How I Broke Chinese Family Etiquette To Save A Baby Mobile

My sister-in-law's baby and the mobile that almost got broke
My sister-in-law's baby and the mobile that almost got broke

It’s not polite to tell a guest they shouldn’t do something. I learned this rule only hours after I broke it at my Chinese in-laws’ home.

The next-door neighbor happened to come over, a tiny grandmother with short curly hair and a face that reminded me of Squiggy from the sitcom Laverne and Shirley. As usual, she came in holding her 10-month grandson, a kid nearly one-third her size who looked so big, I wondered why he hadn’t walked in on his own. She stood with her grandson in the foyer of our family home with Laoma (what we call my mother-in-law) and Wenjuan, my sister-in-law.

Most evenings, I wouldn’t notice the guests, but this evening was different. She happened to come during dinner. And this dinner happened to be interrupted by Laoba (what I call my father-in-law) when he told me the pair of flip-flops I sunned outside had dried. I put my chopsticks down to take the flip-flops back to my rooms upstairs, and then returned to the dining room.

That’s when I saw it. There in the foyer, I caught the grandmother laughing as her grandson yanked on the mobile hanging above the baby carriage. That mobile, of course, was for the new baby, Yueyue. Not a day went by that I didn’t hear the tinkling of its music, or see Laoma or Wenjuan spin around the banana, apple, strawberry, tomato and mushroom dangling from it. The baby loved this mobile, and sometimes it was the only reason she could fall asleep. Visions of dismembered plastic fruits and a broken music box that could never again play “Are You Sleeping Brother John” flashed through my mind. I couldn’t let this happen, not to my new niece’s favorite toy.

So I backed up into the foyer and approached the grandmother. I looked straight at the grandson she held and said, “That’s not that kind of toy, it’s not good to play with it like that. It belongs to someone else and you might break it.”

Even though she still smiled, the grandmother looked rather embarrassed as she pulled her grandson away from the mobile. She left soon afterwards. But I had no idea what I just did until Wenjuan and Laoma talked with me.

“We couldn’t open our mouths about it,” said Wenjuan.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because she’s our neighbor.”

“Eh, they will say bad things about us,” Laoma said.

“But her grandson almost broke the mobile, it’s not polite to break someone else’s stuff in their home,” I said.

“We can’t say anything,” Wenjuan said.

“She’s just like this,” Laoma said.

“You mean she’s done this before?” I asked.

“Eh,” Laoma said.

“Laoba doesn’t like her,” Wenjuan said. “Did you see how he left the table and headed upstairs when he saw her?”

“She’s obviously not teaching her children right,” I said. “That’s one of the most basic things, don’t break someone else’s stuff in their home.”

“We can’t say anything. Even if she broke it, we can’t ask her to pay for a new one,” Laoma said.

“That’s terrible. But shouldn’t you say something anyhow? I mean, otherwise she’ll break your stuff and you’ll have to buy new ones.”

“When you said that to her, her face got all frustrated,” Laoma said as she laughed.

Later that evening, my husband taught me the rule. “It’s not polite to tell a guest not to do something,” he said.

Lesson learned.

Still, I couldn’t help but think that, faux pas aside, the situation offered a win-win. After all, I’m the one who said it, the foreigner who just didn’t know better to keep her mouth shut. My family didn’t have to say anything, so the neighbors probably won’t talk about them, and the baby’s mobile was saved. When I explained this to my husband months later, he laughed just like his mother — that sometimes, a foreigner’s ignorance comes in handy.

I never knew if my actions made the neighborhood gossip about us. But the rest of that summer I lived there, the grandmother never came over again.

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16 Replies to “How I Broke Chinese Family Etiquette To Save A Baby Mobile”

  1. I’m going to disagree with your Chinese husband and in-laws about Chinese culture having such a rule. Sure, it’s not nice or polite to have to deny a guest something or another but them disrespecting your home and property is the far greater social faux pas. The issue here isn’t really a rule, but a calculation on the part of your in-laws. They’d rather risk the toy being broke than make the neighborly relationship awkward, be looked down upon or talked about by this old woman. They also figure she’d more likely talk shit than they would about her (which may be good from a principle standpoint but it instantly puts them in the weaker position which they consciously factor into their calculation). Call it “face” or whatever but its more a conscious decision rather than abiding by some sort of cultural norm.

    It IS convenient (not necessarily good) for your Chinese in-laws that you were the person who intervened rather than them, since it insulates them, but ultimately its a power relationship that mostly borne out of their own fear to conform to the old woman. Pardon me if my language is simplistic but I’m trying to explain the dynamic that I think is really underlying the story as you’ve told us because it does not correlate to my own understanding of Chinese “culture”. There’s a general rule to treat a guest well as it reflects upon one’s character, but this is common to all cultures, not just Chinese. There is no Chinese rule that says its not polite or doesn’t reflect well upon oneself to prevent a guest from abusing your generosity and their welcome. In the end, your in-laws just didn’t think the mobile was worth the hassle. You did, and that’s fine. No faux pas, just a difference of perspective that is common in Chinese social dealings too. “She was rude to my grandson” vs. “Her grandson is a brat without manners.” In Chinese society (like others), there IS the expectation that children ought to behave when adults are around and misbehaving children reflect poorly upon their parents/guardians. You’d easily have the moral high ground and popular support (by objective bystanders) if it came to gossiping about each other.

  2. That really made me laugh! It is a so Chinese or eastern thing not to want to tell guests what they should or should not do. We actually expect them to do the right thing. Culture or not, I don’t want to go into it. Face or not, it is generally what we Chinese do not enjoy doing – telling others what they should or shouldn’t do in our house. We had rather leave it to them. Of course this may not be ideal sometimes. But for an outsider, a laowai, I guess it would be alright. And in the instance, you were an unwitting saviour. A guess your s-i-law’s baby would have thanked you if she were able to. LOL. Laoma and laoba so familiar too. This is how we sometimes call our parents too.

  3. I have to do this sometimes when I have a problem at work or with interacting with someone here in China. Somehow you have to swing it around and have it help them in a way. Then you make them have to confront you. For instance, I would of said that the mobile wasn’t clean and that you planned on cleaning it. You wouldn’t want her grandson to get sick. Then take the mobile, perhaps it’s a pain to remove, and take it into the other room. Pretend to clean it. Then see if they notice it’s gone. If they do just tell her it broke while you were cleaning it or it has to dry. She won’t want to call you out on it. Just like you weren’t supposed to call her out on it. Problem solved.

  4. I say good for you! You just saved your in-laws from future headaches because now your neighbor will be a bit more conscious when she visits. And it’s interesting; alter the story so it’s with a different ethnicity, and you can almost have the same situation. Even if the grandson broke the mobile and the grandmother offered to pay, most customs would be to refuse because it’s ‘impolite’ to fault a guest.

  5. English culture is similar to Chinese culture. American culture is about speaking your mind.

    Humbleness is feature of long civilization.

    1. @Anon, thanks so much for the comment and explanation. Maybe I didn’t express myself well enough in the original. I actually agree with you that this isn’t necessarily a universal rule in Chinese culture; I saw it more as a norm/etiquette (social rules, if you will) in my in-laws’ home. I don’t even think everyone in their village would do the same with guests.

      I’m glad you shared your thoughts on this b/c you brought up some valid points. As someone who writes about life in China, I know I’ll never have “the right” perspective on everything, and more and more I realize that the experience I have is simply something unique to my family, which reveals as much about them — if not more.

      @ordinary malaysian, it’s so great to see your comments, you always make me smile! How interesting that you also might use “Laoba” and “Laoma” with parents.

      @Pudding, what an ingenious solution to the problem! I wish I had thought of that. I’m such a blunt person about some things (and, ironically, not so blunt about other things).

      @Salma, good point on how this situation could happen in many ethnicities/cultures.

      @aiyangxifu, so true that humbleness is part of older civilizations. It’s something I could stand well to remember.

  6. Nobody up in my in laws’ village has any problem politely and calmly telling another person’s child to be more careful with other people’s toys. But then we’re all approaching it from our own limited experiences, like the blind men describing the elephant. Personally, I would’ve tried a gentle “小心点!不要弄坏了!” while reaching for the mobile to slow him down and perhaps distracting him by turning on the music or finding a more robust toy. But some people will be offended no matter what.

    And I think sometimes you just have to be a little bit rude. When we’re up in the village I’m forever chasing old men and their cigarettes away from my daughter. My daughter’s health is of far more importance to me than the feelings of a bunch of old geezers and their nicotine addictions. They may think I’m a bit rude, but tough. Note: I’m not saying we should ride roughshod over other people’s ideas of courtesy, just that sometimes you have to prioritise.

  7. Oh, my. I totally related to this, but not from an experience in China. It happened in San Francisco! When I was married to my Chinese husband, we lived in a new neighborhood that was 95% Chinese. Our next door neighbors to one side could do no wrong, and my former husband would listen to them over me. Whenever he had a question about something in San Francisco or in the US in general, he’d ask them, not me! After our baby was born, he wouldn’t let me carry Jake in a Snugli when we went next door to visit the neighbors because he was worried they wouldn’t approve that I was holding Jake outside so soon after childbirth. And then the mother and grandma next door developed my manyue menu without my consent. But it didn’t matter because my husband at the time did just about everything they said–just because he didn’t want to cause them to lose face. What about my face?!

  8. I haven’t been in that situation but good job is all I can say 🙂 I can’t imagine doing that though. I don’t ever recall my mom telling someone not to do something. I suppose everybody takes responsibility for their own actions so to speak.

  9. Distraction is a wonderful way of getting out of a situation without the face-losing telling them what to do. Find something else to take their attention of the mobile. Good if you can distract the 10-month-old grandson, even better if you can distract the grandmother.
    The good thing about having someone like that lady be so miffed that she didn’t come back, is that such people don’t come back. In the end, you win.

  10. Some Chinese moms will let their kids run all over the place without controlling them. Often times they will break things blah blah blah. They seem like it’s okay :). It’s hard to tell them how to raise kids.

  11. I am married to a Chinese Malaisian. after our engagement, his parents especially his mother became very demanding. They completely disregarded our wish to have a small wedding (actually I was not interested to get married because it was not a priority for me at all but as my husband insisted, I agreed provided the wedding would be small, he told me that is exactly what he wanted as well, I believe him but he could not remember once his parents started to disregard our wish and organized two major events they called our wedding and focused their whole energy on it just like if we said nothing about having a small wedding). Our small wedding took place with his and my family (closed-not extended, just parents and sibiling) with them only concerned with their events (with friends and colleagues I did not know). We had to spend more than half of our honeymoon with them and even then, they complained we did not called during our 4 days alone. I love my husband but he did not stand by my side, treated me like if I was the one demanding and difficult, he chickened away even if I was trying to support him and respect their culture (they were telling me nothing about it, I was reading about it and proposing things). I do not want kids with him now, I am not that youngn so I am afraid I will have to divorce him. I love him, not his mother who is especially mean, but he does not think right whenever they want something, he takes it against me. If we could team up, I would be fine, but he does not. I am living away from my friends and family, I am not Chinese, I am afraid that if I have a baby, the MIL will become demanding agressive and disregard me completely and my husband will chicken out. I will be alone.

  12. You have wishes, that you’d like your mother-in-law to respect? I laugh!

    MLA, I feel for you. Seems like you have scored quite a two-for-one deal there.

    Warning: Following text liberally sprinkled with generalisations, but its broad truth is supported by numerous other articles one can find, and my 25 years of being in this situation.

    The way westerners work is by compromise: We try to find a way that takes into account our values, while acknowledging theirs. This method however, assumes that we have some latitude and discretion about what we do, that if we decide to do something, we’re free to do it, whatever it is.

    I’d like to offer a theory why this doesn’t work when dealing with many Chinese people. Why, when you’ve given an inch about the small wedding thing, they’ll just keep taking and taking. And it’s about Confucianism.

    One of the pillars of Confucianism is the idea of proper relationships. Confucius made particular mention of five: Ruler to Ruled, Father to Son, Husband to Wife, Elder Brother to Younger Brother, Friend to Friend ( With the exception of the last, they’re all hierarchical. He said that each of the actors in these relationships has a role, and all that is needed for social harmony is for people to develop the self-control necessary to fulfill one’s role.

    If your mother-in-law comes from a traditional background, it’s likely that her upbringing was heavily influenced by Confucianism. To you her choices must seem very mean – how can she so wilfully choose to be such a cow? But to her, life is not about choices, and the idea of frankly communicating with a daughter-in-law may not be something she can do, or even would want to do, due to the notion of precedence in relationships. You’re the junior here. In her mind, if you do your role (suck it up sister), and she does hers (provide family structure, and preserve the status quo), then happiness will result.

    I read an article a year or two back (how I wish I could find it again) about the use of Western-style counselling methods within China to help Chinese couples with their relationships. The article said that a recurring theme from couples was that if only the husband did his duty, and the wife did hers, happiness and harmony would result. If there is unhappiness, it must be because a role isn’t being properly observed. The article pointed out that within this system, there is no requirement for one of the key components of healthy relationships: good communication. And good communication is essential when it comes to negotiated outcomes: Both parties being willing to concede on points, yet staying true to their core values, in order to achieve a successful outcome.

    There’s a Wikipedia article which talks about the Confucian view of marriage:

    You may have wanted a small wedding, but due to the importance of marriage in Confucianism, the notion of a small wedding doesn’t exist. According to that article, “Due to the concept of filial piety and following rites of propriety, marriage was a costly affair and seen as second only to funeral ceremonies”. Note that there’s no wiggle room or basis for compromise. “We have big weddings, that’s final!” Your insistence on a small wedding will come across as childish and a clear abnegation of your role.

    I too have a Chinese mother-in-law, who (fortunately for us) lives in another country, so we don’t see her very often (hallelujah!). Whenever we visit her, my wife reverts to this teenage, spineless blob of acquiescence who rolls over on command. It’s SICKENING, and makes my skin crawl just to think about it.

    Here’s what my wife says: “My parents spent the best years of their life raising me, so they feel a sense of entitlement. Because I left home as a teenager, that’s still how they see me, even though I’m 40. I also have to do this because it’s my role. I act the way I do with her because that’s the way it is in her world. For me to act any other way would be deeply upsetting for her. Honey, for the majority of the year, I live with you and I choose you and the life we lead. But when we visit her for a week or two, that’s *her* time, and I will make her happy in the way that makes her happy. If you love the life we have together [and I surely do], can you not selflessly give up a week or two to give someone else a little happiness?”

    It took me a long time to be able to accept this. Now, I can accept it. The implementation though is somewhat harder, because it means I have to live a lie, play an act for a few weeks. Exhausting! But finally I get my dear wife back at the end.

    I suspect your husband is in a similar position to my wife: Caught uncomfortably between two worlds.

    MLA, my suggestion to you is this: if you can live in a world that’s outside her orbit most of the time, and you can repress your “wishes” and notion of “rights” for the limited time you’re near her, then you stand a chance. The time with your mother-in-law is a tax you must pay for having an otherwise fine husband. That’s just the way it is.

    If you can’t live in a world that’s outside her orbit (for example, same city), then there is nothing on earth that is ever going to change the expectation your mother-in-law has because you’re the daughter-in-law. You just can’t fight that Confucian precedence, and having a child is only going to make it worse. Much worse. In this case, best run like hell while you can.

    I wish you all the best.

  13. well, the struggle between daughter and mother in law been there for ages…especially when economic status comes into the equation…I see this as traditional (where mother in law word is god, son is wuss, etc.) versus modern (where mother in law treat daughter in law as her own daughter) versus third (where the daugther family much better off than the mother in law’s)

    in rural villages, the traditional theory applies while in the cities where the modern scenario or the third scenario applies. (exception is daughter in law marrying into rich family)

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