“Nervous” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I was about to meet John’s parents in rural Hangzhou for the first time. After all, once John told his parents he was dating me, his father famously told him that while he could be friends with a foreign girl, but shouldn’t date her.
Meeting the parents inspires all sorts of anxiety no matter where you live in the world – but even more so when you’re a foreigner and you’re about to meet the parents of your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend here in China. On top of all the usual pitfalls, you’re also dealing with a different culture, language and living customs. It’s like getting ready for an exam when you don’t even know the entire curriculum.
Fortunately, I’ve survived meeting the parents. And I’ve heard from a lot of others who have successfully made it through. Here are 6 tips I’ve learned over the years to help you prepare for meeting the parents in China:
1. Ask your girlfriend or boyfriend all about their parents
There’s always a story behind everyone’s parents. Why not find out? It’s a great way to get to know them before you actually meet them and figure out potential ways to bond with them.
I always wish I had done this before I first met John’s parents. Maybe then I would have figured out how much his mom loves to cook – just like me — and asked to watch her in the kitchen more? Or that his dad likes to read classic Chinese texts – which I’m always interested in — so I could have asked him about, say, Confucianism or Taoist stories.
2. Learn everything you can about the hometown
One thing I’ve learned from years of living in China? Everyone has a little hometown pride. So if you want to get a little closer to the parents, what better way than to learn about their hometown?
Start with your boyfriend or girlfriend first – they’re your closest experts – and also don’t forget to consult travel guides (which, depending on what attractions/history the hometown has, might tell you something). Most Chinese cities and counties even have Wikipedia pages in English, which might even teach you something your significant other doesn’t know.
3. Prepare gifts for the family
Gift giving is such an important thing in Chinese culture – so important, that you don’t want to show up to your first meeting with the parents without a gift in your hands. Chances are, they’re going to entertain you with a home-cooked dinner and even put you up for the night. There’s no better way to show your appreciation from the moment you enter their home than bearing a present for them.
I’ve written a number of posts on what to give to your Chinese family (including ideas for those of you coming to China from overseas). Honestly, I would ask your girlfriend or boyfriend first for some ideas before rushing out to the store.
But if they can’t think of anything – and you’re still stumped about what to purchase – repeat after me: fruit basket. You really can’t go wrong with buying them a nice fruit basket. You’ll find fruit baskets at any major supermarket in China or those fruit stores on the street. Everyone loves them.
4. Learn a few phrases in the local dialect
Mandarin Chinese may be the official language – but chances are, it’s not your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s mother tongue. The vast majority of people grew up speaking a local dialect. It’s their linguistic equivalent of that comfy pair of jeans you love wearing around the house, and that’s what you’ll probably hear around the dinner table.
Just think how amazed they’ll be if you can master a handful of simple words or phrases in the local dialect! Even if it’s as elementary as “Hello” or “Thank you” you’ll probably have everyone in smiles. Or laughing! After all, you’re probably the first foreigner they’ve ever seen speaking it. (My husband always giggles whenever I try out his local dialect!)
5. Dress casual, comfortable and err on the conservative side
Here in urban China, I’ve seen enough Daisy Dukes, mini-skirts and skorts, and tank tops to know that fashion has come a long way since the days of dull blue and gray Mao suits. And after witnessing my sister-in-law pull off an ultra-short jean skort at Grandpa’s funeral – something I would have never dared to do for a funeral in the US — I also know that my idea of what’s appropriate doesn’t always apply.
Still, if you want to give Baba and Mama a great first impression, you’re better off leaving your Daisy Dukes and ultra mini-skirts behind. Many Chinese parents feel wary about having foreigners in the family, and stereotypes about foreigners (such as the idea that Western women are promiscuous) only fuel their concerns. Yeah, I know it’s unfair, but that’s the reality.
Look at it this way. Even in Western countries – like the US, my home country – people agonize over what to wear to meet the parents for the first time, enough to write articles about it. Here’s what one of them wrote: “No matter how classy your mini-dress is, his mom will say the skirt was too short.”
Instead, go for something that’s casual, comfortable and on the conservative side. Think nice jeans and T-shirts (with long or short sleeves) or sweaters if it’s cooler out; for summer, you can do nice shorts or skirts just above the knee or below.
Forget about wearing a nice dress or suit, unless you’re told otherwise. This is, after all, a country where people routinely show up to wedding banquets dressed in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. Seriously!
5. Dress to stay warm enough in their home
My husband is still shocked that I never used to wear long johns under my clothing while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Even though I faced a winter that could last as long as four months or more, with below-freezing temperatures and tons of snow, staying warm was never an issue. We had central heating at home and pretty much anywhere we traveled. Even our car had heat.
Meanwhile, my husband’s hometown sits at the very same latitude as New Orleans and Houston, and he’s spent his entire life counting on long johns to help stay warm through the fall, winter and spring. Why? Because he’s used to having no heat inside the house, wherever he is – even in school.
So don’t just look at the weather when you’re packing your bags – ask your girlfriend or boyfriend what it’s actually like in their home. Find out whether they have any heat, including hot water, and if it will be available when you’re there. Also, ask him or her what they usually wear around the house at home.
Here’s a good general rule of thumb – China’s Yangtze river is like the Mason-Dixon line of heating through the country, where North of that people usually have some form of heat provided by the government (they turn it on sometime in November and off sometime in April) and South of that people do without. That said, there are ALWAYS exceptions and it pays to ask ahead of time.
And please, if you’re traveling during the winter months, don’t forget your long johns – trust me!
6. Bring photos
As the old cliché goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words – and who couldn’t use an extra thousand words or two when you’re in front of two parents you’ve never met? Photographs provide a perfect way for you to connect with your significant other’s Baba and Mama without saying a lot. You can show them your family, pictures from your hometown and even the beautiful places you’ve visited. Thanks to the photos I lugged around to my first visit to meet John’s parents, I was able to break the ice with his dad and finally make a connection – enough to make him realize I was the kind of foreign girl worth dating (and, later, marrying).
What has been your experience with meeting the parents? What advice do you have?