, etc. The past couple of times I’ve gone to his hometown, both his parents walked us to the bus stop and just waved good-bye. The first time I saw that, it felt a bit anti-climatic, because my family is comprised of huggers. But then my boyfriend told me that his dad has to accompany his mom to the bus stop because every time he leaves, she cries after he’s gone. I thought it was both really touching and super cute.

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 10:05 am
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    My husband is the one who shows more emotion than I do. I’m far more reserved than him. I don’t even hug my own family members. Well, there is an “awkward” hug where I quickly sort of, erm, hug. No. Nevermind. I don’t hug my family. Don’t get me wrong, we are very close to one another. My aunt moved back home just because my grandmother is not getting any younger and she wants to be there when things go terribly wrong.

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 11:40 am
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    This summer went by so quickly! I remember reading your post about spending your summer at your in-laws and can’t believe your adventure is over already. Two years without seeing your husband’s family is a long time, but at least it’s not forever.

    It will probably be another two years before I go back to China as well and I already miss my boyfriend’s family. I remember the last time we said goodbye to them, they were happy rather than sad. They also made sure we had plenty to eat for our trip back, and more!

    I truly believe food is the way the Chinese show their love.

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm
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    Chinese love to ask if you have enough money to spend and give you tons of gifts to take back. My sister wanted to cry but I gave her some Benjamin Franklin dollar bills, she decided not to cry anymore until we left. I’m happy that you and your husband are back, Jocelyn * hugs*

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 7:21 pm
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    My parents are from what was formaly known as Yugoslavia and they too are very much like Chinese parents. They show their love through actions; talking about emotions and feelings was difficult and somehting that was unfamiliar to them but never the less we knew they loved us. When I’m travelling my mother would get up hours early, wake me up with a knock on the door and have breakfast ready for me, she was also ready to drive me to the bus stop at 3.00 in the morning so I could catch the airport bus. She never waited at the bus stop with me instead she’d give me a quick peck on the cheek and drive home – this was just her way. As she and I get older I notice things have changed we both make an effort to hug each other, kiss and verbally say I love you.

    Reply
  • August 22, 2011 at 9:03 pm
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    Reply
  • August 23, 2011 at 12:47 am
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    My future in-laws do this too. Always complaining about how much stuff I have and then stuffing a bunch of cookies and snacks into my pockets and bag. Other than that, they are very austere when it comes to showing emotion during those times. But it’s always there. You just have to know where to look for it.

    Reply
  • August 23, 2011 at 4:21 am
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    Chinese people show their affection via action, in this case, your MIL made you a great breakfast and your FIL passed around the floor (I know, I know, he probably does this often when anxious), it is a way we show love:-)
    It is akward to hug family members even though my Irish side of family does it often. When my sister visited me this past month, I tried to hug her when she arrived as well as when she left, she stiffened up as if I were “out-of-line”..lol. Oh well, it makes me feel good!!

    Reply
  • August 24, 2011 at 8:32 am
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    I can only agree with the post, my mother in law is visiting us, as we had the second baby, and also my husband’s brother came over for a few days and when he left she made sure his bag was full of foods but not much kiss and hugs when he left. Also when we leave Malaysia my husband and his father just give each other a pat on the shoulder a smile but that’s about it.

    Reply
  • August 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm
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    So very true! Whenever we visit family in China, and on the day we have to leave, they always make us “peace noodles” basically a bowl of really thin noodles with an egg. You don’t have to eat the whole thing but you do need to bite into the egg and eat at least some noodles! This dish is supposed to keep you safe in your journey. I guess that is one way they say goodbye.

    In the US, i don’t think I have ever seen my parents cry at goodbyes. The rare time was when one of us leaves to go to college the first year. Usually, it’s just me: “Ok, i’m going”
    mom: “OK, here take a jacket, it’s cold on the plane/bus/train”
    dad: ” you need money, here, take some money”

    Reply
  • August 24, 2011 at 11:31 pm
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    I don’t know…my husband’s parents really changed after we had a baby. Now his dad is so emotional, cries when we are video chatting with them. They left almost a year ago, they had come to the US for 6 months to see their only grandchild. They cried the night before. I didn’t go to the airport (too early didn’t want to wake the baby up) but I think they are becoming more emotional and touchy. Hugs and all!

    Reply
  • August 27, 2011 at 10:08 am
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    For many years, I wish I had grown up in the west in a culture whether physical affection is shown.

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  • July 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm
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    So I’ve never been to China before, but I happen to be dating a really nice Chinese man here in the states (California to be exact). We’d only been dating for about a month and a half and we’ve had a blast so far. He always wants to do things with me. Anyway, long story short, he had to go back to China for 2 months for work (he flies back and forth). He had heard there’s a fireworks festival down in Huntington Beach, so he took me out, and we watched the fireworks on the beach. I think that was his version of “goodbye”, “I’ll miss you”. In the mean time we keep in touch and talk via WeChat. But yes, I found it weird and touching that he never really said “goodbye”, just that he looks forward to seeing me when he gets back.

    Reply

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