On Bainian — Chinese New Year’s Calls — And Those Annoying Questions From Relatives

For some young Chinese, the very possibility of seeing family means the potential for annoying personal questions — ones they’d sometimes rather not answer (photo by Chew – Lin YIP via Flickr.com)

The other night, while talking to our close Chinese friend Caroline during Chinese New Year, my husband asked a common question. “Did you go out to bàinián?” Bàinián (拜年), of course, is the tradition of paying new year’s calls to your relatives and friends, usually by going over to their homes.

Caroline laughed with embarrassment. “I didn’t want to go out, I’ve stayed at home. People ask too many questions!”

That’s because Caroline still hasn’t, as they say in Chinese, “solved her personal problem”. She’s a single Chinese woman in her thirties. And because she’s single and well above 30, a sort of unofficial marriage expiration date for young people in China (especially women), her relatives will ask her the bomb of all questions: “Do you have a boyfriend?”

Caroline’s not alone in detesting the questions about her personal life. After all, one of the hottest topics trending on Chinese social media in the lead to Chinese New Year was Counter Annoying Chinese New Year Questions From Relatives.

Even I’m not immune to such questioning. John and I still have no children, which makes the questions “Do you have a kid?” or “Are you planning to have a kid soon?” — questions I frequently get from Chinese friends and relatives — sting at times. Of course, my mother-in-law doesn’t even bother to ask us; she just simply tells me I’m “too old,” which does wonders for my self-esteem! (Not.)

In the end, everyone has always explained to me that such questions are a way for others to show they care. In China, people consider one’s life truly settled and happy when you’re married with children — and so, in a sense, it’s natural that they’re concerned when you don’t have the “entire package”, so to speak.

Just too bad that their potential questions, meant to show concern, left Caroline too concerned to even consider heading out the door to visit.

UPDATE: On a similar note, do check out the “Chaoji Shengnü (超级剩女 Chāojí Shèngnǚ)” comics created by Roseann Lake, Leo Lee and Ryan Myers, a comic series with a fabulous superhero devoted to saving shengnü (like my friend Caroline) from all of those folks who want to know why they’re NOT married. Very cool!

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17 Replies to “On Bainian — Chinese New Year’s Calls — And Those Annoying Questions From Relatives”

  1. My grandparents inquire whether or not I have a boyfriend 🙁 Thing is I would like one, but for me its impossible to one. These questions really hurt my feelings.

  2. Whenever I see or speak to an ex-colleague (who is in his 50s) of mine one of the first things he always says to me is ‘are you married yet?’. I don’t speak to him too often so I can tolerate it but can imagine having to avoid him like your friend with her family. He is 100% worse than my own family!
    I know his intentions are good but it can be grating when you know it’s coming, a little conversation-imagination wouldn’t go amiss.

    That made me chuckle about your mother in law’s comments, maybe she’s trying not to get her hopes up too much… I’m sure she’d soon change her tune if she found out you were pregnant.
    My mum was in her mid-late 30s when she was pregnant with me and was made to feel reeaally old but now everyone’s at it, over here anyway :-S

  3. Gosh, I had some of these questions even without leaving my former in-laws’ house during Chinese New Year. The thing that annoyed me during bai nian was that my in-laws wouldn’t call their friends before we all trekked across town and up six flights of stairs–only to find their friends out for the day! Everyone had a phone, but no one made plans in advance. When I told my mother in the US about this custom, she said that Americans used to do the same. Now with everyone uber-connected, I can appreciate that spontaneity I shunned all those years ago.

  4. >>>my in-laws wouldn’t call their friends

    omg! That was exactly what my Chinese friends and I used to do to each other all the time bainian or not, back in the 1980s and 1990s!

  5. I’m in my mid 50’s and my wife is 13 years younger. because of our age, her family never asked her, but then she has a large family with lots of nieces and nephews. But lo and behold, April last year, my wife found herself preggers. Once we told the family the speculation suddenly became boy or girl. Because we are both “foreigners” (even though my wife is naturalized), they told us it was a girl. Now she is just over three months old and was the center of attention this CNY. Next year her nephews will have his own bundle of joy for the family to center on.

  6. People find their values in other people’s affairs. It is annoying for the most part. At the same time, it takes certain pressure off from making decisions. As long as you go with the flow, your life can be easy. The other option is to avoid the issues. Very few want to challenge the norms because you can’t win. It is easier to hide and lie. Look back in time, you will find these practices were not so rare in your own country.

  7. Things are not any different with white families here in America either…they ask the same questions during Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings!

  8. I don’t know what the fuss is about. My bf’s relatives also asked us about our jobs and it’s ok. What were we supposed to talk about, the weather? We both like our jobs so we also don’t mind this kind of questions. One aunt asked when we will get married and my bf honestly said that we don’t know. I think that if you are ok with yourself and your life you also won’t care about the questions.
    My bf’s sister and brother-in-law are 32 and don’t have a child yet but nobody asked them about that, at least not my bf’s relatives…
    But I asked my bf’s cousin about gaokao, gosh, maybe I shouldn’t have?

  9. I understand why many singles over 30 (or even over 25) would avoid the New Year visit. Chinese families can be very repetitive and sometimes pushy about this subject. However, that’s because they care about you – in their own way.

    We were asked the same questions (marriage AND baby) when we visited the family in China; this was only after 5 MONTHS of dating! Luckily, my fiancé and I have already discussed it all in our first couple months and we don’t mind discussing it with those who ask. We started dating in our late 20s and were both on the same page from the beginning.

    Not everyone is in the same situation, though, so I don’t blame those who try to avoid the subject. It’s a tough position to be in with your family.

  10. The questions do not get easier once you are married. I am married for 3 years and in my early 30’s and I constantly get bombarded with questions that hurt my feelings such as:

    Why don’t you have kids? Don’t you know your husband will leave you in the future if you can’t give him a baby?

    You have to have kids soon, your eggs are past their prime already.

  11. I can see how people find these questions annoying. My fiancé’s cousin’s wife asked me recently when we plan to get a baby and it really felt uncomfortable to be asked a question like this from somebody I had only met a few hours earlier.

    But I agree, sometimes family back home will ask similar questions (not my close family though and with much less frequency).

  12. We got these questions from both sides of the family.
    Chinese side:
    – His sister recently had a baby, new nephew, when he hold or look at the baby many questions came: When are you going to get married? Why don´t you have kids soon?
    I thought..ok maybe I just don´t pay much attention to the baby, but that would be rude too.
    – Why you don´t marry? These questions is a bit painful because seems like they really think we don´t want to marry. The point is: getting married is expensive. His sister can´t understand it cause she got married 10 years ago and her family paid all the expenses. So she just said: No is not. ( Well…she did not pay for it so for her, it was not). This is a different case, we both need a better situation and we need to borne the wedding.

    – Do you plan to marry during your trip? I want to be a grandma. : Here I just said no..don´t worry we are not hiding that, we don´t plan to marry in my hometown, and you already have 2 grandsons.

    From my side of the family:

    – This food is good to have children
    – I am waiting for a new wedding to use this new dress…
    – I want my granddaughter has a son before I leave (oh no…that´s too negative).

    etc etc

    They can be umcomfortable but also funny. I think when people get married they forget about how it feels when others pushed you.
    Sometimes people are not ready, or can´t afford it. The point is that when someone pushes the topic so much it can create pressure and the couple may even suffer a small crisis from it.

    Why when people marry feel that need of asking the others when they will marry or why they don´t?
    Single people don´t usually go around asking married ones why they married and if they plan to divorce.


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