For My Chinese In-laws, Scolding is Love

A finger-puppet couple with the wife visibly angry at the husband
I didn't understand why my Chinese mother-in-law always argued with my Chinese father-in-law. But, according to my husband, maybe that's their way of showing love (photo by kamil kantarcıoğlu).

My Chinese father-in-law isn’t just a husband and parent in our home. He’s also a punchline, and a virtual punching bag.

I’ll never forget that day in May when I watched my Chinese mother-in-law storm out into the yard and holler up to my Chinese father-in-law. “You’re just like a Bodhisattva! Always staying up and never coming down!”

I don’t know what he did to deserve that Buddhist curse. But after spending more than two months here – where almost a day wouldn’t pass without my Chinese mother-in-law naming my father-in-law’s stupidity du jour – I can guess why.

He can’t be trusted with fruit (“He doesn’t throw out the bad ones,” my Chinese mother-in-law once frowned when he brought in a basket of raspberries loaded with squishy and rotten ones.). He buys the wrong things (“That soy milk he bought from the market is no good. It’s mostly water and no nutrition!”). He can’t cook (my Chinese mother-in-law grimaced at a plate he brought from the kitchen filled with the strangest thing I had ever seen – a corn cob sliced straight down the center into medallions that, apart from the kernels sticking out on the end like spokes, were otherwise inedible. “Why did you waste food making that? Nobody will eat it.”). He can’t garden (my Chinese father-in-law ruined most of the eggplant, tomatoes and corn in the garden because, despite my mother-in-law’s warning, he planted them in shady places.). He can’t supervise young children (when my nephew was a toddler, he let him bicycle in his big wheel on the second floor of their home with no fence blocking the stairwell; the nephew fell down the stairs.). He’s lost thousands of RMB to scams.

Every day, my Chinese mother-in-law mutters something derogatory about him at the table. Sometimes he ignores her as she walks in and out of the dining room denouncing him in the unintelligible staccato tones of the local dialect. Sometimes, he retreats to a stool at the back of the kitchen, scarfing down the rest of his meal before hiding away from her – and her laughter – in his study.

“They have such a bizarre relationship,” I reflected one evening over to phone to John. “They argue all the time. She never has a good thing to say about him. Do you think they even love each other?”

“There’s a saying in Chinese — da shi qin, ma shi ai [打是亲,骂是爱;literally — hitting is closeness, scolding is love]. Usually they use it to refer to children…” John trailed off — as if to say, but it could apply to my parents.

I thought about what my father used to say. “You only tease the ones you love.” In my in-laws’ case, make that, “you only argue with the ones you love.”

Have you ever seen your Chinese family members argue out of love for each other?

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21 thoughts on “For My Chinese In-laws, Scolding is Love

  • July 25, 2011 at 6:36 am
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    This is completely normal in Chinese society.

    Which is why I loathe much of it. Anyway the rules are:

    Thou will undermine at each and every opportunity even if it is inappropriate, evidence points otherwise and you are proven to be wrong. Though must always undermine no matter what no matter what your position no matter WHAT you MUST undermine.

    So your child does well in a test, its not good enough.

    So your daughter gets her 1st class degree as a doctor. not good enough.

    For example I had a massive massive argument with my dad two days ago, it started on Monday when he began to undermine me for no reason. I told him I knew what I was doing. He continued his jibes and I gathered more evidence during the whole week and covered myself five different ways. I’m an ex auditor/accountant well jaded in office politics. A whole week of the same undermining jibe, along with other things where I was proven absolutely correct undisputed.

    It came to a head on Saturday when he decided to make the same undermining jibe. I decided to bust him, I showed him all my evidence completely and utterly leveling his argument and his jibe and completely shredding to tatters any credibility he had.

    Only for him to go and undermine me yet again on the same issue.

    It seems bizarre that China and Chinese people have the complete and opposing ideals of relationships. Which is probably why I simply don’t do relationships.

    In the western world

    If your boyfriend/girlfriend/Wife/Husband/ doesn’t make you feel good about yourself and bring joy to your life, fire them. That’s what they are for.

    In the Chinese world

    If your boyfriend/girlfriend/Wife/Husband/ doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself and bring misery to your life, fire them. That’s what they are for.

    It all stems from the anybody who is beneath you can never ever ever^infinity. Be shown respect even if they deserve it.

    The stupid thinking is oh you undermine them so much that you spur them on to prove this person wrong. It doesn’t work like that though it just produces lots of damaged sons and daughters.

    It of course called out on this, they’ll say something like.
    “We only say this because we love you, do you think we’d say the same things about beggars? ”

    Of course this is through my prism of absolute cynicism though of course and it is not exactly representative.

    Reply
  • July 25, 2011 at 7:55 am
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    I can’t tell you how many times I ask MX what the problem with her parents is… and she looks at me strange. I say, Mom is yelling at dad, she says, no they aren’t. I say they are definitely arguing. She says, no they aren’t. Amazing. Sometimes I think the Chinese do think that nagging and arguing is love.

    That’s a big thing that those going into a relationship/marriage should know about… do you nag because you love? do you argue because you love? I don’t think that is common in the west…

    Reply
  • July 25, 2011 at 7:39 pm
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    Well…….sometimes you do need to say something, even though it may not be appropriate for the occasion, because you sincerely cared for the person(s).

    Reply
  • July 26, 2011 at 11:30 am
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    A lot of this scolding is just out of bad habit. Luckily here in Malaysia, not many Chinese people nowadays subscribe to this justification of 打是亲骂是爱.

    Reply
  • July 26, 2011 at 12:42 pm
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    Oh, this is very very common in Vietnamese households too. Growing up in one, I can attest to this. It’s actually really really funny for me how in the USA, people propogate stereotypes about Asian men as being domineering, sexist, whatever. And yet in EVERY single Vietnamese household I’ve visited, the wife, the woman, is the QUEEN, and the man is the worker bee.

    To argue is to love. Sometimes I thought my parents were going to kill each other, and then they tell me that’s the normal way to discuss things. And I’ve seen it in other Viet households too! Drives me up the wall, being born an American, but hey, it’s a different cultural value, ya know? I’ve gotten used to it and hopefully so far in my relationships I’ve managed to get a balance. But yah, for all the stereotype crap that people in the USA like to propogate about Asian men being sexist/domineering, etc, not one has ever seen an Asian household. It’s definitely much more of a matriarchal family culture, IMHO.

    Reply
  • July 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm
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    LOL. She sounds like a real Chinese dragon lady.
    He’s only in his early 20’s but sometimes I feel like my Chinese boyfriend is more of a stern father figure than a lover, tutting over how late home I was, and how angry he is because I should have called him instead of walking home by myself (apparently 9PM is WAY too late to still be on the streets), or frowning at me while reminding me how unhealthy that Mcdonald’s meal is. He’ll nag me over and over again if I haven’t done something I said I would. But then, it does spur me to kick my laziness. I used to tell him he wasn’t my mother so he should mind his own…but now I let it slide. He tells me it’s because he cares. Occasionally you’ve got to be cruel to be kind but I do have to put him in his place sometimes 😉
    “打是亲,骂是爱”
    I’ve definitely heard that one somewhere before…
    I do really feel bad for henpecked husbands though! I used to watch my grandma scold my grandad, but then, she had a real excuse to because he was always leaving her to take care of the kids while he was out fishing or hunting 🙂 I remember stories of how one time, an argument at the dinner table escalated so quickly, my grandad ended up with a fork jammed in the back of his hand! Mind you, they still always loved each other! I guess sooner or later the sweet nothings & honeymoon phase does wear off and real life in all it’s monotony sets in.

    Reply
  • July 27, 2011 at 5:37 am
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    @Holly.

    One of my grandparents left to join the Navy because of all the nagging……

    Reply
  • July 27, 2011 at 5:42 pm
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    This is abnormal behaviour of the older generations.

    Putting someone down/negetive criticism is a way of showing they care? give me a break! who wants to feeking hear someone nag all day? it’s like saying “oh i love being flogged to get turned on” ppfffhhh

    Reply
  • July 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm
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    @ TCG…LOL well my great-grandad did the same – except he went to fight in WWI and then AGAIN during WWII. Even though he hated his military service. So make of that what you will!

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  • July 27, 2011 at 9:54 pm
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    Yes, scolding is caring! Only caring Chinese people will express like this toward their family members or relatives. They will not act this way to strangers. Caring about someone can really wear you out at times, but there’s part of life. Most Chinese friends or my brothers scold at me because they care about me. Let’s not talk about Chinese people in general! People in general will not care about you and sometimes you are invisible to them. You know kids who are in this generation WON”T stand a chance on nagging!Well, it depends on your attitude and personality when it comes to nagging. Right now, I have trained my mind to tolerate nagging. Most Chinese women are very aggressive ,so you western men out there keep on having this idea that Chinese women are submissive. Be prepare to argue and write me back to tell me about it. Before you get married with a Chinese woman, they are not aggressive. When you are married, they will show you their personalities. I think women in general we just have to adjust to them period and compromise. Another technique is to do Tai Chi for one hr in your yard and go argue with your wife later . Try it !

    Reply
  • July 28, 2011 at 8:35 am
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    the logic behind could be “i constantly pick on you is because i care about you, and i care about you is because i love you”, so picking on someone is love

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  • July 28, 2011 at 8:38 am
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    @ Bruce: I always enjoy your comments!:)

    Reply
  • July 28, 2011 at 10:47 am
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    @Shaunagh,

    Are you sure you enjoy my comments? :). My families and I love to laugh and have an open mind about everything. Putting a smile on someone’s face is our main goal. You can tell or “feel” when your husband/wife or parents really care/love you when they scold at you. I will accept 100 bad comments from my loved ones than 1 bad comment from a stranger!! Doesn’t matter what happens out there, always smile and always love yourself! No therapists can help a person if those elements are not there. Bruce quotes ” WE ONLY HAVE ONE MOM, ONE DAD, ONE BROTHER/SISTER, ONE WIFE/HUSBAND, ALL THE SCOLDING/NAGGING IS ALL WORTH IT BECAUSE THEY WON’T BE AROUND TO CARE ABOUT YOU WHEN THEY’RE IN HEAVEN. I LOVE YOU AND YOU LOVE ME ,NOW LET’S START SCOLDING ” 🙂 lol tickles me. Back to my project. Just got back from a long trip.

    Sincerely,

    Bruce

    Reply
  • July 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm
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    Bruce,
    i agree with you the chinese women are so aggressive.. so aggressive they do produce more testerones in them to cause them to grow a moustache ( i seen many on women over 50’s (regardless of race)) and their voice is soo deep, booming and low esp when they talk.

    Reply
  • November 16, 2011 at 2:23 am
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    chinese families are messed up
    sounds like devorce must mean such bliss

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  • January 17, 2013 at 12:23 pm
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    hahaha yup, so normal. the insulting is a little more toned down here in malaysia but still a lot of arguing and scolding. when i was younger i used to wonder how the heck my parents got together and stayed married for so long with all their jabbing and poking at each other; but after i got old enough to date i began to realise it’s just kind of built into our system. my bf and i point out each other’s flaws all the time, nag nag nag, make petty jabs, but to me that’s just an indication that we’re close/comfortable enough to say these things without throwing a tantrum about it.

    i’m pretty sure anyone from any cultural background will agree that you don’t normally insult a person to his/her face if he/she is a stranger; but you’re totally comfortable taking the piss out of someone you’re close to. which is pretty much the dynamics of chinese relationships in a nutshell. you pick on the people you’re most comfortable with (and they pick on you too), and you nag the ones you care about the most.

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  • January 6, 2014 at 12:00 am
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    Arguing and scolding is a speciality of Asian families? This is news to me. I think that Mediteranian folk can give the Chinese a run for their money….

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  • December 5, 2014 at 11:54 am
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    This sounds just like my Mexican mother!! I find it funny how many similarities I have seen in the family dynamics of my Mexican side and Chinese families from your blog posts. Then again, my Mexican side has some Chinese family way way back. My mother constantly, constantly nags at and yells at and scolds my father.I mean constantly omg. I think she may even give your in law a run for her money.

    Reply
    • December 5, 2014 at 2:23 pm
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      Thanks for the comment Emily! Ha, that’s really uncanny! Now I’m curious about your mother — I almost want to see her in action. 😉

      Reply
  • February 7, 2015 at 11:59 pm
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    Haha TFG!! Taken for granted. Never know what you have until it is LOST!

    Reply
  • June 26, 2015 at 6:25 am
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    What if I actually get off on being scolded by a woman? Ha ha, getting used etc…. okay I will stop now 😛

    Reply

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