4 Awkward Experiences I’ve Had Spending Chinese New Year With Family in China

Bringing family together for the holidays is bound to produce a few awkward experiences – including when it’s your family spending Chinese New Year. Here are four I’ve had that have stayed with me over the years (making me wonder what’s in store this Chinese New Year!):

1. Family pressure to have a baby at the most important dinner of the year

As I’ve written before, being married for 10 years with no kids can be a pretty awkward situation in China. Which of course, can lead to awkward situations during the holidays, like the following.

Last year, just as we sat down to nianye fan (Chinese New Year’s eve dinner – the most important feast of the year), one of John’s brothers turned to me and said, “Next year, we’ll have a new person around the table, right?” The meaning wasn’t lost on me – that, obviously, he expected us to get pregnant and have a baby in the year of the horse.

Not exactly the kind of thing you like to hear when you know that’s not going to happen. (We just can’t have kids right now for personal reasons.)

My face completely flushed red as everyone around the table looked at me, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. It was one of those moments where time nearly ground to a halt – an incredibly awkward one, to say the least.

Fortunately, everyone soon started eating. Thank god Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner was so distracting! (And delicious!)

2. Seeing a relative so drunk he was practically unconscious and covered in vomit

This is the lunch where it all started.
This is the lunch where it all started.

This wasn’t just awkward – it was dangerous.

On the second day of the Chinese New Year, our family invited over some relatives for a loud and raucous lunch where the alcohol flowed quite freely. A little too freely, in fact.

The main culprits were a mob of older male relatives in the dining room pressuring the younger guys to drink as a sign of respect to them. It became a neverending request, where one shot glass of high proof baijiu led to another and another and another.

I never cared for boisterous and drunken family meals, so I had positioned myself on a chair outside, chatting with some of the women in the family.

An hour or so later, my husband discovered one of his cousins had gotten so sloppy drunk that he hid himself in the shed behind the family’s beehive. When John finally carried him out of the shed and plunked him into a bamboo chair, he looked almost unconscious – and then puked all over his shirt.

I swear, the baijiu on his breath mingled with the stench of vomit has forever been etched into my memory. (And, I will never, ever, sit in that bamboo chair.)

Later, family members sent him to the hospital, where they pumped his stomach and revived him. Fortunately, he didn’t consume enough to threaten his life.

But those moments when his almost comatose self, reeking of alcohol and puke, were seated right across from me rank as some of the most awkward and frightening ones I’ve experienced during the holidays.

3. Using a chamber pot in the bedroom while having my period

(Photo via http://www.budou.com/detail/6/6242577.html)
The family chamber pot looked something like this.(Photo via http://www.budou.com/detail/6/6242577.html)

Well, it’s one thing to manage your “monthly gift” when you’re in your own apartment – and another thing entirely to deal with it in a home where the only flush toilet is downstairs and too far from your bedroom to use at night.

Enter in the family’s chamber pot (it resembled a bucket, complete with its own lid). Yes, folks, that’s what I had to use one year when nature called and it was late at night. I’ll spare you all of the really gross details, but suffice to say it felt awkward trying to squat over a bucket AND manage the messy side of being “on the rag” at the same time.

(Thank goodness our suite at the family home now has a modern bathroom with a real flush toilet!)

4. Calling John’s parents to tell them we were stuck on a mountain after dark

John and I were so thrilled we made it to the top -- never realizing we nearly ended up trapped on the mountain after dark.
John and I were so thrilled we made it to the top — never realizing we nearly ended up trapped on the mountain after dark.

Last year, we had an unseasonably warm start to the year of the horse – so much so that the glorious sunshine on the second day of the new year beckoned John and I outside for a walk. We didn’t actually intend to climb the mountain but the beautiful weather spurred us on – and besides, we had always wanted to make it to the top. We lucked out on finding a path that brought us close to the summit and couldn’t resist clawing our way through the brush and bushes until we made it. Woo-hoo!

Well, that euphoria lasted right up until the path we chose down the mountain petered out until we were trapped in a minefield of thorny vines as the sun was just disappearing behind the mountains. There we were, trapped on a mountain at dark with no idea exactly how to make it down and not a flashlight in sight.

We did, however, have our mobile phone – thus came the awkward call sometime around 6:30pm or so, announcing what was surely my mother-in-law’s worst nightmare. (She never did care for us gallivanting around the mountains in the village).

Fortunately, we did eventually make it down the mountain – slowly and step-by-step as we held hands the entire way for safety. It was one of the craziest things we’ve ever done and we suffered some nasty looks from John’s family (including his eldest brother, who gave us the silent treatment as proof of his extreme anger at us for getting lost). Not fun.

What awkward experiences have you had during the holidays?

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27 Replies to “4 Awkward Experiences I’ve Had Spending Chinese New Year With Family in China”

  1. It’s always weird to see all the husbands getting totally drunk, while the women stay sober to drive them home afterwards. The ritualized drinking and toasting takes time to get used to, when you come from a culture where drinking is considered something more casual.

    When people start playing games it’s also a bit odd, but it’s wide spread in China. Although it always reminds me of children’s birthdays. Then again, games usually stop once the lads reach a certain intoxication level. Then it’s just toasting and ganbei-ing.

    The other challenge is to keep politely refusing any offers for cigarettes. That can be a bit awkward if the favorite uncle’s mini-game is to get the foreigner to smoke one of those terrible cigarettes of his… variations of the game are people who constantly want to toast to you and figure out oh much baijiu you can stomach before you drop.

    Then there’s the usual awkwardness, of being the only foreigner in the room, and with a few exceptions nobody speaks English, except for the one guy with the PhD and the student who wants to practice her English skills. Good thing is, you get a lot of bonus points if you join the drinking game (no need to talk there, eventually it’s just toasting, laughing, patting each other’s back and swearing friendship and brotherhood and stuff like that) – and more bonus points from the parents, who’re too old to fully participate, when you know when to stop 😉

    Can’t really say all this is especially awkward, but an experience nonetheless. Just play along, be friendly, don’t get smashed, be able to laugh at yourself and you’ll have a good time and many new friends afterwards 🙂

  2. I love how you don’t shy away from writing about awkward topics, I really admire that. Even though I am not living in China I spend a considerable amount of time at my Chinese fiance’s parent’s home here in Australia and I find there are so many (often small) things that are awkward, different or difficult. I find your blog such a great source for dealing with these things!

  3. I remember using a chamber pot (but no lid, made of plastic) until I was 5, and I’m just 28. I’m from Spain and it was normal back then. I think now it’s not so popular anymore. I only used it at night, so I didn’t have to walk to the toilet, instead I pulled it out from under my bed, peed, and kept it back down there. Next morning my mother would empty it and clean it :). One of my friends remembers having a transparent pot and using it while family was watching TV on the living room but instead she was watching the transparent pot getting steamy and opaque XDDD.

  4. That first photo really illustrates your point. That’s an awkward (and painful) situation that can happen anywhere in the world, I suppose.

    The Chinese we socialized with in Manila never took the drinking competitions to extremes, but when my husband went on business trips to Korea, there was a lot of pressure to drink too much. He solved the problem to his satisfaction by drinking some of his counterparts under the table to prove himself. After that he was able to refuse excessive amounts of alcohol, and he even scheduled meetings for breakfast or lunch. It’s too bad he felt he had to go to such an extreme.

  5. When you are not married, the most asked question during the Chinese New Year dinner is: “When will you get married?”, followed by suggestions of having kids as soon as possible, of course. I am lucky that I have never been pressured by my boyfriend’s family, I have only been asked once and it was because his grandma had been drinking a little too much huang jiu…

  6. My in-laws also don’t have a conventional toilet in their home. They use a bucket without any running water instead. We stayed there once for a few weeks and I also got my period. Luckily, they live in a city and I could move into a hotel for that time. It would have been way too embarrassing to use the bucket. They don’t only use it at night, but also during the day.

  7. Wow Jocelyn, kudos to you on the chamberpot.. I could never do that!!! (especially on my period, eep!!).

    As for the pressure to get married, I personally never had to deal with it but my Chinese friend’s would bring me to their house for new year’s to take off some pressure. My friend told me, “if I bring an American to my village, they’ll all focus on you and won’t bother me so much about getting married!”

    1. Ha, that’s cute that your friend would bring you as a distraction! (It is true, it does work — I’ve seen it in action!)

      Ugh, it was terrible with that chamber pot. I wished I didn’t have to but, you know, nature called and I had literally no where else to “go”!

  8. When my husband was little growing up in Taipei, he also used the chamber pot. xD

    I can relate to number two so much. I remember my first Chinese New Year in Taiwan. Although, nobody vomited at least. Nobody asked my husband and I if we are going to have kids. It was never brought up not even once.

    Those are some awkward situations but you handled it with grace. 🙂

    1. Wow, that’s interesting your husband used a chamber pot growing up.

      Honestly, I don’t always handle it with grace, actually. Once I got up immediately from the table when someone asked about it. I gave the excuse that I was full and finished eating, which was true, but it was quite abrupt and anyone could have known why I was really getting up!

  9. @ Jocelyn.

    I am in agreement with your in-laws that it is about time for you and Jun to have at least one child. Remember, do not worry as we Chinese have a saying: “when the ship arrives at the port, it will somehow dock by itself.” Also, I recall that you told me that your parents in-law promised to care for and raise your child for you up to a certain age during the time when you and Jun are busily working in the big city earning the big bucks. So, you have nothing to worry about. Take care and I want to see you pregnant soon.!!!!

  10. I think you have a typo in item number one of your post–“As I’ve written before, being married for 10 years with kids can be a pretty awkward situation in China.” I’m guessing you meant to say that you are without kids, but typed it too quickly. 🙂

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