Featured in Global Times Article: Meet the [Chinese] Parents

For those of you who may have missed it, I was featured in a Global Times article titled “Meet the Parents,” which shares some personal tales of meet-the-Chinese-parents experiences from foreigners (including me) and offers some advice for any foreigners heading home with their boyfriend/girlfriend to meet the parents for the first time. Here’s a snippet of the article:

Language can play a key role in the meeting, wrote Jocelyn Eikenburg, an American writer and blogger from Ohio, in an e-mail interview with Metro Beijing. She is married to a Chinese from rural Zhejiang Province. Eikenburg’s husband thinks her ability to speak Chinese helped change his parents’ minds about him dating a foreign woman.

“While I wouldn’t say that all Chinese parents necessarily have negative stereotypes about foreigners, some do. If you can communicate with them, that goes a long way in winning over parents,” said Eikenburg, who pens the blog “Speaking of China” about cross-cultural dating and relationships.

Note that there’s a mistake in the text — there is a sentence that claims my husband’s father thought it fine for us to date, but not marry (which of course sounds absurd to anyone who understands China’s dating culture, where dating is generally a pathway to marriage). It should read as follows: “Before the meeting, she learned that her now-husband’s parents were fine with their son being friends with a foreign woman, but not dating one.” In the meantime, I’ve requested the change.

You can read the full article online, or in this lovely PDF version.

The reporter who interviewed me also referenced — in e-mails passed between us —  a post I did three years ago on this subject. I feel as if my prose has grown leaps and bounds since I published it, but it still offers some helpful tips (and remains one of my top 10 popular posts).

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28 Replies to “Featured in Global Times Article: Meet the [Chinese] Parents”

  1. Although I haven’t met my Chinese parents-to-be in person yet, I think I can count myself lucky that they accept our relationship and are very happy about it. My fiancee’s mother once said a person born in the year of ox would be best for him, but that was before she knew about me and it seems like a rabbit is still pretty much ok, ha!

  2. I will be meeting my Chinese gf’s parents soon. So, this article was exactly what I need. Any other advice by others will be much appreciated.

  3. So far hadn’t met anyone’s family yet, and its unlikely that I will. I’ll read it when the time is right, but not now I suppose. Happy Lunar New Years to whoever celebrates it.

  4. @Bruce. Thanks for the advice. So far so good. I averted a near disaster in th new year due to my impulsiveness (as you will recall). I cannot write too much these days for obvious reasons as I am certain you know why I cannot write too much anymore. Thanks for all of your help though.

  5. Congrats for this Jocelyn!
    Tony´s parents do not have any issue with him dating a foreigner, I was afraid of it, but they were just surprise, and happy to see us together.
    During our first meeting in 2011 the mom was all the time looking at me and saying: oh you are so wait! Sometimes she was even just touching my hand. Sweet woman.
    During Autumn Festival they were also really excited, all the time awaiting our visit.
    Now we will go to my home soon, and that´s also going to be a funny experience with the babies in the family ( which by the way, they think that when I spend lots of time here I should be more chinese, meaning my eyes, hair skin… because after all, when someone goes on holidays somewhere in south Europe, closer to Africa, they can back home a bit darker! This is kids´logic!).

    I will ask Tony after our trip about his version of ” Meet the parents” ( and the aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, neighbours….)


  6. I remember the first time when I visited my wife’s family pretty much the entire neighborhood came to see me (she is from western Europe but there isn’t a lot of AMWF couples). One neighbor pulled my wife aside and told her that I was a keeper. On Christmas eve I got kissed over 200 times. After the mass the priest told my wife that I looked like an Indian (native American) prince. Now after more than ten years of marriage the entire town knows me.

    If you’re a Caucasian woman/man going to a Chinese family New Year in China you will be the star, and they will remember every little detail about you — what you like to eat, drink, your dress, your hair, etc. But if your significant other is an ABC the story might be entirely different.

  7. @ Centaur. I am a little confused. Where in Europe did you visit your wife’s family where 200 people came to visit you? I infered that you are Asian (maybe Chinese) and that you went to Europe to visit your wife’s family somewhere in Europe. What is the name of this town? What country is this town in?

  8. Manny, each person would kiss four times (twice when you arrive and twice when you leave). So that’s about 50 people I saw on Xmas eve, and that includes going to the church for the mass. It’s in the suburb of a big metropolitan hub.

  9. @Manny,
    That makes 50 people so is a normal amount.
    If you go to France the amount of kisses will depend on the region ( Paris,4: Cote d´Azur 5, Brittany 3…).
    In Europe cheek kissing (or air kissing) is common.

  10. more tips if you’re heading into a big Chinese family dinner: if you don’t speak Chinese, find out who does and get them to talk to you during the dinner. if your gf/bf is the only one who speaks English, ask her/him not to get too carried away speaking Chinese all the time — it can get frustrating and tiring. also, if you don’t speak their language, eat their food, a lot. try to learn the essential Chinese words for food and food-related emotions (like, dislike, spicy, delicious, excellent, sweet, salty etc.) Appreciation for their food, I found, is an excellent way to get inside and get accepted by another culture.

    now this will sound odd to many of you, but it’s a magic trick that’s rarely practiced by westerners, even the old China hands — pick up some food (with the public chopsticks) and put it on the plate of in-laws or relatives, and continue through out the entire meal. observe what they like, and keep giving it to them. this is the way of traditional Chinese hospitality. doing it will win you a lot of respect.

    also, do a few rounds of toast. if you don’t speak Chinese, ask your bf/gf to translate. if you don’t know what to say, talk about the food, and how that steamed fish with its intact head and tail tastes so infinitely better than a braised fillet.

  11. Any tips for foreign parents meeting a Chinese family for the first time? My parents will come to China next week and… heh, actually it’s good that they can’t speak Chinese cause my dad can say awkward things sometimes… They have some gifts… Anything else?

  12. Barbara, parents meeting is more challenging than meeting parents. Can you provide a bit more context? I assume you parents are coming from Poland? Have they been to China before? How about your bf’s parents? Are they well educated? Any experience of close encounter with foreigners?

  13. My parents went to China a few years ago for a trip buy the’ve seen only China for tourists. However, they travel a lot on their own so I think they’ll survive 😉 My bf’s parents are not educated (my bf’s mom can’t read) and I’m the only foreigner the’ve ever met but, surprisingly, they are very understanding and open minded. They liked me from the beginning and even asked me to move to their house last year when I had no place to stay in Shenzhen – that was two weeks after our first meeting and they were ok with the fact that we slept in one room with my bf. My bf’s mom even started to cook some polish food recently 😉 I hope that they will get on with my prents well but maybe you have any tips? Any dos and don’ts? Oh, my parents are a bit older than my bf’s parents but I don’t know if it matters.

  14. Barbara, your parents speak English? If not, either you have to translate it to Chinese, or to English first and your bf has to translate it again to Chinese. This could get tiring quickly. Just give your bf a heads up so he is prepared to work. You want to avoid the awkward silence periods, or a situation where you keep talking to your parents and your bf keeps talking to his. You might want to think about topics, stories, jokes to talk about that can entertain both parties. Ask your bf to think about things to talk about. Food, weather, old communist times, culture, history, soviet, vodka and baijiu, what Chinese know/think about Poles and vice versa, etc. BTW your bf’s mom cooking Polish is a great story, you can ask her to teach your mom to cook some Chinese.

    You also want to find out if there is anything your parents don’t eat, and tell your bf’s family about it. Tell your parents about the Chinese table etiquette (putting food on other people’s plate, leaving bones on the table, making noise, etc.) so they know what to expect. If they can’t use chopsticks, be prepared to provide forks and knives.

    If you’re having a dinner at your bf’s home, as him if he has family photo albums — this will keep everyone entertained for a while.

    It’s like playing diplomats, and it’ll be an great opportunity to impress your bf’s family with your social skills.

  15. @centaur, only my dad speaks English but I’m not worried about awkward silence. My bf has two sisters, both married, one of them has a kid. Plus, my bf’s mom had 14 siblings, all of them have children and grandchildren. So at every family gathering there are many people, everyone has something to say, kids want to play… You know, normal Chinese family. Some younger members of the family can speak English so there’s always someone who can translate. Also, my dad is a real social butterfly so even the language barrier shouldn’t be a problem.
    Frankly, I’m more worried that my bf will act like a jerk again. He’s not really talkative and outgoing and it’s ok but lately he acts in such a way that I’d rather say that he’s simply rude. In December I invited his family and some of my Chinese friends for a Christmas dinner to our place. For all evening he didn’t talk to my friends at all and very little with his family. When I wanted to explain some Polish traditions to his parents I had to ask my friends to translate. Later one of my friends said that my bf is very strange cause he said only three words to her: “hi”, “xiexie” and “bye”. I’d understand if they’d be foreigners but they are all locals. He could speak Mandarin, Cantonese, whatever! I’m afraid that also this time I’ll have to count rather on my parent’s social skills than my bf’s help.
    But, speaking of the table etiquette, when my parents will be here should I put food into their bowls first or my bf’s parent’s first or what? To be honest I really don’t like this custom cause maybe to the Chinese it’s hospitality but to me it’s just forcing other people to eat things that probably they don’t want to eat at all (and I’m not a great fan of Chinese food).

  16. Advice : Don’t stress yourself out before, during or after meeting both sides of the families. This should be a fun activity.

    @Manny, no need to thank me! Being honest and original ( geniune) will go a long way. Better not talk to you so much. You might get into trouble by “expressing” yourself. 🙂 *speaking softly and quietly* This weak, country boy has to do some posing after working out… :).

    Bruce 🙂

  17. I would do my homework on the Chinese side. Anyone from Europe will not invade as much as the Chinese do. You want to explain to your Chinese family when westerners refuse something to their face, even in a small way, is not to disrespect. It is in your best interest to explain to the Chinese family nobody has to love the food, and it is ok to be simple and leave people alone. Hard to do, but worth trying.

    Tell your guy to stop acting like a child.

  18. Barbara, as askdsk said, as long as you prep your bf’s family so they don’t go overboard force feeding your parents and you take them under your wings (especially your mom if she doesn’t speak English) during the dinner things should be OK.

    About your bf, if I were you I’d try to find out what the problem is first. His remoteness could be caused by a number of different things. Again I don’t know his background, education level, exposure to western culture, openness, whether he is a secure and confident person, etc., Maybe he’s stressed at work, maybe he has money problems, maybe he feels overwhelmed by this cross-culture holiday season where he can’t be entirely himself, maybe he feels alone, isolated, intimidated by a group of foreigners who are multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and who have traveled the world. Or maybe there is something between him and you that you need to sort out. But be careful — that simply complaining and telling him to behave differently mostly likely won’t work, and could even make things worse. The first thing is to find out what the real problem is.

  19. @centaur,
    I know that meeting the parents needs preparation, information..but ..preparing jokes and stories sounds a bit too much, if you prepare even stories and jokes then is going to be a little bit “fake”…
    I believe that if both parties are informed about the efforts with communication, you both have a good sleep before that and like Bruce says you should have fun.
    Laugh about the mistakes you do translating, laugh about questions, about the problems that may appear with chopsticks, just be fresh, have fun.
    I honestly think is very easy to know when someone is stressed and if something is not coming naturally is even more pressure, plus is easy to see when someone is not comfortable.
    Is not so bad if there is silence, take it to have a rest, a rest from talking, translating, thinking…
    After all, it is supposed to be a family, why would you feel so stressed with your own family?

    Have fun! Eat a lot! And sleep tight!

  20. @centaur Always a breath of fresh air to find that the female’s family was accepting. We dont get much stories on whether the white female’s family and community accept a non-white boyfriend. The only thing I heard from a Vietnamese American guy (born in the US) visiting his gf (now wife) in France is whether he his town back home had electricity.

  21. @ Barbara I forgot to answer you last question: you should put food in your bf’s parents’ bowl first and then put something (albeit symbolic) in your parents’ bowl. This doesn’t mean you have to adopt that habit, it’s just an acknowledgement that you understand the concept of xiao (孝)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xi%C3%A0o As to these different table etiquettes, because of the way we are brought up we might never be fully accustomed to such foreign traditions, nonetheless one eventually makes peace with it. For example, to Chinese, passing a loaf of bread around the table with bare hands, eating raw vegetables (salad), or using a knife, which is a weapon, to eat one’s food are all “uncivilized.”

    @Laura, yes, you can totally treat these family events nonchalantly, go with the flow, and just have a good time. The fact that Barbara asked for tips, I assume, indicates that she is probably concerned about it and wants to prep for it. And if the parents are meeting, the relationship is probably getting serious. Of course my assumptions could be totally wrong.

    @David, prejudice is part of human nature, and I find it quite interesting to study the roots of it. It often varies by region and the history of that region. For example, the French might look down on Viet Nam (since they colonized it), but they have a mixed feeling toward China (dislikes its political system, but still holds a certain degree of respect for its culture and food, and they also don’t know how to make of China today since it is obviously much more capitalistic than France).

    The English, however, have a much more entrenched colonial view toward the world, since they pretty much defeated and ruled everyone at least once in the past. This colonial undertone is quite manifest in the Economist — it’s not just my imagination, my Indian friends confirmed this. And if you go to HK, you can observe the effect of 150 years of colonialism.

    The US used to view China as an underdog and an ally against the Soviets (especially during the 80s — China and US used to have joint covert military operation in Afghanistan in support of the Taliban against the Soviets). But now China is the new Soviets, and is “invading” the US in every possible way from government backed hacking to occupying Walmart and taking away jobs, the prejudice has become a “blame it on China” kind of emotional outlet.

  22. “The US used to view China as an underdog and an ally against the Soviets (especially during the 80s — China and US used to have joint covert military operation in Afghanistan in support of the Taliban against the Soviets). But now China is the new Soviets, and is “invading” the US in every possible way from government backed hacking to occupying Walmart and taking away jobs, the prejudice has become a “blame it on China” kind of emotional outlet.” A person has to be very educated on this subject in order to understand why jobs are moving else where. Even educated people don’t understand sometimes.

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