Ask the Yangxifu: Too Many Concessions for a Chinese Family?

Giving hands, turned towards the sky
Are we always the ones to concede a culture greater than ours, such as China?

Michael asks:

Jocelyn, I think its great you were brave and went ahead and appeased the cultural divide by participating in such a wedding [as described in the post A Big, Fat, Traditional Chinese Wedding?]. I’m sure your husband was appreciative. I would have been scared too. This type of thing always makes me wonder though about cultural traditions. Do we not have any in the U.S? Seems like we are always the ones conforming to appease a tradition that must be greater than our own? Is it because we just don’t value tradition as much?

I’m not saying its bad, I still commend you but when I read the answer and they said its not about you, it’s about the family I know a lot of girls who would of said GTH. It’s my day. hmm

It’s true that my wedding wasn’t just about me, but the family — and that required concessions.

But, in fact, I wasn’t the only one giving. I designed my own dresses. I chose the flowers and the food. I requested what was, for China, an unorthodox approach to photography — having the photographer follow us all day and take a mixture of candid and posed pictures. I even decided on the after-party event — karaoke.

Still, maybe that sounds paltry in comparison. After all, a bride from the US would see the wedding as “her day” and, therefore, any compromise is unthinkable. Fair enough.

But, see, the wedding is only part of the story between me and John’s family. Maybe I gave more in the balance of the wedding — maybe I was the one who conformed more to them. Yet, they’ve done far, far more in return, just to accommodate me and welcome me to the family.

I think of the first time I ever met them — months after John’s father declared that “you can be friends with a foreign woman, but not date her.” I expected a reception as chilly as the biting February winds outside. But, oh, how wrong I was. His family, who had never had any need for home plumbing in their entire lives, suddenly installed a flush toilet weeks before my arrival. Wow.

John’s family isn’t vegan, but I am. Sure, they gave me the usual “do you get enough nutrition” questions in the beginning. Yet, even from that first visit, they offered a dish after sumptuous dish of delectable vegan foods. Now, every time I come, John’s mom cooks up so many vegan delicacies I can’t even finish! She stir-fries eggplant and tomato just for me, which is a very un-Chinese combination. She even went out of her way to make two foods in the summer that aren’t summer foods at all — migu, a type of local dumpling, and pickled radishes — just because I said I loved them so much.

But the most drastic accommodation of all has to be the new wing his family built. They didn’t have to build it — didn’t John and I always used to stay in his old bedroom? Still, maybe they suffered to see me suffering from allergies to the dust and mold that settled in John’s room. They even installed air conditioning (which they NEVER use), and made my bed with a soft comforter for a mattress, instead of the cold, hard bamboo mats that hurt my back.

When you have that kind of family support, I think they’re worth a few concessions — even on a wedding day.

What do you think?


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

10 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Too Many Concessions for a Chinese Family?”

  1. I don’t think Americans make any more concessions than anyone else. In fact, usually when you are living in a foreign culture, whether you’re Chinese living in America or Chinese living in America or a Russian living in France, you end up making a lot of concessions to the new culture, that’s just unavoidable. I had a fairly Chinese wedding with a few American traditions thrown in and I know that if I had insisted on a full Western wedding in China I would have felt silly.

    I do hate the idea that Americans don’t have culture — sure we do, and I imagine for many of us they’re just as important as Chinese traditions are to the Chinese. Think about weddings — aside from the obvious, the white dress and the vows and the reception, you have small traditions that are very meaningful for lots of people — being “given away” by your father, feeding each other the cake, the toasts, the first dance, etc. With my wedding in China I tried to incorporate the traditions that were important to me while conceding that in China it made more sense culturally to do a Chinese wedding. If we’d married in America we’d probably have done a mostly American wedding.

    I think that people who live overseas and who have foreign spouses get used to making concessions in their lives. It isn’t always fun, and sometimes you can’t please everyone, but it usually does even out in the end, especially if you both spend time in each other’s countries. I can’t speak for Jocelyn but I’d be willing to guess that now, in their everyday lives in America, John probably makes a lot more concessions to American culture than she does to Chinese culture on a daily basis.

  2. Jessica said, “I think that people who live overseas and who have foreign spouses get used to making concessions in their lives.”

    Agree! I’m American married to a Spaniard, and while our cultural differences may not be as extreme as other bicultural marriages, we have certainly made concessions for one another. Our wedding was held in Spain and we followed nearly all the Spanish customs on that one – in a Catholic church (I’m not Catholic), two witnesses instead of bridesmaids/groomsmen, very formal, traditional Spanish cake, etc. This was mostly because I wanted to please my MIL, but I didn’t have strong feelings about a civil ceremony and having bridesmaids, etc.

    Learning to fuse our two cultures, occasionally making concessions to one another, has been both fun and frustrating. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  3. Jessica said “John probably makes a lot more concessions to American culture than she does to Chinese culture” Yeah, I imagine you are right. If you are living in a foreign country you will of course be subjected to their culture on a daily basis. Which isn’t bad, its exciting at least. But even as globalgal said, “I didn’t have strong feelings about a civil ceremony and having bridesmaids, etc.”

    This was my sentiment because honestly I don’t either. I would much rather conform to something unfamiliar, why? Hmm, I don’t know, it’s exciting…..yes, maybe because its something different. Maybe I just like to appease people. I really don’t think I have any strong feelings for my own cultural traditions. This don’t mean I don’t like my country because I do. I just never hang tightly to my own cultural traditions. Family traditions – yes, which I’m sure is somehow shaped by our culture so I shoot myself in the foot again…haha. Maybe its just not so obvious to me.

    Anyway, I do agree it’s silly to have a western wedding in a different country. I imagine a girl that values tradition and having all her friends and family witness to her day would demand the wedding be held in the states or compromise two weddings.

  4. Everyone has to make adjustments even if you move from one part of the country to the other especially in China. I am sure traditions in Guangzhou are much different from Heilenjong or Xinjingiang. I am pretty certain a Cantonese has to make adjustments if she or he marries a person from Shanghai or Beijing. Similarly a southerner marrying a Yankee has to make a lot of adjustments. Cross border it gets very difficult even if you move to work, let alone marry and raise a family!

  5. Well, this one started out as a Chinese-American combo, then we got a Spanish-American viewpoint, so I hope you don’t mind a Chinese-Kiwi contribution.

    I would say that for my own wedding, although it was basically Chinese, my in-laws made as many concessions as my parents and I did. My parents wanted a Christian element, and so room was made in the ceremony for my Dad to pray. Two translators were provided, one to accompany my parents and one to act as an English-language MC and translate speeches. The best man was a fellow Kiwi. The family was told to tone down some of the “stranger” aspects of a Chinese wedding so that my parents wouldn’t be totally freaked out. And then the next day, when we took my parents out to my wife’s village, my parents in law dug out an electric blanket and piled the spare bed high with extra blankets and put an electric radiator on a stool near the bed to ensure my parents would be warm – this was early December in the mountains northwest of Beijing, the coldest weather my parents had ever experienced. They were welcomed like long-lost family members. It was actually quite amazing to see how well everybody communicated despite everything having to be translated by myself and my wife – and I don’t think that says anything about our interpretation skills (although we both do have a fair bit of experience at translation and interpretation), rather, it says a lot about how willing everybody was to make the necessary concessions both to local culture and to Kiwi guests.

    And then last February my wife found herself thrown right in the deep end of Kiwi culture at my grandmother’s funeral. I was a little worried about how she’d cope – firstly with the sheer size of my family – there’s hundreds of us! But they welcomed her right in, the same way her parents had welcomed my parents. When I was busy elsewhere, she stuck with my Mum, who took great care of her, otherwise she had me for translations and explanation when necessary, but otherwise she just went with the flow and all was good. And when the call went out for granddaughters and granddaughters in law to carry the coffin into the crematorium, I said, “Off you go”, and she joined the Kiwi girls, grabbed one of the handles and helped.

    For those two weeks in New Zealand, my parents went out of their way to make sure my wife had access to Chinese foods and anything else she needed or wanted, but otherwise, apart from the fact she continued to speak mostly Chinese to me, she had a totally Kiwi two weeks. Tip Top ice cream and barbeques, geysers, boiling mud, hot pools and Maori song, dance and games. Barefeet, picnics at the beach. Fish and chips. Driving on the left. And Wellington’s wind of course (which she did not like so much).

    All of which is a very long way of saying that it seems only natural, as others have said, that we all make concessions to the local culture. 入乡随俗, right? It seems only natural that here in Beijing, we do things Beijing style. Out in the village, it’s rural northern China style. And in New Zealand we do things the Kiwi way. And when it’s a multi-cultural family, life is just so much more interesting.

  6. My Chinese husband and I avoided the conflicts by having one wedding in the US and one wedding in China. We each got to plan the wedding in our country the way we wanted. And in case two weddings weren’t enough action for one summer, we threw in a wedding in Japan as well.

    Then he invited his mom to join us for “that trip after the American wedding” (the honeymoon) but that’s another story. 🙂

    1. Oops, sorry, almost forgot melanie (this is what happens when it’s late and I’m getting exhausted!).

      Melanie, thanks for the comment! Ah, yes, the infamous MIL on the honeymoon story — that is another story indeed! And, for the record, you must get the award for most gracious new bride, to make it through a honeymoon like that. 😉

  7. @Chris Waugh “The family was told to tone down some of the “stranger” aspects of a Chinese wedding so that my parents wouldn’t be totally freaked out.”
    -haha, that’s funny, I think I would of liked to get my parents freaked out. It would of been funny. My parents were very much accustom to a simple old fashion life with Christian values. Still, I think they would appreciate some culture if they were still around and probably find some humor in it.

    1. Wow, this has sparked quite a discussion — it’s so great to hear from everyone on this!

      @Jessica, thanks for weighing in on this. You’re right — John does make so many more concessions here in the US than I ever did! He has had to learn how to conform to so many new things here in order to be a proper student, and adapt a more “American” approach (including being more proactive, speaking out, etc) than he is used to. I was thinking about including some of this, but I wrote the entry SO late on Thursday night. Anyhow, glad you mentioned it.

      @globalgal, it’s always so cool to hear from you, since you’re married to a Spaniard and often have interesting things to share. It definitely helps to approach things, like a wedding, with an open mind when you’re dealing with two different cultures.

      @Michael, thanks for joining the conversation on this (as well as inspiring this post). 🙂

      @George, thanks for pointing out the differences within China (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, even the US) itself — so, so true.

      @Chris, glad to hear from you on this! Sounds like you have a very understanding family all around, as it seems everyone has worked to make each other feel more at home. And It’s so true — 入乡随俗. And indeed, when my husband and I are in the US, we do things a little differently compared to being in rural Zhejiang, or even in the big city in China.

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