“Mom” And “Dad” Is What I Call My Chinese In-Laws — and Here’s Why It’s Easier Than I Thought

Years ago when my husband Jun and I got our little red marriage books in China, I remember traveling back to his village and proudly showing off the photos of our civil marriage ceremony. While it still didn’t count to his family as a real wedding (in China, it’s normal to get married on the books, called dengji/登记 in Chinese, well before you actually have a wedding ceremony), they were pleased to see the two of us committed for life.

And as I learned, that commitment meant changing how I addressed Jun’s parents. From then on, Jun instructed me to call them Laoba (老爸) and Laoma (老妈), just like him. Or Baba (爸爸) and Mama (妈妈) — the universal Chinese words for “Dad” and “Mom” — if I so desired. The bottom line was, I would now refer to them as if they were my own parents, in the most intimate terms once only reserved for my father and mother.

This isn’t the norm in the America I grew up in, where you call your in-laws by their first names. And given all the jokes about in-laws (and the American tendency to want to live as far from your in-laws as possible), I’m sure there are some Americans out there privately referencing their in-laws using expletives. The bottom line, though, is that in America there’s always this implied distance from your in-laws — a distance that I was never expected to have with Jun’s parents.

Being suddenly asked to call two people who never raised me “Mom” and “Dad” should be an adjustment. And to be sure, it did take some getting used to. But it was actually a lot easier than I thought for a very simple reason.

I was calling them “Mom” and “Dad” in Chinese, not in my native language of English.

Even though Laoba, Laoma, Baba and Mama were just as intimate as the words “Mom” and “Dad” that I grew up using, I had never called my parents by the Chinese versions. So in way, it actually freed me to easily adjust to using them with Jun’s parents. I didn’t feel like I was stretching any definition of who “Mom” and “Dad” were because it sounded different.

Now it’s like second nature and I don’t even think about it anymore. That’s who they are — Laoba and Laoma.

So I have to wonder, is it harder for Chinese people to get used to this? Do they struggle to refer to in-laws with such intimate terms?

Then again, this is just about what to call someone. Now family relationships, the day-to-day stuff, that’s the real struggle (one that, admittedly, can lead to the use of expletives or other unflattering names at times).

But that’s another story for another day.

What do you think?

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7 Replies to ““Mom” And “Dad” Is What I Call My Chinese In-Laws — and Here’s Why It’s Easier Than I Thought”

  1. It’s so interesting how America is so culturally different within itself! Where I grew up (Wisconsin), people call their in-laws “Mom” and “Dad”. But even with this being typical, it was hard to start calling my in-laws Mummy and Papa (or Baba)–the names Junwen uses for his parents in Singapore. These are English names, though, so I didn’t get to experience your version of calling your in-laws intimate names in a different language.

    This difficulty was compounded by the fact that etiquette in Singapore commands the younger people to call out the name of the elder person upon entering the house/room. I think the reason I initially struggled with it was because it felt like I was taking a special place (daughter) that was not my right (even though it was). Does that make sense? I think I got over it by reminding myself every time that it pleased them when I used the names. 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing Christine! That’s really interesting things are different where you grew up in Wisconsin (a lovely state, BTW!).

      I can totally understand feeling a little odd, as if you were claiming a special place that wasn’t yours.

  2. I love that all my children married people that want to call us mom and dad. I feel loved, respected and honored. Calling me by my first name just doesn’t seem to give that closeness and so I am very grateful. I may be one of the few as you say you found it common in the US to call the in laws by their first names. Lucy

  3. I think it changes from person to person, state to state, generation to generation, etc. I would have never EVER dreamed of calling my friends parents by their first names, but that seems to be the norm nowadays among our children!

    I have to say that I always called my husband’s parents “Ba” and “Ma”, because my Chinese was next to zero when we got married and I couldn’t remember the polite words hahaha. Now I wouldn’t dream of switching.

    I have a secret dream to call my FIL “Laoba”…just not sure I am “worthy” yet 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Marissa! True about changes among people, states/regions, generations. Interesting your kids call their friends’ parents by first names!

      I bet your FIL would love it if you called him Laoba!

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