“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?