Whenever my husband calls me his nèirén (内人), we both erupt in laughter — and for a good reason. Nèirén, a traditional Chinese term for “wife”, also literally means “inside person” — a perfect catchphrase for my current situation. After all, I spent my days either inside our home or inside our village, almost never venturing into the nearby town or beyond.
I have to confess, it’s a little strange to admit that my life remains pretty much confined to this rural mountainous village in Zhejiang Province and, specifically, to the family home.
You might wonder, why don’t you and the husband travel? You could go to Shanghai or some other nearby city? You could visit friends in China or see the country? Well, we have our reasons for sticking around here instead — reasons I’m unable to share here on the blog.
Still, here’s the really odd part for me — I no longer even run errands, things I used to do many years before when John and I lived in Shanghai. Back then, I used to go shopping on the weekends, mail things at the post office, and more. But here? Nothing.
In a sense, that reflects the fact that I’m living under one roof with my husband, his parents and other family members. My father-in-law handles pretty much all of the shopping for our home and does all of the post office runs — so if anyone needs something, we just let him know and he takes care of it.
But what if I wanted to go shopping in town on my own? Maybe I’m curious about what that local Falian Supermarket actually has on the shelves? Every time I’ve suggested anything like this to the family, I’m always met with a resounding “no”! Usually they say, with a grimace on their faces, “Don’t go, it’s too much trouble!”
Yet it’s more than just a matter of trouble, as my husband has told me. “It’s about safety,” he once said to me while we were walking through the mountains. “It’s better if people in town don’t see you.”
How could my simple stroll into town create a safety problem?
According to my husband, it works like this. If I head into town for shopping or other errands, invariably I’ll turn a lot of heads. People will stare, giggle, and talk about me — and if I’m unlucky, the wrong kind of person might notice me. You know, a thief.
Among this beautiful mountain village hides the ugly specter of theft. Every year, someone in the village is robbed, especially just before Chinese New Year, and past victims include my husband’s uncle and aunt who live just next door to us. My mother-in-law cited all kinds of shocking tales — of people who were at home while the robberies happened, of thieves who pried open the bars on windows to enter, of homeowners fast asleep as the criminals tip-toed into their rooms and bedrooms to steal valuables. As crazy as the stories sound, I believe them. Every evening I tune into the local Zhejiang news, reporting the latest batch of outrageous robberies in the province — and every small tragedy reminds me that the whole family must be careful, especially me.
The problem is, most Chinese think foreigners are wealthy, making my home an especially tempting one for any would-be burglar. Since it’s such a small town, it wouldn’t take long for anyone to ask around about where I live. In China, people love to talk — particularly when you have a yangxifu (foreign wife of a Chinese man) in town, the only one around for miles.
And if people came to rob my suite, they’d probably rob from the rest of the family too I would feel horribly guilty if my selfish desires to explore the town — a town that, when it comes right down to it, doesn’t have anything really special to offer — ended up harming the entire family.
Hence, being an “inside person” has become my life.
Sometimes I’ve wondered, how long can we keep this up before the wrong person discovers where I live? Well, as my husband and family sees it, the problem people would be in town, not in this village. Here in the village, only locals — folks who grew up in this area their entire lives — reside (it’s still against the law to buy or sell property in the countryside). But in the town a 15 minute walk away from us, you’ll find restaurants, rooms for rent, and all the other signs that outsiders (Chinese from other areas) and migrants pass through. Most Chinese believe that outsiders tend to commit crimes — and even though it’s a stereotype, it sort of makes sense. Everyone in China returns to their hometown for Chinese New Year, so why would you spoil it (or worse, increase your chances of being caught) by, say, robbing your neighbor there?
Still, please don’t feel sorry for me. I may be a good daughter-in-law who sticks to home and the village…but what a heck of a playground it is!
Yes, now that I think about it….I could get used to this whole “inside person” life here in China. 😉
43 Replies to “Why my Chinese family wants the foreign daughter-in-law around home + village photos!”
_IF_ you are happy and content to stay homebound, that’s fine. I’m a homebody myself, given a working internet connection, I am perfectly happy to stay at my computer for many months.
I’m a smidgen concerned because I’m not totally convinced by your post and photos that you wouldn’t feel confined after a period of time. I’m worried that you are trying to convince yourself in this post and not just us. How long do you expect to stay in the family home? A year? A decade? How long do you expect to be content to stay? I think it’s grand to spend some time exploring the village you are in, and get to know the people there. Those intimate relationships can be fascinating and consuming. What I worry about is that you will eventually (after 1-3 years) feel stifled, but meanwhile you have set up months-to-years of family expectations that you are content to remain where you are.
I admire and truly respect your willingness to be a good Chinese daughter-in-law (very challenging even for those of us who are born Chinese).
But I am concerned that your “selfish desires” can only be restrained for so long. It sounds, here, like you still have those desires. Those desires don’t just go away just because you (and your family) want them to.
I hope you don’t mind me sticking my nose in your business. I’ve enjoyed your blog for several years now and admire yours and John’s ability to make your marriage work despite challenges, and I really love that you are bonding with your in-laws. So I really, really hope that you are not setting up unrealistic expectations for your future that will hurt you. If you might not be content to remain as you are, maybe you want to leave an opening where you’ll revisit this issue in a year or two, with no consequences or guilt-tripping if you want changes made.
Again, if you are happy, and I am reading too much into your post, I’m happy to take this all back (and celebrate you as a fellow homebody)!
I just spent three weeks in my husband’s village and spent most of the day inside the family home, hanging out in the courtyard or using my computer in the living room (to write, not to go online since there was no Internet). We did go to the town center a few times for the special local breakfast, but luckily I blend in with the locals, even though most of my husband’s family and friends know that I’m from the US.
I am more of a homebody nowadays, but I think the main reason I got restless being inside for so long was because of the lack of Internet 😛
I have two comments on your post. No offence at all.
1. You mentioned that you would be ‘horribly guilty if [your] selfish desires to explore the town .. ended up harming the entire family’ and your in-laws try to convince you with the thief-stealing-the-wealthy theory, and they want to protect you and you’d better stay home.
Why do you think your desire to explore the town is ‘selfish’? If your in-laws can actually prevent valuables from being stolen by confining you inside home and you actually do that, then they are gratified and their desires are satisfied. Can we say they are ‘selfish’?
2. There are a lot if’s. If you go to town, then you turn a lot of heads. If you turn a lot of heads, then one of them must be an unwanted person. If the unwanted person wants to steal things, this guy will find out where you live. If the guy further happens to be burglar, then your exploration of neighbouring town will result in a big loss to the family and so on.
I don’t know how you think of being an ‘inside person’ or neiren, I think it’s quite harmful. Yes, I think it’s harmful. There a lot words for (Chinese) ‘compliments’ on a good Chinese wife. 温柔贤惠, 贤内助, 夫唱妇随, usually these words are used to describe all the virtues of a good Chinese wife. Nobody tells us why a good wife needs to be following what husband says, however following the patriarchal instructions is regarded as a virtue, no matter what the benefits to the family are. It’s said that in China every man theoretically needs a 贤内助 or a wife who can 夫唱妇随. When I moved to the other side of the world, I find many American girls are quite the opposite to what we praise in China.
There are two issues here:
a. There are so many mumbo jumbos that have been repeated for two thousand years so they are internalised in almost every ‘inside person’ or neiren’s mind. It’s sexist and might be the cause of domestic violence on the husband side – if you follow, then you are a good wife; if not, you deserve a beating. I don’t think that’s anything good at all, even the name of ‘neiren’ is sexist in my mind. In my mind, quite contrary to a typical Chinese girl, any independent American girl who always follows her heart, at any cost, is so cool and so attractive.
b. “In China, people love to talk — particularly when you have a yangxifu (foreign wife of a Chinese man) in town”. They gossip, not talk, at least not in all honesty. Many people in China unconsciously assume the people they are talking to would be ‘intruders’ sometime in the future so they stay alert and be very cautious when they talk. If in China there are open dialogues and honest conversations, then why does the mystical exist that “most Chinese think foreigners are wealthy, making my home an especially tempting one for any would-be burglar”?
I don’t think that it’s harmful to be a “neiren”. Jocelyn seems to be surrounded by mountains, nature, with the ability to go outside and go hiking around her China home. It’s not like she’s being confined to a single room and absolutely cannot show her face.
I think when she wrote that “In China, people love to talk”, she meant that they love to gossip.
Open dialogues and honest conversations have nothing to do with the fact that in many rural areas of China (hell, even in big cities like Beijing), a lot of Chinese people are still uneducated about the outside world. In my own experience in Beijing, a lot of locals think that foreigners are wealthy. It’s a fact, not a myth.
I think your new home is just beautiful, and I envy that you get to be around all that gorgeous nature. Your readers that express concern are friends that have read your blog for years and care for you deeply and don’t want to see you get hurt-including myself. Being a foreign wife is hard sometimes. I hope as time goes by, you will realize, though, that it is not selfish to want to get out in public. The odds of being robbed…. well surely they must lock their doors to deter such behavior. It is scary when other family members have been victims of a robbery, and that is probably why they don’t want you to go out. But honestly in the future it might be unrealistic. Makes me feel sad to think that the only solution is to keep you from being seen by any townspeople, even if you are fine for the time being. Once again, though, as long as you and John are truly happy that is all that matters. Best wishes and love! xoxox
I find Chinese people to be very concerned about safety. I don’t know how it is in the countryside as Suzhou is the smallest city I have lived in (in China), but compared to Spanish cities, Chinese cities are very safe. I have never felt unsafe walking around Shanghai, Suzhou or Beijing alone at night, but Madrid… that’s another story!
Wow! Kudos to you for being able to keep such a low profile. I was in this small town for two years before I got married, so while I’m still a bit of a novelty (as far as I know, there are no other Caucasians here..a few Asians and former Chinese, but they blend in), people just gawk and comment openly. Since I don’t work outside the home anymore, and everything I really need is within our xiao qu, I do spend up to three weeks at a time in just this community of 10,000 people where I don’t walk more than a mile to get or do whatever I need.
I’ve always felt pretty safe here, but hubby did scold me last week after I told him how I was trying, nicely mind you, to “re-educate” people on the bus about how it’s not polite for young people, especially men sit while the elderly stand. He said the local people here (different from the people like us who live in the oilfield and are mostly transplants from other parts of the country) don’t play nicely with non-locals and wouldn’t take kindly to being told that they’re doing things the wrong way. I’ve heard enough stories; I’ll keep quiet from now on.
You must have your reasons why you are not venturing out and not telling. But you should do, if you could with John, at least, at some point. I don’t know, but I think it can’t be that bad – this thing about being robbed. I thought China was quite safe, especially in the rural areas. I may be wrong though. But, other the reasons that you said you can’t share in this blog, I do hope that you could and would venture out at some point, though your in-laws’ village does look vast enough to roam around, without the need to check out the nearby town. All the best to you. At least you are comfortable with the status quo
That’s a lot of nice ruggedly open space you have to explore. I can imagine being happy there too, amid the relative quiet and unhurried pace of life. Lots of space, a temple that one ? much like some of the village temples you can find in Malaysia too, and time for quiet contemplation and meditative joy.
Hi J.E. I want to weep for you when I read your post. I know that you want to be a great daughter-in-law, but self-imposing confinement to please the others seems very altruistic. But in time you will build-up anger and resentment. I am not advocating that you leave your family, but rather I am saying that you should enjoy the simple things in life such as exploring your village and the neighboring villages. Although your writing above sound as though you are happy to confine yourself, I do detect a tone of discontent. Joceyln, you may be satsified to be confined for sometime, but I recommend that after awhile, you must go out and visit the villages and the neigboring places to enjoy yourself a little more. Robberies are going to exist everywhere in the world and China is no exception. So, go out and have a little fun and explore. So, who cares if others stare at you and comment on you. You are exotic and beautiful and this is why the Chinese will look and comment. All the best.
I’d be very careful with following what the in-laws say because one day you will not want to do it any longer and will want to return to your own values. It will be a shock to them that you suddenly change. Best to set the precedent that you are independent early so they get used to it. Otherwise, after you have a baby, you could be stuck inside not washing your hair for a month, for example. They always say that the same about robberies in Shanghai. Yet, I hear of more robberies in my neighborhood back in the U.S. I think it is a load of rubbish.
Don’t be afraid of leaving or walking around the village! It’s not that bad and robbers get punished to the extreme if you hurt a foreigner or an Asian American in China. That’s why I support extreme punishment for crimes, sexual assaults/rape, murders due to robberies. I’m a supporter for execution for serious crimes . It’s worse in NY or downtown Los Angeles /Compton . I think China is still okay to travel and please be aware of your surroundings 360 degrees nowhere if you’re in China or America. When I work late, I carry a pistol when I walk to my car and home. It’s a one in a million chance that I have to use it.
@ Bruce. Hail to you, bro. I support your viewpoint except for carrying a pistol.
Senator Barbara Franstein can carry a gun why can’t I? I support freedom to own guns. Law abiding citizens like me won’t go out to rob or kill someone but for self protection only. Guns are equalizers when you deal with criminals.
The area where you live in is just beautiful! It gives you ample opportunities to go out and explore. It must be nice to have someone do all the shopping and errands, too! Are you living in the village permanently or is it just temporary?
I currently live in a town on the outskirts of a major city in Taiwan and I may be the only foreign resident of the town. I turn a lot of heads when I go shopping at the markets, walk around the town, or go to restaurants. And I am usually met with scared faces when I walk into a coffee shop and a sigh of relief when they realize I speak Chinese. I always feel safe here; however, I am always aware of my surroundings and take the necessary precautions like I would do anywhere!
This is one thing that annoys me about Taiwan. We act like the onus is on us to be able to speak English when we come across foreigners in our own country. It reeks of an inferiority complex and it is frankly absurd. The Japanese and Koreans don’t seem to suffer from this kind of lack of self-respect, but I think a similar phenomenon occurs in China, too.
Honestly, I think hanging around the house and the village sounds fun. I think it’s totally possible for someone to be content doing that, and to not feel resentment. So I think some commenters are overreacting or bringing their own baggage.
And I sympathize with the robbery concern. If it was a neighborhood with permanent residents, eventually they would get to know you and it wouldn’t be a big deal, but I understand the caution when there are continuous influxes of newcomers who have no experience with foreigners except through possibly exaggerated media.
That being said, I think we are all reacting to you characterizing yourself as “selfish” and feeling “guilty”. Those do look like potential seeds of discontent, so I hope you dig deep as to why you chose to use those words.
A random idea: You could be like the movie stars and go out incognito. Hide your light hair under a warm hat, and wear only locally bought clothes to blend in. Meanwhile the family can start making a habit of being more careful and secure with their valuables. Hey, if they are asking you to give up a measure of freedom, even willingly, the least they can do is their part in lessening a robbery risk.
In reality, I think that the time will come when foreigners are less of a novelty. I wouldn’t be surprised if after ten years foreigners will be so common that people “merely” notice you, and the risk of going out and about lessens significantly. Ten years is a long time though, so our concern still stands.
Enjoy your home and your surroundings! We here in the smog-filled, suburban concrete jungle envy you. 🙂
And, everyone who is giving her advice about “how China is” this and that, can we please remember how huge and diverse the country is? Your experience of China could be the Bronx or Detroit, and meanwhile she is living in the equivalent of Cody Nebraska or Patterson Arkansas. Her family probably knows the surrounding area and culture better than we do out here in internet land.
Let me guess your secret. Baby on the way!!!
I’m living with my Chinese husband’s in-laws as well in a small village inside the Guangzhou city. The village is quite far from the city center and has a countryside feeling to it.
Honestly speaking I wouldn’t be able to confine at home like you do Jocelyn. I’m use to living on my own and deciding things on my own. I disagree with my parents-in-law in quite a many things, as do my husband who isn’t as traditional as his parents would like him to be.
Because we want and need our own space, we are renovating the old family house for use to live the two of us and our four cats. It’s almost next to the parents’ house, but having your own house still gives you a sense of privacy, independence and freedom to live your life as you want.
I do think that your village looks very charming Jocelyn and it’s great you have the outdoors to explore near the village. But I’m still thinking are the in-laws being too careful in not letting you to the town. At least my in-laws can be super protective and always worried about me. Just wondering if that’s the case with yours as well.
I’ll stop now, but I think this is a topic I’d like to discuss on my own blog as well. Thank you for sharing your side of the story Jocelyn! I really admire you in many ways.
I mean I’m living with my husband’s parents 🙂
My idea of a perfect life, staying at home and enjoying home comforts. I would spend a lot of time on improving my Chinese cooking skills and just talk with the family and all that. I think it’s perfect. If you’re ever bored of it you’re welcome to have my life and I’ll take yours. Haha 🙂
Congratulations if there is a baby on the way. I agree with DChang we don’t know what is really going on, yet the need for autonomy and freedom versus respect to the family. I hope that you are able to continue to find peace and contentment however you decide to handle the situation. It sounds like for now at least you ate fine with staying closer to home.
I agree with DChang. I think most posters are probably responding to your words about being “selfish” or “guilty”. I think the idea of not going out into the town seems fine for time being. Its a new situation for both you and your in laws, one without precedent. So it is understandable that the first response is to be as safe as possible.
But I am not sure about how villages and towns work in China, but many times if the town isnt far, people have networks in village and vice versa. So it is natural that your “confinement” is probably temporary. Or at least should be viewed this way. Since sooner or later people might figure it out or word might spread.
I think some of the worry shown here stems for a concern for you, but that might be overthinking things. Going into a new environment requires adjustment by both the environment and the person who goes there. Given your love for your in laws, and their love for you; I am sure its a matter of time before you figure out a solution that will work for both of you, even when people from town will know that there is a yangxifu in their house.
@ Jocelyn. I am in agreement with Sara above that you need to have your own space and some measure of independence.
Maybe you being the only foreigner in the village can make good use of your English skills. After all, you are a writer and have an excellent command of the English language. So, you can teach English in the schools or give private lessons. I am certain that the locals will graviate towards you and you can make tons and tons of RMBs thereby making your in-laws and your husband even more proud. You can run an ad saying: “Learn English from a truly native American speaker from Jocelyn Eikenburg of the USA.” I know that the schools teach English as the university entrance exams there require the students to have some knowledge of English. So, you would be an excellent teacher and become filthy rich at the same time.
Eventually, the villagers will catch wind that there is a foreigner amongst them and they will all know. So, you cannot hide for too long. So, don’t be scared. You are brave. So, go outside and experience the wonders of the village and the neigboring town.
The probelm with her teaching English is that it’s illegal unless she has a work visa. In a small town that could go either way; authorities could turn a blind eye to it if given some hong bao, or it could mean hefty fines.
I get several calls a week from people wanting me to teach them/kid/gradkid/the school they’re opening/their coworkers best friend’s nephew/etc but as one of just a dozen foreigners here, I know I’m watched closely. Not worth the risk.
Right now , China is expanding really fast . They are hiring lots of talents from all over the world. Trust me , the local will want to learn English.
@ Bruce. I agree. Jocelyn will become filthy rich soon if she opens a school in the local town (15 min from her village). I think the cost of opening is low as she needs to buy some text books and supplies along with renting a room. Then she can simply advertise and the Chinese will flock to her in droves, especially if she posts a photo of a white girl’s face on the ad.
@ Jocelyn, what do you think about this ieda?
@Charlotte: Thats interesting. I presumed that if you are a spouse of a chinese national, you would get something akin to a green card which should come with partial rights like residency and work permit at least?
No, being married to a Chinese gives me nearly no benefits when it comes to living here. I even have to get my travel visas taken care of by myself because when my husband went with, they made it quite clear that they wanted *something* in exchange for “helping” me do what they should be doing anyway.
I’ve heard of people who know of someone who got a green card, but I’ve never talked to anyone who did. I don’t really want one, though a two year visa would be nice!
As for teaching, Jocelyn also may not want to do it; I have a degree in education, but I really have lost all interest in teaching after teaching here and having to live up to parent and school demands. There’s no room for teaching anything but what the book dictates…something that doesn’t sit well with me, anyway. But yes, for someone who could open a school and either loved teaching English or didn’t mind doing it just for the money; there’s a ton of money to be made in China! Actually my sis-in-law and her husband bought a commercial property to open an English school and “invite me to teach there.” Thanks, but no thanks!
Yes sometimes you make more money in small town than big city considering the taxes and monthly expenses. Do it! !! John can open a clinic near by.
When I think deeply, Jocelyn doesn’t have to be a teacher. Not anybody can become a teacher because you need a lot of patience. I think import and export or advertisement are good ideas . China demands a lot of good products from the west right now. They will pay high price for them. Trust me.
Sorry, Jocelyn, but I, too, don’t buy the “but robbers” line. Two reasons: 1: I’ve heard it before, and every time it’s turned out to be a load of old cobblers spun to keep me where “they”‘ve wanted me. 2: My in laws’ village is the township, host to the township government, hospital (and county psych hospital), schools, bank, etc, and lies on what not long ago was one of the main highways from Beijing out northwest – and that’s still a busy transit road. I’ve never been confined to any secluded part of the village, I’ve always been allowed, even expected to be out and about, including on my own and along the highway where anybody, including many outsiders and transients, can see me. The one time we were robbed, the blame was placed squarely on the local kleptomaniac for being a klepto (and for being a bit thick – not only was he observed casing the joint, he stole a laptop but left the power cable), and absolutely not on me for being obviously foreign and therefore attracting attention.
And tell me, why would a local direct an obviously dodgy outsider in your family’s direction?
Now, sure, I’m talking an entirely different part of China and things may be more dangerous down your way. But two things remain constant: The media following that rubbish old “If it bleeds it leads” ethic of poor journalism, and fear.
But having said all that, you know your situation better than the rest of us.
I’m a home person as well. Its not safety reasons though, but because I’m pretty much limited by lack of transportation. (Texas doesn’t have good transportation.) Oftentimes I get embarrassed about it because at my age I imagine its not a normal thing, but then I’ve been a home person my whole life.
By the way, sometime next week I’ll post a video recording of myself reading first chapter of Foreign Student by Susan Choi, please support and recommend the video!
@ Ms. Sveta. We look forward to see your video.
Here’s the link
Don’t think you can stay like this for longer period.Hope you don’t go insane and end up in a mental asylum. 🙂
Hum, Some other reason like……
@ Sveta. Thanks. I just heard your reading of the first chapter via your link. You have a great voice, and I love the Russian accent. How about a pic? Take care.
Amazing beautiful photos…gorgeous place to be! And you still have internet and can blog so are less isolated than folk in similar situtaions 15 to 20 years ago. Thank you for sharing your beautiful home with us Jocelyn