My Chinese Mother-in-law and the Ring of Compliments

Ring on a finger
When I complimented my Chinese mother-in-law's ring, I ended up with a ring of compliments -- to wear.

“I really like your ring, it’s beautiful.”

I couldn’t believe I had missed this lovely glint of silver on the left ring finger of my Chinese mother-in-law, etched in a black with a flower that seemed to burst with all the brilliance of the star of Bethlehem. That’s why I told her I liked it. I don’t believe in keeping a good compliment to myself.

She smiled, wrinkling the corners of her lips as she took her left hand out of the dishwater in the wok to show it to me up close. “Somebody made it in our village.”

She then told me about this metalworking place in town, where silversmiths can fashion such a ring from raw silver. “Do you want one? I can make one for you.”

Is a compliment really just a compliment to her? I wondered. I began to worry, the way I used to worry when I began studying Mandarin, fretting over getting the right words or hitting the right tone. But this time, I realized, I worried about how my compliment, spoken in clear Mandarin, was getting misunderstood as a hidden longing for a silver ring.

As I poured a bottle of water, I pulled out a smile and shook my head. “Oh no, no. I don’t want one, really.” I meant it when I said it. I didn’t want her ring. But this is exactly what the Chinese do all the time, isn’t it? I thought. Always refusing an offer or gift, often over and over again – which is exactly what I did when she continued to prod me, even suggesting that it was no trouble at all for her (why do I always have trouble believing that?).

Eventually, I prodded back – by forging the conversation into another direction. I left the kitchen that evening, believing she understood it was just a compliment and nothing more.

The following morning, my Chinese mother-in-law went into the village to help my sister-in-law buy an air conditioning unit. Later, when the two returned, I wandered into the kitchen to see if I could help her prepare lunch. But before I could even say “how can I help,” I watched her hand plunge into her left pocket and reveal a silver ring just like hers.

She pressed the ring into my hands. “I made this for you.”

I stared at the silver ring with admiration and guilt. I still thought it beautiful, graced with the same star-of-Bethlehem flower design. Yet I sighed, knowing I hadn’t loved it the way she thought I did – so much that I wanted one of my own – and never intended to have her spend time and money just to replicate the beauty on her finger. Even worse, when I finally tried it on, I discovered she had made it several sizes too big. I complimented her ring, and it became a ring of compliments, complete for me to wear — all because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut!

Still, I really do like this ring now. It is beautiful — a beautiful reminder to be careful just what I compliment before my Chinese mother-in-law. 😉

Have you ever found that a compliment in China turned into a gift you never asked for?

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9 thoughts on “My Chinese Mother-in-law and the Ring of Compliments

  • May 30, 2011 at 5:22 am

    I think your Chineses MIL was just happy that you liked her ring and she was just happy to get you one. I think she felt proud to be able to get you a ring that you like. Chinese mothers, like all mothers, will do anything to make their children happy and since she treats you well, I am sure she likes you a lot and am happy that his son has someone like you to look after him and I am sure your MIL is just happy to do something in return for you as her daughter-in-law. Don’t worry.

  • May 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    oh my god something simmilar happened to me but with a bracelet. One of my boyfriends cousin is involved in some proffessional badminton league in China and when we met her over there she was wearing this special gold badminton bracelet and she explained to me about it and I said it was lovely and I told her my brother has been playing badminton for years and loves it. Then she tried to persuade me to take the bracelet as a gift and that she can get a replacement. Oh my god I was so embarassed and me and my boyfriend spent ages trying to get her to keep it. In the end she told me she would get me one the next one the next time i come back to China =.=;;;

  • May 31, 2011 at 11:21 am

    My former in-laws didn’t have much money, but once they once gave me some cash for my birthday to buy a gold bracelet at the nicest jewelry shop in their town. It was very sweet of them and I still have that bracelet. A weird thing, though, happened involving a ring I never even saw before my former husband presented it to me. It was a gift from a friend of his who ran a gold shop in Hong Kong: a 24 carat plated ring of Tweety Bird, dangling legs and all. Yikes. The ring’s band wasn’t gold and made my finger break out. I still have that ring, but haven’t put it on in 15 years.

  • May 31, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    I can totally relate, but in my case it’s my mom. Every time I tell her about something that I find interesting or cool, she automatically thinks I want it and buys it. Then I feel really bad because I didn’t want it in the first place.

    When I compliment her jewelry she also thinks that I want it and tries to give it to me. I just tell her that I’m too young to own something like that and it suits her better.

  • June 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    This is very typically Chinese. In the West, people compliment each other all the time on their clothes, shoes, etc. And it shoud be rightly taken as an expression of the complimentee’s good tastes.

    In the Chinese world, a compliment is (wrongly) seen as the complimenter’s desire for the item. And moreover, it is incumbent on the complimentee to offer the item as a gift. I am Chinese (ish), and I don’t care for this aspect of the culture. Very strange and “inscrutable.”

  • June 3, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Your blog is so interesting. I am hoping to be working in China with my (Middle Eastern )Husband and the whole insight into cultural differences that you discuss is really fascinating.

  • February 4, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    Yes there is definately a fine line, but sometimes you do get roped into trick situations, last time I went to see my fiancée his Mum brought out a load of her old clothes that she doesn’t wear anymore and insisted I tried them on, then asked if I liked them…now I had two choices I could either be the stuck-up westerner and say her clothes were buzenmeyang, also possibly insulting her fashion sense when they went actually that bad, or I could say they were nice knowing she was tricking my into having them, luckily I ‘forgot’ to pack most of the clothes and my suitcase was still 6 kilos overweight, but I’m sure i’ll be round two in the summer!

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