Chapter 47: A Picture of My Chinese Boyfriend’s Family

My Chinese boyfriend's family, at their countryside home
Even as I shot a photo of John's family, I still didn't see have the entire picture of his family -- until I showed them pictures of my own.

In China, they call a family picture 全家福 (quanjiafu), which literally means happiness for the entire family.

It is happiness if you can have the entire family together to take a photo. And, in John’s family, this happy day usually comes during Chinese New Year, when the whole family returns home to celebrate.

The whitewashed facade of John’s family home reflected the filtered sunshine that afternoon of Chinese New Year’s day, brightening the yard like backdrop lighting in a photography studio. It was a perfect spot for the family photo, where John’s father and mother sat in front, holding baby Kaiqi, with the three brothers and sister-in-law standing behind. I stood before them all, digital camera in hand, as I framed the family through the lens for the perfect photo. I snapped several shots, including one of just Da Ge, his wife and baby Kaiqi.

Even as I finished taking the photos, I still didn’t have a clear picture of John’s family. No photo is complete without the stories behind it. I didn’t know the real stories from John’s family, because we hadn’t truly connected since my arrival. Instead, my time there, up until that afternoon, was like an unnarrated slideshow, where the outside observer could only guess what was happening.

But, sometimes, to get the full picture, you have to give a full picture in return.

It was that afternoon, when John and I sat listlessly indoors, warming ourselves around a wok of hot coals, that John suggested it. “You should take out the photographs you brought, and show them to my family.” I had packed a small album of memories, including many family and travel photographs.

I raised an eyebrow at him. “You think they would be interested?”

“My father loves photos. He would really enjoy seeing them.”

So I retrieved the photographs from my backpack upstairs, and told John’s father about it. “I have some photos from the US, if you would like to see them.”

It was as if a warming flash went off, suddenly animating John’s father, who had previously been sitting on a stool in the dining room. “Sure, we can have a look.” He jumped out of his chair and sat at the table where John and I were sitting.

I spread the photographs on the table, and began explaining to him the picture of my life and my family: my immediate family — including my mother who passed away when I was 17 years old, an older sister in the army, my father and stepmother; my grandmother who embodied the spirit of my lost mother; the trips I had taken, from Barcelona, Spain to Yosemite, California; and my achievements, such as graduating from a full scholarship program, summa cum laude.

John’s father loved the photos, pointing to them and commenting on them with such delight: “You look a lot like your mother.”; “Your grandmother looks so young.”; “America has some beautiful places.”

As he saw me, and the picture of my family, more clearly, he began to paint a picture of his own, just for me. “I came from Chun’an, near 1,000 Island Lake. When I was only 10 years old, I had to immigrate here to Tonglu. My town disappeared beneath that lake. And at the time, there was no compensation or assistance from the government for immigrants, like there is now for the Three River Gorges Dam.”

As I listened to the stories of John’s family, through John’s father, I felt elation at the photograph developing before my eyes, different from the one I first knew, of a family where their son could be friends with a foreign girl, not date her. This new picture, between John’s father and I, was of new understanding, curiosity, and respect. We weren’t a complete family yet, but we shared a moment of complete happiness.

What was it that helped you make a new connection with friends or family in China (or another country)?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 47: A Picture of My Chinese Boyfriend’s Family

  • March 30, 2010 at 3:18 am

    First of all, let me say the your picture becomes so much clearer to me through your writing. I really enjoy getting a clearer view of your life.

    I have bonded with my in-laws through language and food. It makes such a difference that I took it upon myself to learn Mandarin, and am able to converse fairly fluently with them. (Even though they speak very good English, they are more comfortable with Mandarin.) They have taught me how to cook authentic Chinese dishes. As we cook, we talk, and the bond becomes stronger.

    I do wish that I could see my in-laws more, but my FIL lives in Taiwan, and my MIL is in California. But when we are together, it is good.
    .-= Juliet´s last blog ..This kid isn’t even born yet, and she is already waking me up. =-.

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  • March 30, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I really liked you saying that in order to get something, you must give something first. And how you showed John’s father your pictures…mmm…it’s like a scene from some romantic movie. Yup, such kind and simple gestures work in ANY culture. Maybe sometimes, we overrate the cultural differences and forget that we have much more things in common.

    • March 30, 2010 at 3:35 pm

      @Juliet, thanks for commenting once again! I really think it’s fantastic you’ve learned Mandarin, and that language/food has helped you connect with your in-laws. Later on, as I got to know John’s parents, we did bond through things such as cooking. As you say, it’s a great way to learn authentic Chinese dishes. That’s a shame you cannot see them so often.

      @Crystal, thanks for the comment, and your kind words. 🙂 You’re right that sometimes, we focus too much on cultural differences and forget that some things can be universal experiences.

  • March 30, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    That’s a great story. Sharing pictures from home is a great way to make a connection with people, and Chinese people really love seeing our pictures from back home.

    I never made a very strong connection with my father in law, he was an extremely introverted and quiet person by nature, always a bit aloof and disconnected from the major family dramas of the village, and he never had much to say even to his own children. He would save up his words for when he had a strong opinion on something, but I never once saw him participate in chitchat or watch TV with the family or anything like that. He was definitely a loner. I think we had something of a good relationship though. He was very old even when I first met him and when I’d stay at the house I’d help him boil water and pour it from the big heavy water canisters for him to drink, and he would smile at me and go back into his room. He was able to meet my parents when we got married which I know was very special for us and for my mom and dad especially. I was there in the village when he was on his deathbed and I feel like at that point we’d come to a sort of understanding.
    .-= Jessica´s last blog ..Mao Zedong and Hu Jintao =-.

    • March 30, 2010 at 10:12 pm

      Dear Jessica, thanks for the comment, and for sharing your experiences with your FIL. Mine can be a loner at times, but then also very animated and sociable depending on the circumstances — so not nearly the loner yours was. That is fortunate your parents had the chance to meet him before he passed away. And how touching that you were there when he was on his deathbed — that you had the opportunity to say farewell. I’m sure you must cherish those small moments.

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