Is The Family Pressure in China Too Much?

This past Chinese New Year, we noticed a glaring absence from the family gatherings – one of Jun’s relatives, a fellow close to his own age.

At first I figured it was just bad timing. Maybe we missed him because I had woken up a bit late? Or maybe he was dining with other relatives?

But as we visited more family over the holiday – with no sign of this guy — another theory came to mind.

Maybe he was too ashamed to face the family during Chinese New Year after what had happened last year.

In early 2016, he opened a specialty restaurant in the closest city. It was a gutsy move, given that he had zero experience in the restaurant or hospitality business. He had taken out loans to cover the rent (paid years in advance) as well as the costs of renovation and professional kitchen equipment.

After less than six months, just like that, he closed down the place.

It was so sudden. I’m not sure if he failed spectacularly, or if he just lost confidence in himself. Either way, he went back to his old industry and got himself a job again. Except now he was saddled with the burden of his debts and the failure of his business.

If my suspicion was right – that he hadn’t returned for the holidays – it’s easy to understand why. He would be forced to contend with other relatives his age, people awash with more money and all the trappings of success by China standards. You know, cousins who drive BMWs and Audis, giving out those extra-generous hongbao (red envelopes stuffed with money). People in the family might openly compare his situation with theirs – perhaps even wondering aloud why he had bothered to even open that restaurant.

It’s a painful proposition, even for those accustomed to managing criticism.

From time to time, I hear stories about people like this – people who refuse to return home for the holidays, sometimes for years. People who just cannot face the family, because their lives don’t look like what others would consider “success” or “normal”. Sometimes it’s because they’re down on their luck in business or employment, like the guy I mentioned. Sometimes it’s because they’re not married yet.

Whatever the case, they have enough stress in their lives – and could do without the additional stress from their families during the holidays. They don’t want to be compared to so-and-so, who just bought a new BMW or apartment in Shanghai. They don’t want to be told that, say, they’re getting too old for marriage or kids.

While it’s normal for parents to worry about their kids, sometimes I wonder, is the pressure here too much? Is there too much of an expectation for people to conform to a narrow societal norm? Is there too much pressure for people to be “successful”?

Is that why my husband’s relative didn’t come back?

14 Replies to “Is The Family Pressure in China Too Much?”

  1. My husband didn’t go back to China to visit his parents for 17 years because he didn’t want to tell them he got divorced! It wasn’t until we were about to get married that he made a trip back to Shanghai because he didn’t want to face them and their opinion on divorce.

  2. Wow! That is way more intense than Taiwan. Here, whenever I have suggested to a Taiwanese friend to avoid family because they are being treated poorly, I am told that they can’t. If a parent or family member is giving them a hard time, they just let it go in one ear and out the other or comply completely with what they are told to do. But it is far more common for people to just not discuss when bad things happen so that everyone saves face. I never realized just how different these cultures were in that aspect!

  3. We live in the United States, but we are still subject to this pressure. We are in the restaurant business, as are many relatives. It is a lot of pressure when comparison and judgement are overwhelming. Add in the American wife factor and we are cooked duck (Chinese New Year pun intended). BMW? If we don’t have ours, everyone in the family will assume that we went bankrupt. It is painfully often that my husband will get off the phone, devastated by the intense criticism he just endured. We have said many times that if our restaurants fall, we will never live in our city again. I am certain the pressure is too much, if only because the value of success and happiness is purely material in our family. We are happy and want our family to be happy and embrace us unconditionally.

  4. What a sad story! I suppose everyone everywhere wants to be seen as successful by their family, but it seems as though the expectations in China are particularly narrow with little room for individual differences. If the young man had come to the family gathering would people have tried to be supportive? Would they try to avoid hurting his feelings? With the stories I’ve heard about expectations for marriage and having children, it sounds like being supportive and sympathetic are not big priorities.

  5. It is bad enough that most Chinese “couples” would marry in less than 6 months after being set up by family relatives.

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