4 Things I’m Embarrassed to Share About Living with My Chinese In-Laws

The other night, while staying over at my in-laws’ place in the countryside, my husband and I were just about to get ready for bed when it hit us.

Oh crap, we’d left the laundry in the washing machine all afternoon. We’d forgotten to hang it out to dry.

We bounded downstairs to the laundry room with flashlight in hand, and fully expected to spend 10 to 15 minutes doing what we should have done more than six hours ago.

Except, when I ran over to the washing machine, it was empty. Totally empty. And when I turned my head, sure enough, there was our laundry, neatly hung on clothes hangers on a bamboo rack.

As much as I felt relieved that I’d been saved the trouble of doing that laundry this evening, a slight sense of guilt pricked me.

Once again, my mother-in-law had done housework for me. Housework I could have easily done for myself…and should have done, given it was my laundry.

It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m in my thirties and still enjoy laundry assistance from my mother-in-law whenever we stay at her home in the countryside of Zhejiang Province. But it’s true. This sort of thing happens ALL the time.

So in the spirit of being honest, I’m sharing 4 embarrassing things that I’ve experienced with my Chinese in-laws. Here they are:

IMG_2407#1: My mother-in-law will still do laundry for us

Yes, it’s true. My mother-in-law has been known to hang up my clothing left in the washing machine…and she’s even done entire loads of laundry for us.

To be sure, though, I generally don’t ask her to do it. Even I know it’s embarrassing to be in your 30s and have your parents or in-laws do your laundry. (I mean, come on, anyone who has seen Legally Blonde would remember how Elle and Brooke howled over the fact that Warner still took his laundry home to get it cleaned.)

Here’s what usually happens. Either I put the clothing in the washing machine, but stupidly forget to hang it up on time (like I mentioned in the introduction). Or, my mother-in-law grabs my dirty clothing without telling me, and does the entire load for me (this happened ALL THE TIME when I stayed with my in-laws during the summer of 2011).

Sometimes, though, I do ask for her help. The other day, we were in a hurry to leave their house and I had just thrown a load of laundry into the washing machine. So I asked her if she could hang it and she said, “No problem” with a smile.

So now you know one of my biggest dirty secrets.

版本 2#2: My mother-in-law cooks all our meals

When we stay with my in-laws at their home, there’s one thing we can count on – three square meals, all home-cooked by my mother-in-law. Always.

This is the complete opposite of how things work at my parents’ home back in the US. There, the assumption is we’re on our own and have to make our own meals (or buy them). Unless, of course, my dad or mom specifically asks us to join them for a meal (or invites us out).

The difference totally blew my husband’s mind.

Anyhow, here at my in-laws’ home in China there’s never any concern about cooking. Everyone knows that when it’s lunch and dinner, my mother-in-law’s voice will echo through the corridors – time to eat! – and we’ll all come bounding down the stairs.

It’s a strange place for me. I spent so many years handling all my cooking (and enjoying much of it). Now, when I’m staying with my in-laws, I just show up to eat at the table.

I have spent some time with my mother-in-law in the kitchen, learning how to cook from her. (She taught me how to make vegan Chinese-style flatbread, for example.) But in many ways, I feel foreign in her kitchen, a feeling that has nothing to do with my nationality, actually. After all, she uses a fire-powered wok to do the majority of her cooking, and I honestly have no idea how to manage the fire. Given how clumsy I am, I might just burn down the kitchen if I tried!

Now that I think about it, maybe it is better to leave the cooking to a woman who won’t cause a conflagration in the kitchen.

Money#3: My in-laws give us money more often than you think

When a friend of mine — also a Western woman with a Chinese husband – posted in a private chat about how guilty she felt because her mother-in-law gave her some cash to buy a new laptop (her old one crashed), oh, how I could sympathize.

I thought about the many Chinese New Years that had passed since John and I returned to China in late 2013, and how his parents always gave us heaping hongbao filled with more money than adults in the family should have.

I remembered how my mother-in-law handed over an additional stack of bills last year because my husband was starting his business (and she wanted him to have some “lucky money”).

I even thought of the numerous times when my mother-in-law spent money on us that she totally shouldn’t have spent. Like buying those new coats for John for Chinese New Year (which prompted me to buy new clothes to make her happy). Or the comforter she bought for me to stay warm during the winter. Or even the way she purchased all of the basic necessities for our apartment in 2014.

Embarrassing? Absolutely.

IMG_3338#4: We’ve lived with my in-laws. A lot.

In America, the ultimate badge of adulthood is having your own place, separate from mom and dad.

Well, the most embarrassing thing I could mention on this list is the fact that we’ve lived in the same house as my in-laws – for long periods of time.

Even now, we divide our time between an apartment in Hangzhou and their home. Heck, they added an entire suite to the house just for my husband and me, which proves how welcoming they are.

It’s worlds away from America. I can guarantee you that if I asked my American friends and classmates, none of them would say that their parents or in-laws renovated their homes so they could live together. It’s just not done there.

As embarrassing as it is to admit this, I have to confess I’m also grateful. This suite they’ve provided us is symbolic of the incredible support they’ve given me and my husband.


Life isn’t always easy for John and me. But knowing that we have a couple of incredibly loving parents behind us – willing to do things that I’m a little embarrassed to talk about – makes the hard times a little more bearable.

If you’re all grown up, is there anything you’re embarrassed that your parents or in-laws still do for you?

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36 Replies to “4 Things I’m Embarrassed to Share About Living with My Chinese In-Laws”

  1. LOL, you do laundry like Andy. Except I’m willing to bet that you really do forget to collect it from the washer, whereas I suspect Andy “forgets” so I will finish doing the laundry for him.

    Only problem is that he sometimes forgets to tell me he put in laundry while I’m gone and it sits in the washer for days. MILDEWING!

    I don’t get red envelopes. 🙁 Jealous.

  2. Wow… it’s great you have so supportive in-laws.

    But I don’t think I could handle someone else doing my laundry and cooking. When my Filipino husband and I first got married, my sister-in-law kept taking over the cooking – she wouldn’t let me do it and she wouldn’t teach me how to cook Filipino dishes. This left me feeling totally useless as a wife, because I wanted to fulfill the role of taking care of my husband (an important element of the culture here).

    When we moved out and built our own home things radically changed for the better. We now have privacy and can really relax together.

    But each to his own of course! You have done really well to adjust to such a profoundly different environment to that in America.

  3. haha
    True that, typical Chinese parents, last time my girlfriend and I visited my parents , they took care of almost everything(of course, I, as an “typical” Chinese kid, was and still am used to that), and before we left, she tried to give my girlfriend somethinkg like 5000 yuan.

    She did not take it of course, “not their custom” I explained. lol

  4. You’re lucky to have such wonderful in-laws, especially with your mother-in-law cooking three meals a day.

    I didn’t spend much time with my Chinese in-laws, although when we visited, they were very hospitable. My husband and I spent more time with my parents. When we lived in the Philippines, we stayed with my parents for a couple of weeks every couple of years during our home leave. They kept two extra bedrooms ready for us and the three girls. My mom cooked most of the meals with my help. (I always feel most at home in my own kitchen.)

    I don’t have any trouble having someone wash my clothes. When I visit my youngest daughter (the cleanest one in the family) she washes my clothes with hers and brings them back to me folded.

  5. Hey Jocelyn, great post as always! Just wanted to let you know I have also nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award – thanks for being the grandmistress of AMWF blogs and thanks for introducing me to all the wonderful WWAMs in this world!

  6. I share the four points with you, Jocelyn!(and it is, indeed, somewhat embarrassing). I see now that many Chinese in laws will do whatever it takes to spoil us. My father in law, for example, will sometimes go out early in the mornings to get us something delicious for breakfast, as well as 火龙果 for me (my favourite fruit and utterly tasteless when I buy it imported in my country). He cleans, sweeps the floors, and generally keeps the house neat and spotless. He’s like a cleaning hurricane, leaving no trace of the toys/crayons of our kids.

    My mother in law, on the other hand, locks herself in the unbearably hot kitchen (in an already unbearably hot Nanjing) and cooks healthy meals, as well as doing other housework and taking care of my brother in law’s little boy.

    Never, not even once, do they complain to anybody nor ask for gratitude. They fully sacrifice themselves in the most discrete way, but the effect of their actions is greater, like a sort of domestic “为无为”.

    We’ll be in China for the summer, ready to be spoilt rotten again (I feel guilty for that, already).

    1. LOL, Olga, we’re sisters!

      Your in-laws sound so much like mine. (My father-in-law loves getting up early to buy tofu at the local market!) My mother-in-law is the epitome of sacrifice. Everything she does is for family and it’s extraordinary.

      Have fun during your summer in China!

  7. My wife’s parents had long since passed away when we married, and her second mother lived with her fifth younger brother, so there was never a parent’s home in the countryside. However, that never prevented the rest of the family showing us hospitality similar to that you describe. When we went to fifth younger sister’s home in a compound for retired military, third younger brother’s home in Alhambra, fourth younger brother’s home in Monterey Park, or our “ch’in chia (qin jia)” stepson’s wife’s parent’s home high up on the slopes of Kuan Yin Shan outside of Taipei, everyone went well out of their way to see that we were comfortable and well fed, and that I was never left out of the conversation with the language changed from Mandarin to Minnan.

    Our experience in China is a reflection on Western and American ideas of the individual and the community. A lot of the angst of young Americans may start with the separation anxiety forced upon us by our culture, that pushes us apart instead of drawing us in together, and by the pounding refrain of compete, compete, compete, which early on sets us against one another (Chinese usually wait until they get into business). Western philosophy’s preoccupation with the individual over the group, existence before essence, alters our social relations everywhere we turn. Chinese would just laugh at Sartre and tell us the essence and existence go together.
    Don’t be embarrassed about all this. Step back far enough to see both cultures in clear perspective. And next time post about all the things you have discovered you can do to return their kindness to your family.

    You are blessed to be experiencing “essence” together with “existence.” Enjoy.

    1. James, thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. How lovely that your wife’s family has been so hospitable towards you.

      You make a good point — you have to wonder if America has it wrong in pushing kids out so early.

  8. I think it’s interesting that somehow it is part of Chinese hospitality, right? Also, has to do with being family as well. Parents are still there to try to “help” you out. I do agree of the embarrassment when your mother-in-law finishes your laundry. It’s the same embarrassment I felt last year when my dad cleaned my bedroom at home when I lived at school. or when my dad folds all the laundry in the laundry room, including mine. T-T (only does this when he’s tired of how messy the laundry room is.

    I’m finally going to China this summer (study abroad in Shanghai)! So, I am expecting hospitality from my long-time friend’s family when I stay with him and his parents in Chongqing. (This will be after my program ends on June 6, and will be in Chongqing till June 14th, leaving back to the US on the 15th.). I know I will be spoiled when I arrive in Chongqing and I’m not ready for that. (Knowing my friend for over 7 years, he is almost like my brother and he comes from a prominent family, and I never once used him for his family’s money.)
    I can’t accept money, maybe gifts. Every time my friend and I talk on the phone I argue with him and tell him I don’t want him to pay for my round-trip flight from SH to CQ and he’s telling me no worries. I eventually gave up.

    I think it’s more of a mutual benefit, you help them out and they help you out, it’s beneficial.

    or in your case, actions speak louder than words, because that’s love from your mother-in-law doing your laundry. 🙂

  9. Jocelyn, I have been following your blog for some time now. Remember, I emailed you last year that I had read every single posts on your blog.

    I’m not surprised that John’s family has been so helpful and hospitable towards you. You deserve it.

    P/S There are meaty posts of substance on your blog; from yourself and other bloggers. Thank you so much for the share. I also enjoyed your post on 5 things you leart from the Chinese countryside etc. Life’s simplest pleasures.

  10. LOL. So true! My parents still do our laundry, do all the dishes and cook for us whenever we visit them. They do the same when they come to visit us. Only exception is the laundry since they are not familiar with the washing machine we use. My mom always say, “you don’t know how I clean dishes! I like it my way.” It’s tiring to argue with her. The money thing also. They always try to give us money. I was like, “Mom, we are the one making money now!” oh well…. guess it’s a good problem to have!

  11. Your inlaws are so sweet! They feel like it’s their duty to their son. I had the same experience when I was married to “Cai” in that my inlaws sacrificed their happiness and well-being to drop everything to help us in the US. They kept telling me it’s their duty. I know it helped us out a ton. But my mom also went way above and beyond and she’s not Chinese. She quit her job when I moved back home so she could help me with Jake. My parents renovated their basement to add a bedroom and full bathroom so my uncle could move down there when Jake and I took over his room and bathroom upstairs. Parents show their love in many ways!

  12. Every time we travel somewhere, my bf’s parents stay in our apartment to take care of the dog. Every time when I come back there is some surprise… his mum either washed the curtains and cushions, or cleaned the kitchen’s smoke extractor, or filled the fridge with food… There are two ways of reacting to this: one, feeling offended that they think you are still a child who cannot do anything, or two, accepting that that’s how they are hahaha. I go with option two…

  13. Wow, your mother-in-law actually uses a washing machine? My parents-in-law own a washing machine, but rarely use it. When we stay with them, my mother-in-law insists on doing my laundry as well, but by hand! She says she doesn’t need a washing machine because “我就是洗衣机” (she is the washing machine). I have tried to stop her, but it’s no use. Once when she was washing my clothes, she found a pair of my underwear had a hole in it, so she bought me new ones, talk about embarrassing!

  14. Awww I don’t know if this is embarrassing! I think parents will always be parents no matter what (when I go home to visit and attempt to do my own laundry, my mom will scoop up my clothes from the dryer and fold them on my bed before I can even get to it!).

    In America living with your parents until your early 30s isn’t as taboo as it used to be (it’s hard to stake out a living these days), so I think times are changing.

    I think my boyfriend and I will experience all of the above things with his Chinese in-laws sooner or later. They already cook and clean our house for us every time they come down to visit. I wish I could say I was embarrassed, but I’m actually really happy to be spoiled once in a while!

  15. The hongbao was new one for me this year. The day my boyfriend and I were leaving, his mom handed me a hongbao with 1000 rmb! I got very flustered because of massive amounts of guilt – she always does so many wonderful things for me, takes care of me even though we aren’t officially family (yet) and everything I try to do nice for her just pales in comparison. I’m am UNWORTHY! 🙁

    1. Hey, K, maybe the guilt will dissipate if you think of that hong bao as an advanced payment. You will undoubtedly earn it by patiently withstanding the onslaught of questions such as, “Are you pregnant?” “Are you pregnant YET?” “WHY aren’t you pregnant yet?” “Eat this food, it will help you get pregnant.” “Did you eat the food I told you about? Here, have some more!” and the inevitable “Where’s my grandson?!”

      Or maybe you will have nicer in-laws than me. If so, please make up some horror stories. 🙂

  16. Hi Jocelyn,

    Enjoyed reading this, even though you posted it a few years ago. It popped up as I google searched “how to live with Chinese in-laws.” My wife and I met in 2012 in Hangzhou and lived there together and then moved to Singapore. We just had a baby, and invited her folks to come and stay with us to care for the baby. I am having difficulty getting used to them staying with us. Her mother in-law insists on cooking all our meals, washing my laundry, cleaning, etc. even though I did not ask her to. I don’t care for the level of control that they try to assert in our lives. As an American, I feel that my independence is being threatened. They are also quite judgmental on some of the decisions we’ve made about raising and caring for our baby…We’re only at about 3 months into their stay, and they’re slated to stay for at least another 9. I’m hoping I can learn for ways cope and kindly let them know that this is our home and they are guests. Advice?

    1. Hi GrahamNation, thanks for the comment. Have you discussed your feelings with your wife? She’s the one best positioned to know how to properly set some boundaries while keeping the peace in the family. I would start with a discussion with her, since she knows her parents better than anyone else and might have a sense for how to help carve out more space for the two of you.

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