Ask the Yangxifu: How to impress your Chinese boyfriend’s (or girlfriend’s) family during Chinese New Year

Kelley asks:

I started teaching English in China this past fall, and met a wonderful Chinese man. I never expected to have a Chinese boyfriend, or expected it so soon! But we’ve been dating since October, and are very much in love.

However, I am really starting to freak out because he asked me to spend Chinese New Year at his parents home. I am so concerned about meeting his parents. I know family is a really big deal in China, and it seems that if they don’t like me, my boyfriend and I don’t have a future. I really need to impress them! I’ve only started learning Mandarin, so I’m barely proficient, but I guess a little is better than none at all.

I’m definitely going to bring gifts (thanks so much for the great suggestions!).

But I was wondering what other advice you might have — specifically, what should I do to make the visit go smoothly? I really could use some help! Thanks!

First of all, congratulations on finding a wonderful man to date! I wish the both of you a wonderful relationship.

I can understand your concerns. Not long ago, I too faced a Chinese New Year visit with the family of my then-Chinese boyfriend (now husband). I had never met them before, and all I knew of his parents was they had said it was okay to date a foreign girl, but not marry her. Not exactly what you’d call the basis for good first impressions.

But, I eventually charmed them, and married him.

One thing that might help to remember is this — In general, Chinese don’t date casually. They date with the intent to marry. You’ve been together for more than three months, and he’s taking you home to meet the parents — all good signs.

Every Chinese family, obviously, will be different, and react differently to you — so I can’t guarantee marriage for you too. But there are some things you can do to improve your chances of making a smashing first impression:

  • Gifts are a must for the family, as you already know. It’s the best way to create goodwill from the first “Ni Hao” (after all, Chinese people tend to show their feelings through indirect means, such as gifts, so it’s a language they understand). I’d follow the gift-giving suggestions I’ve laid out, leaning towards vitamins for his parents and grandparents. Find out what other relatives will be present and bring something for them, too. And don’t forget the “emergency gifts” (you know, for the unexpected friends or relatives). Since you’re based in China, I’d recommend local specialty products (great if his hometown is outside of where you currently live), nice tea, or Western-style pastries as emergency gifts.
  • Avoid physical contact with your Chinese boyfriend in front of his family. I’ve never seen my husband’s family members hug, kiss or even hold hands in front of us. Additionally, it will only reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that all Western women are “easy” or “seductresses.”
  • Defer to his family, especially the elders. Chinese families prize filial behavior and deference to elders. That means being more passive — let his family “set the schedule” and be in charge. Don’t worry, you won’t be “hostage.” If anything, you’ll have a lot of free time, because it is Chinese New Year (a holiday that, as Peter Hessler once wrote, seems to be built around watching lots of television). But if they plan meals or have outings or other activities, go along and be a good guest (such as, being the last to sit at the table). Avoid complaining in public, even about annoyances like smoking (try, instead, to resolve issues with the help of your boyfriend). They will appreciate you for this.
  • Bring photos to share. They’re a great way to “break the ice” with his family and make a personal connection. Things were pretty tense that first Chinese New Year I spent with my Chinese husband — but when I brought out the photos of my family and vacations, suddenly his parents began talking with me. It was a real turning point.
  • Don’t talk about your relationship with his family, unless they ask you. I doubt they will — love is still an embarrassing, highly personal topic in China.
  • Don’t talk about where you might live in the future. I’m assuming your Chinese boyfriend is an only child. If he is, his parents might worry that a foreign girl will take him away from China — leaving nobody to care for them in old age. If anyone presses you about staying indefinitely in China, simply give a vague, noncommittal answer, such as “that’s interesting.”
  • Bring a nice, new outfit to wear. In Chinese New Year, everyone wears new clothing on the first day of the new year for good luck — so why not take the opportunity to impress your potential inlaws? When I first “met the parents,” I had a Tang-dynasty style jacket and skirt tailor-made just for the occasion. Of course, it was freezing and I only wore it part of the Chinese New Year’s day. But it left a lasting impression. Now, whether it was the clothing, or how fast I changed out of it, I’ll never know. 😉

Good luck, Kelley — hope the year of the Tiger will be auspicious for you, especially in love!

P.S.: While this is written for a woman with a Chinese boyfriend, it essentially applies to men with a Chinese girlfriend. Men, your additional problem will be pressure to drink alcohol or smoke at the table, especially the alcohol. Even though Chinese see drinking and smoking as a way of expressing friendship or building relationships, you won’t offend anyone if you refuse. However, you may need to refuse strongly, because Chinese can be pretty heavy-handed (and, sometimes, even sneaky) about getting alcohol into your glass.

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

36 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: How to impress your Chinese boyfriend’s (or girlfriend’s) family during Chinese New Year”

    1. Dear Roueen,

      Thanks so much for the comment, and glad I could help! I hope things are going well in terms of your plans to move to China. Please do keep me posted. 🙂

  1. Such great advice! I wish I had known you 14 years ago when I first met my husband’s parents.

    If I were to add one tip here, I would encourage Kelley to eat a lot at her boyfriend’s parents’ house. And if they encourage her to have more, even if she’s full, she should take just one more bite. Sure, she’ll gain weight but she’ll gain their affection too.

    Oh, and be sure to express your amazement at the fireworks! That will come naturally though, no need to try to remember that one. I love love love the fireworks at Chinese New Year.

  2. Thanks so much for answering my question! After reading your post, I feel so much more relieved and less nervous about the holiday.

    Melanie, thanks for the advice too. Guessing I should bring my baggy pants if I’m going to be eating a lot to impress the in-laws!

  3. Oh yeah, eat a lot, and praise the food.
    Can I add a few?
    I would refrain from drinking. No doubt you’ll be offered drinks, probably by the male members of the family. You’ll earn brownie points with the women though if you refuse. While my BILs (and my nephew now that he’s graduated from college and officially considered an adult) start with the baijiu at the first meal of the day, I’ve never seen my SILs drink. Follow the lead of the other women, and if they aren’t drinking, claim you don’t drink. Use the phrase “can’t,” as in “wo bu hui he jiu,” which will give the impression that you’re not a habitual drinker. I think this is especially important for a potential foreign daughter in law because there is probably some expectation that as foreign women we’re a bit wild, and you want to show them that you’re as capable of restraint as Chinese women. If you were a simple guest it would be fine to drink, but they’re going to be watching your every move as a potential DIL.

    Also, offer to help. After dinner you can try and, for example, clear the table. Of course they won’t let you, but they’ll remember the gesture. If you were a Chinese daughter in law living with mother and father in law, especially in the village, this would eventually end up being your job. If you go out at all or are ever in the presence of a teapot, pour tea for everyone, starting with the oldest people and working your way down, pouring for yourself last.

    Make an effort with the mandarin, even if your Chinese is awful, and laugh at yourself along with them to show that you have a good humor and are sincerely trying to learn.

    Basically you want to make an impression that says you’re not here to upset the order of things or corrupt their son with your Western ways. That you respect them and defer to them. Even if none of this is true, this is the message you want to send. It may seem fake and a lot of it might really clash with what we’ve been taught about being independent and strong women, but it is really integral that you get on your potential in-law’s good side because they do have the ability to really mess up your relationship, if not prevent it all together. A Chinese guy (or girl) can love you with all his heart, but if his parents forbid him to marry you he will have a very hard time outright defying them. So playing things on the conservative side is, imo, best.

    Gosh, hope I didn’t write too much there Jocelyn!

    1. @Melanie, thanks for chiming in with some great ideas I didn’t think of! That’s so true about eating. Makes me think of how my husband always says “a good appetite shows you’re healthy.”

      @Kelley, glad you found the advice helpful!

      @Jessica, thanks for adding your voice — fantastic advice, and you covered a number of good things I missed in this post. It is so true that you need to play it conservative in front of the potential parents. I still do, to this day. At least, the side of me that they see is my “conservative” version, so I can definitely relate to that.

  4. See, I don’t have inlaws (I think I’ve mentioned before that they passed on), but I still reign myself in a bit when we’re back in the village with the SILs. At this point it isn’t about gaining approval honestly, but more about not causing anyone to lose face or, I hate to say, perpetuating negative stereotypes about foreign women. There’s a time and a place for everything, afterall! 😉

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  6. I don’t think Kelley realizes that from the moment she meets the family onward the relationship is steaming directly toward marriage. Read – “she’s been here for a couple of months and now she’s considering marrying someone.” Kelley, sweetie I hope you are reading this and can appreciate what this relationship may mean to the family.
    Maybe she’ll do something to offend the parents and they’ll pressure him to break it off. If so, then he’ll likely not do so until he has a replacement for her. The second part is just conjecture, though.
    I don’t mean it to sound so harsh but that’s how breakups happen.

    1. Thanks for the response, Louieman.

      I can’t speak for Kelley — and I certainly don’t know what her circumstances are — but you’re right that meeting the family is serious business in China. It is definitely something any foreigner meeting the parents should keep in mind.

  7. Thank you for your advice. I have met my boyfriends parents and they love me but, i’m trying so hard to keep myself on the empressing side. Now I can take it a little easy. My boyfriend and I are making plans to move in together and looking further into getting married and I do want his familys blessings. My boyfriend looks more onto his sister oppinion. Do you have and advice on how to impress his sister? She likes me already but, I know there is something more I can do.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tiffany.

      I have very limited experience with sisters in China because my husband has none, and I have spent very very limited time with my sisters-in-law. But in general, I always find that when I show an interest in what my family members do or are interested in, it helps to build relationships. For example, I ask my father-in-law to show me his calligraphy (and make cards for me, to give away to friends). I ask my mother-in-law to teach me how to cook her foods.

      Is there something that your boyfriend’s sister likes to do, or cares about? That might be a place to start.

      I also know Jessica Larson-Wang’s husband has a few sisters, and she might be of more help than me. Jessica, if you have anything to add, feel free to jump in.

  8. I know this post is old, but I have some advice.

    Yes, you have impressed the parents now, but it is equally important to impress the aunts.

    oh man, most chinese live close to each other so the extended family is HUGE. The Aunts will gossip like crazy. And they will criticize everything. What I would do is not piss any of them off, obviously and then try to win the one who seems the loudest on your side. Usually, they tend to be the middle aunt. Because when you come up, the loudest will advocate for you. Think of it as almost like a rowdy town election. ( one of my cousin didn’t marry this one girl because a couple of my aunts were against it. His mom was fine with it but the aunts totally swayed them the other way)

    Also, this is stupid and old fashion, but do not reveal anything bad in your family. First of all, it is not their business and second of all, it will hurt you. So what I mean are things like “your parents, brother, sister, aunt, uncle blah blah getting divorced” because they will think “oh she grew up in that environment, she will most likely do the same if she marries our son. ”

    And dont talk about ANY disease in your family. Big no-no’s are any genetic diseases, and unusual deaths.

    * I am Chinese, and I am dating a white american.

    1. soyeahiknow, thanks for the advice! Good point about winning over the important extended family members, and keeping some of those “skeletons in the closet” to yourself.

  9. My insights:
    Gifts – We bring some wine, something from my home, and some small gift in red.

    Pictures – Should we do that! Even a nice album with the pictures with them from last year.

    Don’t talk about your relationship with his family— Seems like love is a key topic for his family!

    Don’t talk about where you might live in the future – We don´t start the topic but his family do. In fact they are not negative about it, he has a sister with 2 sons maybe that´s why. They always say they are happy cause he is traveling. Though his aunt was crying without even asking that the first time, her son is married to a woman from another province and she said they only see each other every 3 years. When I told her I see mine at least 2-3 times a year she was happy.
    Bring a nice, new outfit to wear – Last time they asked a lot about all my clothes. They could not believe that most part of them were bought in Shanghai. So now I say, yes is from Europe.

  10. I am currently seeing/dating a Chinese man. I am a mixed race. My mother is Jamaican and my father East Indian. I had always had this stereo type in my mind that Chinese men don’t date or are even attracted to chocolate skinned women. I asked him and he said, beauty is in everyone, not measured by the colour of their skin.

    Though it’s been so new for us, I am so taken by him. He is exceptional in every way. And though we are new to each other, I can sense there is such goodness in him. His values not like any I’ve seen in any other man. I really like him a lot and I would love some ideas on how I can ensure to keep him interested and let him see that I have good intentions for us.

    Now my question comes at the fact that he has 3 brothers…do I try to impress his older brother or all of them? I really like him but I’m so afraid I may push him away. My culture has always taught me to be strong and independent. I have to admit though, that I have no issue taking a step back and allowing him to do what comes natural to him.

    I just need some tips, as the pace that we are going, I don’t believe that he’s the kind of man that is looking for the next thing for the moment, in fact he has much emphasis that that is not what he’s about.

    Thanks for your help in advance.

    1. Hi Shannah, thanks for the comment and I’m glad to hear things are going so well with your guy!

      Beyond what I’ve mentioned in this post, I would say, before visiting/meeting any of his brothers, you might ask your boyfriend for some advice (since he knows them better than you). I think it’s also not bad to take a step back and, as you said, allow him to do what comes natural. That also may mean letting him determine when he feels it is time for you to meet them.

      As for keeping him interested…of course, while each guy is an individual, I would say it’s important to keep in mind that actions often mean more than words. In other words, telling him “I love you” won’t have as much impact compared to if you, say, make him his favorite thing for dinner, or (this is something I do for my husband that he adores) prepare a foot bath for him at home. Just little actions like that which show you care.

  11. I know this is an old post and I may not get a reply but I met my girlfriend through QQ and we have been together for 5 months now. It is fantastic, we really love each other, I have started learning Mandarin (您好), we video chat every day and I am going to visit her when I graduate from university in July. She really wants me to meet her parents and honestly I can’t wait (even though they were less than thrilled to find out their 25 year old daughter is going out with a foreigner) but no matter what happens I am not giving up. This post was a great help to me to get some general ideas of how to behave and what to expect, so from the bottom of my heart I thank you.

  12. Quite a comprehensive site and I’m going to have to read more of it. 🙂 I’m the Chinese girlfriend in this case, and I feel it’s very lucky to be invited over for Chinese New Year — there must be a measure of curiosity to the gesture and a willingness to welcome you into the family even if they still feel the need to scope you out. My parents seem to have been in a state of denial for 1.5 years and say there’s no reason to meet my boyfriend because ‘he’s just a friend, we don’t need to meet all your friends’, therefore inviting him over is out of the question. With the coming new year I was just triple checking that gifts we plan won’t further just encourage their negativity (exactly what you said about Western partners being ‘easy’ and ‘seducers’ etc), and thanks for the insight.

  13. Hi. My name is Brian Santiago. I am a latino from America and I am currently dating a chinese woman. This is a huge complicated mess…We first met 4 years ago when she came to america to do some work study program for her school. We worked together and fell in love. After she left we continued long distance for 8 months then her friends persuaded her that because im american i will cheat on her. So she left me. After that, once a year for about a month she would talk to me and try to persuade me to go to china. I always told her no until october 16th of 2014. I told her i will go. So then we started talking more and started a long distance relationship. The complicated part is that after 10 months she finally confessed to me that shes been lying to me all this time. She started dating someone a year after she broke up with me and said the last time they talked was in may of 2014. It turns out that they are living in the same dorm in england. She told me she treats him like a stranger but she had to do that because she didnt have enough money to afford her own dorm. Anyways, I kno she loves me and i love her. At first, when she told her grandmother about me she liked me. She always liked me since i first talked to her over the phone in 2011. But now she started to hate me and all of her family is telling her to not be with me. So now she is pushing me away and says that its because shes a weak woman that she cant go against her grandmother and the rest of the family. They believe strongly in the american sterotypes and think i will take her away from china even though i already agreed that ill live out the rest of my life there. My question is, what can i do to impress her grandmother the most? I’ve tried telling my gf that ill do anything and to ask the parents for requirements that i should do. So far this is more of a money issue. I can be considered wealthy to chinese standards but im still not accepted. I was told i need to buy a home, lose weight, become police over here, get my school degree, and show that i will love in china and not take her away. Yet they wont give me the chance to prove myself. They pressured her to break up with me and now she is pushing me away and she told me that if her grandmother tells her to date another boy then she will. I am completely in love with her that i cant even think properly. How can i get her to fight for me and how can i impress her family but mainly her grandmother?

    1. Hey Brian,

      Sadly this can be a common occurrence, in terms of money and housing and weight and all kinds of stuff; I have been there. There is a general stereotype out there that all westerners will cheat and be disloyal the people they love and the only reason as to this is because we are portrayed like that through media and many older generations take that to heart without doing the research to find out otherwise.

      The lying was terrible and atrocious in all honesty and should never have been done, before you do anything get all the facts straight with her and make a list; stuff you need to do, stuff that is possible now and stuff that is possible in the future. If you have trust issues with her then get it all out on the table, make sure you know everything; i’m sorry to say but if she lied once then she will probably do it again. Try to speak with this stranger and understand what is going on.

      As for the grandmother, more often than not she would want security for her grandaughter and a person to provide. Go over to china and see them, meet the family and prove to them that you are a person that is loyal and will never ever hurt the person you love, show that you are strong, can provide and at the very least know some chinese (cantonese or mandarin) and speak with the grandmother to get your point across.

      It is difficult and long and stressful and annoying; I know buddy but you have to do it, prove to them all, not just her, but to everyone that you are loyal and can provide for absolutely everyone.

      I hope all goes well buddy

  14. I’d like to thank Michael and Jocelyn for your responses. It has definitely made me more confident. I have another question if you don’t mind. Would it be wise to bring my own parents to China to also join in the meeting with her family as a way to show i’m serious?

    1. I would say you go over first (just from personal experience) and then get everyone together and do a video call between everyone there and your parents and do some translating if they do not speak Mandarin or Cantonese.

      If they do speak it however then you can bring them to show that it you are determined and willing to go the extra mile for them. Just make sure you ‘ok’ it with your girlfriend first.

      All the best buddy

  15. jocelyn……please help me!! i been with this chinese girl since 2013,we were always together for the first 6 mos, i fell in love hard and i still love her very much, but after those months she change,she would only see me once a week which is hard on a relationship,i want to marry her,i gave her everything she needed ,she broke of the relationship, but wants to be friends which is hard due to our crossing the line,she wants to travel with me as we are together right now as friends as she sees it, she’s 34 and i’m 30 years older but that never bothered her….she wants to be free and go out with her friends and go away with friends and guys but only as friends,she is a very beautigul lady and i love her so much, all i want is for to love me like before aleast try….please help….lonely guy in love

  16. Great advice! It applies just as well, with an extra dose of no-PDA, for gay men meeting the parents of their Chinese future husband or present boyfriend. Some of the family will hate the idea but they are likely the same ones that complain about everything, anyway. Having a good job, and the possibility of a family member spending some time in America, softened the weird blow of the gay thing. By the way, American Ginsing is highly prized in China–I won points with that with my first Chinese boyfriend back in 2005. Don’t be first to dig into the bowl of lotus root and pork soup (my WuHan favorite), don’t snatch the most delicious bite, and let someone else take the last yummy piece. And remember that if this is stressful for you, imagine what your partner is going through, bringing home a Laowai!

  17. Hi! This post is so old but I see you’re active so hopefully this reaches haha
    Our relationship is a complicated mess. I just want to know how realistic we are being. I met my BF *xiaole playing a video game. We started messaging, I got a WeChat and it pretty much excelled from there. We have video chatted so he’s real etc.
    – im a 25 year old single black woman
    – he’s a 21 year old student/worker with a semi-estranged relationship with his parents due to career choice
    He’s currently off doing military training. When he’s back I want to bring up us meeting in person but not sure how. I don’t want to sound easy or anything like that. Is our relationship even possible? I don’t want it to turn into a drama and his parents completely ignore him because I’m all the red flags hahah. I care sooo deeply about him so I would rather leave his life than him have a strained relationship with them because of me. He also has a little sister(8). My daughter is 3😭 help me 😭😭

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