Of course, with Chinese New Year coming up, it’s as if I’m facing the yearly final exam on this subject – one that I’m not entirely sure I’m going to pass. (Ah well, at least my blunders might provide a bit of comic relief during the holidays?)
That’s why I’m grateful Yiwen Yang has graciously provided this article. It’s an introduction to some of the basics every Western woman who marries a Chinese man should know when it comes to what to call your Chinese family members.
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The other day we were reading Jocelyn’s article The Chinese Relatives Name Game again, and thought about how confusing understanding all about Chinese family members can be!
Whilst we’re sure it’s not a new topic for many foreigners who are learning Mandarin Chinese, it’s definitely still a big challenge—especially if you are new to your Chinese family, and them to you.
As Chinese New Year is once again looming, why not refresh some of your Chinese language skills in advance so that you can impress your Chinese family—or maybe give them surprise at how fluent you have become in the language.
So, today, we are going to help you out!
As many of you know, Chinese family trees can be talked about forever. To actually remember the names and titles of people in Chinese family trees takes time; indeed, it’s also challenging for many native Chinese.
As Jocelyn from Speaking of China is more focused on AMWF (Asian male/Western female) love, let’s get started by looking at terms for Western women married to Chinese men.
Here’s an easy one if you are married to a Chinese man:
Husband: 老公,丈夫,先生 (lǎogōng, zhàngfu, xiānsheng)
What will your husband call you? (wife): 老婆,妻子,夫人 (lǎopó, qīzi, fūrén)
Note: 老公 (lǎogōng)／老婆 (lǎopó) are the most popular names which you can use in basically every situation, whilst 丈夫 (zhàngfu)／妻子 (qīzi)，先生 (xiānsheng)／夫人 (fūrén) are a bit more formal and used to introduce a couple to other people.
For example, 这是我的先生 (Zhè shì wǒ de xiānsheng)：This is my husband
Father in-law (your husband’s father): 公公 (gōnggong)
Mother in-law (your husband’s mother): 婆婆 (pópo)
公公 (gōnggong) and 婆婆 (pópo) are the most common words in use although, in many cases, people just use the same words as their husband use, which are father（爸，bà）or mother（妈，mā）.
Also, when you have a child, some people will follow the words the child speaks, namely: grandfather（爷爷，yéye），grandmother (奶奶，nǎinai) 。
So what will your in-laws call you? 媳妇 （xífù）/儿媳 （érxí）：(daughter in-law）
Note: in many cases, if they are talking to you, they will just say your name naturally.
Other useful names you might use:
Your husband’s older brother: 大伯（dàbó）
Your husband’s older sister: 大姑子（dàgūzi）
Your husband’s younger brother: 小叔子（xiǎoshūzi）
Your husband’s younger sister: 小姑子（xiǎogūzi）
Sounds complicated already?
Well, here are some great tips for you to follow:
For the older generation/seniors, if you forget the correct way to speak to them, just to follow your husband is fine. (Eg. it’s okay to call your parents in-law just “father” or “mother”.)
For the younger generation/seniors, you can either follow your husband or just say their name directly. (Eg. Your husband’s younger sister. If her name is 筱钧（xiǎojūn），you can just say her name directly.)
You may not need to use all of the above every day but, don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to the best/correct ways of addressing family members.
Actually, on our site Learn Mandarin Now, we recently published two Podcasts about Chinese family members:
direct family members: http://www.learnmandarinnow.com/podcast13
extended family members: http://www.learnmandarinnow.com/podcast19
We are now publishing our exciting Podcasts every day from Monday-Friday, covering a variety of interesting topics to help you learn Mandarin Chinese more effectively. They are totally free for everyone to view and listen to but, if you can kindly leave your honest opinion and ratings in i-Tunes or just simply tell us what kind of topics you like us to talk about in the near future, we’d greatly appreciate this. In any event, we’d love hear from you.
‘Tis the season to be sneezing. And I should know. I’ve had three cases of common colds/flus last month alone. That’s right – more often than not, you could find me reaching for the Kleenex or a throat lozenge in December (thank you, Golden Throat Lozenges).
Of course, it’s one thing to come down with a cold – and another to be sick when you’re living in a part of China (rural Hangzhou) that doesn’t have heating in the winter. Consider the following comments I heard one evening from my husband and his parents when I was coughing and sneezing at the dinner table:
“You should wear more clothing,” said my mother-in-law, admonishing me for only wearing three layers of clothing and a scarf.
Then my husband, who shot me a disapproving glance, added, “You haven’t been keeping warm enough.”
It was an echo of the way my mother used to warn us not to catch cold when playing outdoors in the snow. But here I was, sitting inside their home and – by their measure – still putting myself at risk for more sickness.
Like myself, everyone else at the dinner table was bundled up in their jackets and multiple layers — something I would have never seen back at my parents’ home in the US.
I grew up in a little white house in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, a world where every house had insulation and central heating, including ours. As someone with a particular aversion to the cold, I’m pretty certain I was the biggest fan of our household thermostat (much to my parents’ chagrin, since they had to foot the bills). I recall many a snowy afternoon bounding into the home after school, when I would promptly turn up the thermostat and prop myself up against one of the heating ducts in the living room. This, combined with the occasional hot bath, was what helped me through the long and often bitter winters in Cleveland.
Leave it to me to marry into a family in Southern China, where people are used to winters without heating in their homes.
Rural Hangzhou is below China’s “Mason-Dixon line” for heating — Anhui’s Huai River and the Qinling Mountain Range – which means that while folks North of that line enjoy steam heating in the winter, we don’t. Granted, Hangzhou isn’t that Northern overall. The city sits at the same latitude as New Orleans and Houston, and would never have the kind of winters I knew as a child — plenty of well-below-freezing temperatures, guaranteed snowfall every year, and even the occasional blizzard. But the high humidity of this subtropical climate means that when it gets cold, you feel it deep in your bones. It’s days like that when I pine for a thermostat to turn up or a heating duct of my own.
But I know, central heating just isn’t what people do here, including my family. They’ve adapted to the winter in ways that I’m not accustomed to — such as always wearing a winter jacket, even when you’re indoors. That means that sometimes, we don’t agree on what constitutes being warm enough inside the house, or how many layers you need to wear to prove that common cold wasn’t your fault.
Through my family, I’ve come to accept that this is what people do here to survive the winter. It just works for them.
For me, it’s another story. I’d love to say I’ve completely embraced how people manage the winter here, but I haven’t. I still fear those one or two days of the season when it’s zero degrees Celsius outside, causing the indoor temperatures to plummet.
I have learned, though, that it’s possible even for me to survive with the right preparations, like a good electric mattress pad and a space heater. (In fact, most days in the winter you’ll probably find me tucked in bed under the covers, staying warm!)
And while I’ll never have the same courage before the cold as my mother-in-law, at least she understands that I need extra preparations to make it through. A month ago, she gifted me with another heavy winter quilt that I never asked her to buy for me. Now that’s love.
Meanwhile, my husband is proof that anyone can change their perspective on heating. He may still side with his mom when it comes to whether I’m wearing enough clothing or actually kept myself warm these days. But he always sides with me about the electric mattress pad and the space heater. “Ahhh, a nice, snug, warm bed!” That’s what he always says when he crawls under the perfectly preheated covers.
I think it’s only a matter of time before I convert him to the “dark side” of central heating. 😉
You know your holidays have hit a low point when, halfway through, you end up doubled over in a chair in the emergency room with an IV drip, hoping and praying you won’t vomit into that ugly little fluorescent green plastic wastebasket at your feet.
Yep, that was me on the fifth day of the new lunar year. The only thing that would have made the whole situation worse was if the nurse had forced me to get that shot in the butt right there in public. Apparently, it’s what everyone does in the hospital. (Fortunately, she let me take the shot in a private room.)
I was shrouded in a soft white baby blanket printed with roses – a thing of beauty that was quite the foil to my ugly situation, shivering in my chair because I had vomited three times already that afternoon. That included the two instances in the little red VW polo we borrowed from a friend to drive down the Zhejiang coast, forcing me to turn the little plastic bag that was supposed to be for our fruit and other snacks into a makeshift vomit bag.
Between wishing to god that I wouldn’t once again have to anoint the wastebasket with the few remnants in my stomach, a bigger question loomed before me: How in the heck could this have happened to me?
Granted, I didn’t come into the holiday in the best shape. The night before February 18, Chinese New Year’s Eve this year (the most important day of the year), I had literally just wrapped up a substantial paid project for a client in the US that involved multiple late-night interviews to write up four articles. Just as I had made it to the finish line, hoping for a breather, another one appeared before my weary eyes – the end of the Chinese New Year holiday that stretched before me.
On top of it, I got maybe four hours of sleep that night worrying about all of the horrible things that might happen to me when I sat behind the wheel of that little red VW polo the following morning. It would be my first time driving in China and visions of all the gory tabloid news stories I had watched the year before tugged at my consciousness. You know, the kind of massive, bloody accidents that could make anyone swear off getting behind the wheel in this country.
But ultimately, I could have recovered from all of that – the marathon project before the holiday, the lack of sleep, even the stress of driving itself – with a nice sedate holiday filled with lazy late mornings in bed, curled up with my favorite e-reader devouring a memoir or novel.
Unfortunately, “sedate” is not a word you would use to describe my Chinese New Year with the family this year.
Don’t get me wrong – there are things I love about Chinese New Year. My mother-in-law always outdoes herself each year with a feast that could give some of the best restaurants in Hangzhou a run for their money (even the vegetarian ones). The house is overflowing with the best treats of the year –sugary pecans, dulcet green dates, and honeyed black sesame cakes. And I have an excuse to visit some of my favorite relatives – such as John’s grandmother, who still manages to charm us all into laughter despite the fact that I can only understand maybe 50 percent of her speech in the local dialect.
In theory, a day or two of this togetherness works amazingly well.
The problem is, Chinese New Year with my husband’s family lasts at least three or four days (if not more, depending on where you are and how long you’re able to say). It’s all about being with the family day after day…after day…after day. And what sounds great at first soon becomes tiring and even overwhelming.
And if you’re already exhausted coming into the holiday, like I was, you’re at risk for even worse outcomes if you push things a little too much. (Like attempting to drive some six hours in one day to visit a friend in south Zhejiang.)
What about the holiday can wear you down? Here’s my list:
1. Visiting people and/or having guests over every single day
Once the lunar new year arrives, so with it arrives the annual custom of bainian (visiting with relatives during the new year). In my husband’s family, for at least three whole days you’re either hosting family or schlepping your way over to someone else’s house. The thing is, this isn’t a couple of people – we’re talking about 10 or sometimes even 20 people in a house at the same time! And because Chinese love it “renao” (literally “hot and loud”), every house is a boisterous mix of loud chatter, drunken toasts, and a cloud of smoke as people exchange far too many cigarettes around the table.
I’m an introvert myself, so just being around huge crowds of people already makes me nervous (which is tiring). Add to that the concerns that someone might actually light up indoors (I detest smoking and cannot handle secondhand smoke) and the pressure is even worse.
It’s a shame too, because invariably many of these meals dish up some of the most delectable things I’ll eat all year! I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve either wolfed down my rice and dishes or simply passed up a few meals simply because the whole environment was too exhausting.
2. Firecrackers and fireworks
If there’s anything destined to steal away your precious hours of rest – especially the first night of the new year – it’s these traditional holiday explosives.
Imagine me, a shadow of myself that first night, desperate for some much-needed slumber – only to have my ears assaulted in the early morning hours by what must surely be the closest thing to being camped out in a war zone. The neverending blitzkrieg of fireworks, firecrackers and anything else that sparkles or booms happened to occur at 5am to 6am or so (it’s traditional to set them off when you first open your door in the morning of the new year) – coinciding with the time when I was supposed to be in my deepest sleep.
When I finally rolled out of bed sometime around 11am, my husband remarked at how my “panda eyes” – those dark circles I used to have years ago around my eyes – had returned to my worn out face. Ugh.
3. Being asked to eat WAY too much food
It was the afternoon of the first day of the new year, only a couple of hours after we had all polished off enough food to easily feed all the people in the minibuses that zoom through the countryside. John and I were sitting at the dining room table in his home, discussing some business with friends. The sunlight cast lazy, relaxed shadows on the wall as we were all enjoying the conversation and nibbling on pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
If only my mother-in-law hadn’t barged into the room with five huge, steaming bowls of dumplings that nobody could have humanly consumed at the hour.
“No, no, we couldn’t possibly eat these!” The protest came from everyone at the table, most of all the friends’ daughter, whose blood seemed to drain from her face at the sight of this food being forced on her. “Please, I can’t!” she squeaked in a pathetic voice that made me feel so sorry for her. After all, the girl said exactly what I was thinking.
This was the middle of the afternoon. We were all expected to eat elsewhere for dinner (surely, yet another gargantuan feast where the relatives would demand you to eat, eat, eat!). How could we make it through with the dumplings in our stomachs? You always have to eat something when visiting someone else’s house.
When did eating suddenly turn into a task, a chore even?
Even worse, when I passed on the dumplings, as did John’s friends, this “responsibility” of cleaning the bowls was transferred to John, as well as John’s dad and mom (his dad actually grumbled a little as he shoveled spoonfuls of dumplings into his mouth).
Just seeing the whole scene tired me out and drained my appetite too. That evening at dinner, I only devoured a fraction of what I had eaten for lunch. Too bad, because John’s aunts fried up one of my favorite Chinese dishes, the silky smooth and fragrant chao liangpi (fried bean starch).
4. Preparing just the right gifts for the family (especially if you’re on a budget)
Experiencing Christmas as an adult has taught me that gift-giving can easily raise your blood pressure a few notches as you agonize over getting someone the elusive “perfect gift” (which almost never really exists anyhow).
Well, in China you can’t do Chinese New Year without giving things too. Every time you visit a relative’s home for the new year, you must arrive with some Chinese New Year gifts – such as organic milk, fine wines, nutritious crackers and cookies, or even fruit (invariably wrapped up in little red giftboxes like the above photo). It’s etiquette…and trying to plan for it all (especially if you have a large extended family like we do) will drain your mental resources as well as your finances.
5. Traveling during the busiest (and craziest) holiday season of the year
When I told people I was going to drive in China after getting my license, many responded that they were too scared to do it.
Now I understand why!
Let me tell you, the highways in China during this holiday felt more like a large-scale game of dodgem in real time, with drivers constantly whipping and weaving through the traffic at all times, just barely missing our front bumper. Almost no one uses their turning signal to change lanes; they just change at will, use whatever space they can find, and think nothing of tailgating even at well over 100 kilometers per hour (over 60 miles per hour). Even when it’s a downpour! It’s no wonder we saw a multiple rear-end collision in a tunnel involving four cars (and three horribly crushed bumpers).
Getting behind the wheel while I was already fatigued was the final strike against me – and what ultimately sent me into the emergency room in that little city on the Zhejiang coast.
Here’s what I’ve learned. While I think short distances are manageable, even on a holiday, I would never, ever, drive more than two hours during a vacation time like that. It’s suicide. Even my husband’s friend on the Zhejiang coast said we’d be better off doing the high-speed trains next time around.
Of course, if you’ve got to move around during the holidays and haven’t the luxury of a car, you’re not off the hook. Train and bus stations transform into a suffocating sea of people that make you truly understand why China is the most populated country in the world. You’ll even feel the crush of humanity at the airports. And good luck trying to score tickets for travel when everyone else is trying to hoof it home!
In the end, I’m reminded of what my husband’s dear college friend – the friend I first met in that emergency room during the holidays – told me later on: “We usually just spend our holidays traveling instead of visiting family,” including travel out of the country. While I wasn’t in any shape at that moment to attempt international travel, one thought did occur to me: I could definitely use a holiday from this family holiday！
We’re just into the first few days of the year of the sheep (or is that goat or ram?), and let me tell you — I am just completely exhausted. It was already a marathon leading up to Chinese New Year’s Eve, where I rushed to finish a paid project before the holiday. And it hasn’t stopped even during the holiday — except now it’s a marathon of visiting relatives (bainian) during the day!
Still, despite the fact that I’m still catching up on sleep (and, for that matter, my e-mail inbox — apologies to anyone who hasn’t heard from me in a while), I’m actually having a really great time, more than I ever expected. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that folks here usually speak in local dialect, which means I still don’t always understand when they’re saying, say, “Have kids soon!”)
In lieu of my usual posts on Monday, I’m sending you my warmest wishes for an auspicious year of the sheep through this photo essay! Here’s hoping you have a fabulous year!
The other night, I suddenly burst out in tears over what might probably be the silliest of all things – the fact that Chinese New Year was fast approaching, and I was really afraid of spending it with the family.
It sounds ridiculous to admit that I was sobbing in my bed over another holiday with the family, but it’s true. And it was all triggered by an equally ridiculous thing – that none of my husband’s friends could lend us their extra cars.
We knew we weren’t in a position to rent a car to drive home for the holiday, but John and I had talked about borrowing one of his friends’ cars for a while. The only problem? We waited too long to ask for that second car – and of his friends who had an extra vehicle, all of them had been promised away to someone else.
As frivolous as it sounds, I had secretly daydreamed about driving back to the family home in a car. I often imagined myself, the sunshine beating down upon me like a spotlight as I stepped out of an actual automobile in front of the family – how great it would feel for them to see us driving home to the house (instead of taking the two buses we’d normally have to brave to make the trip back).
Deep down, I know it was all about face, our own mianzi. That I thought if only we had a car – even if it was a borrowed one – it would somehow make up for everything else about our lives that seems totally imperfect or open to family criticism. Like how we don’t have kids (and everyone keeps bugging us about it). Or how we don’t own an apartment or a car (unlike all of John’s relatives his own age). Or even the fact that we live in a tiny apartment. Having a car would somehow prove our “worthiness” before everyone else in the family.
Well, without the “armor” of a borrowed car at our disposal, all of my fears came pouring out, along my tears. That everyone will notice how not much has changed for us over the year of the horse. That they might think we’re failures.
The problem of “what will others think?” has weighed upon me for much of my life. I’m a recovering perfectionist, exacerbated by the fact that I’m also incredibly sensitive. The old saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” – and yet for most of my life, I’ve taken to heart time and time again what other people say about me. Even though I should have known better.
Meanwhile, Chinese New Year is one of those times when it seems like everyone in the family makes it their business to tell you what they think about your life – whether it’s your marital status, whether you have kids, or even your own possessions. And even when people don’t say anything, sometimes just being the one who “sticks out” of the crowd – like, say, the only thirty-something couple in the family that doesn’t have a home, car, lots of money, and kids – can make you feel truly like the odd one out. As if you don’t belong (and, perhaps, never will).
Hence, all of my fears about heading home. And my crazy thinking that, somehow, having a car might make us “look better” in the eyes of everyone else.
I’d be lying if I told you I’m somehow over “what other people think,” because I’m not. I think it’s the biggest struggle of my entire life. It’s one I fight on a daily basis. Sometimes, it’s even the reason I can’t fall asleep right away; there are nights when I must whisper the mantra, “You are good enough just as you are,” over and over again, just like my mother used to whisper to me as a child when I couldn’t sleep.
Facing my family at Chinese New Year is like being tossed into my own personal three-ring circus of “what will other people think?” Specifically, people who I love and care about very much, which makes it even harder.
Yet, in another sense, I also realize that facing my worst fear – what others who love me will think – could also be my salvation. That sometimes, you have to face the darkness and plunge right into it, instead of just running away (which tends to be my knee-jerk reaction to things I am afraid of).
That instead of hiding behind someone’s borrowed car in order to feel worthy, I can feel worthy right now, exactly as I am. And not because someone else – or, especially, someone in the family – told me so.
So in a few days, John and I will walk our way over to one of Hangzhou’s bus stations and board the first of two buses to make our way back to his hometown. I don’t know what my Chinese family will say about us this holiday season. But for the first time in a long time, I’m going to try out something new – listening less to their criticism, and more to my own heart (which I’m certain that deep down inside already knows I’m good enough).
Have you ever been afraid of what other people — family or otherwise — might think of you? How do you manager your own “demons”?
P.S.: When I first drafted this post, it seemed my husband and I had no possibility of borrowing a car to head home. Then a miracle happened — when my husband happened to call a forgotten old classmate, she offered us her extra car. Still, that car won’t change my perspective; I’m still planning on listening to my heart!
When you live a lot of your life online like I do, it’s easy to make things look perfect. Like, for instance, Chinese New Year. Last year I spent much of the run-up to the holiday posting eye-catching photos of Chinese New Year – from shots of mouth-watering homemade goodies from my mother-in-law’s kitchen to handwritten red couplets shining in the winter sunshine.
But here’s the thing – it’s not all perfect or fun when you actually spend Chinese New Year with the family here. Sometimes, it’s even nerve-wracking. So in the spirit of being totally honest about Chinese New Year, here are 4 things that actually make me anxious about spending this year’s holiday with family here in China:
1. Firecrackers and fireworks
Confession time – I’m a jumpy person. If you startle or scare me (like, sneaking up on me all of a sudden), I will literally jump!
That’s why I’m not exactly the biggest fan of two of the biggest symbols of Chinese New Year: firecrackers and fireworks.
Whenever the family sets them off at our house, it’s like they’ve kicked me into a war zone. I head for the safest corner of the house to duck down and cover my ears, praying it will all be over soon.
Of course, it doesn’t help that every Chinese New Year generates a frightening bunch of tabloid-worthy news stories about tragic accidents (including deaths) caused by firecrackers and fireworks, making me even more nervous whenever I hear that great “boom” outside.
If only my husband’s family would go for those electronic firecrackers that I heard about on the news in China last year – they have a prerecorded “boom” but none of that destructive or dangerous force.
But I know better — they’re traditionalists to the core when it comes to their choice of explosives. Which means I’ll have to prepare myself for another year of explosions outside the door – and another year of me nervously crouching in the corner of the house…with my ears plugged.
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?”
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.)
So, since we still don’t have a kid, guess what I’m expecting to hear from the relatives this Chinese New Year? Yep. And I’m definitely not thrilled.
Big tobacco must love how China’s culture has successfully linked cigarette smoking to masculinity, guaranteeing that pretty much every family in the country includes smokers.
But I’m a rabid nonsmoker who finds secondhand smoke repulsive, so having smokers in my family here in China is another thing to worry about during the holidays.
Last year, it was almost impossible to find a dinner table where someone wasn’t lighting up. I experienced some uncomfortable conversations about smoking and often had to steal away from the dinner table because my lungs just couldn’t take it.
I’m expecting another round of “dodge the secondhand smoke” this year – and it’s definitely not going to be the highlight of my holidays. Ugh.
What worries you about spending the holidays with your family?
Bringing family together for the holidays is bound to produce a few awkward experiences – including when it’s your family spending Chinese New Year. Here are four I’ve had that have stayed with me over the years (making me wonder what’s in store this Chinese New Year!):
1. Family pressure to have a baby at the most important dinner of the year
Last year, just as we sat down to nianye fan (Chinese New Year’s eve dinner – the most important feast of the year), one of John’s brothers turned to me and said, “Next year, we’ll have a new person around the table, right?” The meaning wasn’t lost on me – that, obviously, he expected us to get pregnant and have a baby in the year of the horse.
Not exactly the kind of thing you like to hear when you know that’s not going to happen. (We just can’t have kids right now for personal reasons.)
My face completely flushed red as everyone around the table looked at me, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. It was one of those moments where time nearly ground to a halt – an incredibly awkward one, to say the least.
Fortunately, everyone soon started eating. Thank god Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner was so distracting! (And delicious!)
2. Seeing a relative so drunk he was practically unconscious and covered in vomit
This wasn’t just awkward – it was dangerous.
On the second day of the Chinese New Year, our family invited over some relatives for a loud and raucous lunch where the alcohol flowed quite freely. A little too freely, in fact.
The main culprits were a mob of older male relatives in the dining room pressuring the younger guys to drink as a sign of respect to them. It became a neverending request, where one shot glass of high proof baijiu led to another and another and another.
I never cared for boisterous and drunken family meals, so I had positioned myself on a chair outside, chatting with some of the women in the family.
An hour or so later, my husband discovered one of his cousins had gotten so sloppy drunk that he hid himself in the shed behind the family’s beehive. When John finally carried him out of the shed and plunked him into a bamboo chair, he looked almost unconscious – and then puked all over his shirt.
I swear, the baijiu on his breath mingled with the stench of vomit has forever been etched into my memory. (And, I will never, ever, sit in that bamboo chair.)
Later, family members sent him to the hospital, where they pumped his stomach and revived him. Fortunately, he didn’t consume enough to threaten his life.
But those moments when his almost comatose self, reeking of alcohol and puke, were seated right across from me rank as some of the most awkward and frightening ones I’ve experienced during the holidays.
3. Using a chamber pot in the bedroom while having my period
Well, it’s one thing to manage your “monthly gift” when you’re in your own apartment – and another thing entirely to deal with it in a home where the only flush toilet is downstairs and too far from your bedroom to use at night.
Enter in the family’s chamber pot (it resembled a bucket, complete with its own lid). Yes, folks, that’s what I had to use one year when nature called and it was late at night. I’ll spare you all of the really gross details, but suffice to say it felt awkward trying to squat over a bucket AND manage the messy side of being “on the rag” at the same time.
(Thank goodness our suite at the family home now has a modern bathroom with a real flush toilet!)
4. Calling John’s parents to tell them we were stuck on a mountain after dark
Last year, we had an unseasonably warm start to the year of the horse – so much so that the glorious sunshine on the second day of the new year beckoned John and I outside for a walk. We didn’t actually intend to climb the mountain but the beautiful weather spurred us on – and besides, we had always wanted to make it to the top. We lucked out on finding a path that brought us close to the summit and couldn’t resist clawing our way through the brush and bushes until we made it. Woo-hoo!
Well, that euphoria lasted right up until the path we chose down the mountain petered out until we were trapped in a minefield of thorny vines as the sun was just disappearing behind the mountains. There we were, trapped on a mountain at dark with no idea exactly how to make it down and not a flashlight in sight.
We did, however, have our mobile phone – thus came the awkward call sometime around 6:30pm or so, announcing what was surely my mother-in-law’s worst nightmare. (She never did care for us gallivanting around the mountains in the village).
Fortunately, we did eventually make it down the mountain – slowly and step-by-step as we held hands the entire way for safety. It was one of the craziest things we’ve ever done and we suffered some nasty looks from John’s family (including his eldest brother, who gave us the silent treatment as proof of his extreme anger at us for getting lost). Not fun.
What awkward experiences have you had during the holidays?
So I’m living in China with my boyfriend. We have lived in China for the majority of our relationship, and I am learning Chinese full time. His little sister is getting married next week and as a consequence his Mom takes every opportunity to ask me when we are going to get married. There are some reasons this sits uncomfortably with me:
1. It is assumed that we are getting married but we haven’t really talked about it openly. 2. I would kind of like the surprise proposal if we ever did get married, and being constantly asked about this completely spoils that. 3. His mother obviously assumes that because I have lived here for a few years now I’m going to stay here forever (which I’m more and more certain that I don’t want to do).
His mother’s questions are so direct that it’s impossible to answer vaguely, and so I’m at risk of stepping on some cultural sensitive points, when really, she’s the last person I want to be talking about it with (before me and my boyfriend have even talked about it properly).
She thinks that I should stay in China and teach English and that’s the end of the story – so I had to tell her that I don’t necessarily want to stay in China for the rest of my life. How can I put this message across to her more politely without offending her, and giving her the idea that actually, me and my boyfriend need to talk about it without family pressure bothering us?
I hate to say this, but welcome to Chinese culture — where everyone is in your face about things that we consider highly personal and private. Like marriage and having babies and even where you plan to live. (See my past Ask the Yangxifu column on Dealing With “How Come You Aren’t Married Yet?”)
Every time I go back home to John’s hometown we always get asked, “When are you having kids?” There’s nothing we can do or say to stop people (mostly family) from inquiring about it. They will ask! Trying to explain or tell them not to will create misunderstandings or even put a dent in our relationship. It’s just not worth it.
Instead, here’s my suggestion — don’t take it too seriously. Really. As personal and and imposing as the questions might feel, the reality is that people often ask as a way to show care or concern (not unlike asking about someone’s health).
Sometimes I’m even convinced my family members ask us about having kids because it gives them something to talk about!
Next time his mom asks when you’re getting married, the best way to answer is “Soon!” (快了，快了! Kuài le，kuài le!). Chances are that will satisfy her and she won’t trouble you anymore.
My husband and I always say “soon” whenever someone asks when we’re going to have kids. But guess what? We’re NOT having kids any time soon. And yet, every time we answer like this, it really works. They stop asking about it!
So just smile and say “Soon!”
You could take a similar approach to all of the questions about staying in China. Just tell her, “Okay, we will think it over.” (好的，我们考虑考虑。Hǎo de，wǒmen kǎolǜ kǎolǜ.) It’s not a lie because you have thought it over (or are thinking it over). And again, chances are she’ll feel happy about your answer and change the subject.
Maybe this isn’t the answer you hoped for. But I’ve just found that you’re better off responding to questions like these with a positive and vague response. The positive part makes them happy, the vague part means you’re not actually promising anything. And here’s the thing – in Chinese culture, people are comfortable with vagueness and uncertainty. In all likelihood, nobody’s going to follow up and ask “How soon?” or “When?”
Instead, they’ll probably just move on to something else and you’ll be safe. (Until the next conversation, at least!)
What do you think? What advice do you have?
Do you have a question about love, dating, marriage or family in Chinese or Western culture? Send me yours today.
“Well, we have this big meal and eat things like turkey and cranberries…”
As I tried describing one of the most essentially American holidays of the year to my Chinese in-laws, I could already see their eyes glaze over with confusion and sense the questions forming in their minds. Turkey? Cranberries? Even though I expressed these perfectly in Chinese, the result was still gibberish because neither of them had ever seen a turkey or tasted cranberries in their entire lives.
When you’re an American like me, living abroad as part of a foreign family that doesn’t understand the importance of what we call “Turkey Day”, let alone what foods we traditionally eat, it can be frustrating. American Thanksgiving is part of the culture I grew up with. It’s something I’d like to share with my family in China – or at the very least, describe the holiday to them in a way that actually makes sense to them.
Fortunately, there is a way. Over the years, I’ve discovered that some of the most important things about Thanksgiving dinner have counterparts or equivalents in Chinese culture. You know, something your Chinese family actually knows and has probably tasted in their lives.
So if you’re struggling to explain American Thanksgiving to your Chinese loved ones, here are 5 suggestions that might just help you:
1. Roast turkey is America’s version of roast duck (kǎoyā, 烤鸭)
Outside the world of China’s well-heeled expats and cushy five-star hotels, turkeys just aren’t a thing here. They’re not native to China – so of course, most people haven’t actually tasted one. Even using the appropriate Chinese word for “turkey” (huǒjī, 火鸡) won’t necessarily make it easier for people like Baba and Mama to understand what you mean.
Fortunately, Chinese cuisine includes roast poultry (Beijing duck, anyone?), so you could always start off by comparing roast turkey to China’s roast duck (kǎoyā, 烤鸭). It doesn’t taste same (so this vegan has heard) but it’s in the ballpark.
What about stewed chicken (dùn jīròu, 炖鸡肉)? You usually baste roast turkey in the bird’s own juices, which is sort of like stewing chicken meat. You could even tell them what I’ve said before – that turkey is really just an oversized chicken.
2. Cranberries are like Chinese hawthorn (shānzhā，山楂)
How do you explain the sweet-tart goodness of cranberries to people who have lived all their lives without cranberry sauce or Craisins (those fantastic raisin-like dried cranberries that have become one of my favorite snacks ever in America)?
Simple – tell them it’s like Chinese hawthorn (shānzhā，山楂). These sour berries are the quintessential fruit for tanghulu, delectable candied fruit skewers made popular in Northern China and now available in most Chinese cities. When Chinese hawthorn are warmed up and sugar coated, they taste surprisingly like cranberry sauce – a crunchier, less sauce-like version, mind you.
So guess what I’m cooking up for Thanksgiving this Thursday to substitute for cranberry sauce on the table? If you’d also like to try your hand at making candied Chinese hawthorn, check out this recipe.
3. Stuffing is like a savory version of eight-treasures rice (bābǎofàn, 八宝饭)
In a China where rice, noodles and steamed buns rule, try explaining stuffing — seasoned Western-style bread mixed with things like carrots, onions and celery — to your Chinese relatives. I once tried listing off the ingredients to my Chinese mother-in-law; while she never said “That’s weird,” I could somehow read it in her puzzled eyes – eyes that have never seen or heard of Stove Top (the number one stuffing brand in the US).
If only I had realized that China already has a stuffing-like dish called eight-treasures rice (bābǎofàn, 八宝饭). Granted, the sweet, rather than savory, flavors reign in this dish of sugary glutinous rice stuffed with all sorts of colorful dried fruits, seeds, and nuts. But many versions of Thanksgiving stuffing include dried fruits and other “treasures”. So just tell your Chinese family and friends stuffing is like a savory version of eight-treasures rice (xián de bābǎofàn, 咸的八宝饭), where we use bread instead of rice and vegetables or spices as the “treasures”.
4. Pumpkin pie is like a pumpkin-flavored gāodiǎn (糕点)
No Thanksgiving Day – or explanation of a Thanksgiving Day – is complete without a little dessert. But here’s where it gets challenging, because desserts as Americans know them – you know, death by chocolate and the endless fluffy white frosting and whipped cream – just aren’t in traditional Chinese culture.
Fortunately, Western-style bakeries serving up pastries, cakes and loaves of bread have exploded all over China, which means a lot of people – especially the younger set – know what you mean when you’re talking about cakes and pies.
It’s the older generations — people like my mother-in-law and John’s grandma – you have to worry about. They’ve probably never even set foot in one of these bakeries.
Still, China has plenty of home-grown pastries or gāodiǎn (糕点), such as mooncakes (yuèbing, 月饼) and mung-bean cakes (lǜdòugāo, 绿豆糕). For the elders in your family, you could call pumpkin pie a sort of pumpkin gaodian (nánguāgāo, 南瓜糕).
5. American Thanksgiving itself is like China’s Winter Solstice (dōngzhì, 冬至)
I’ve heard lots of people equate Thanksgiving Day with China’s Mid-Autumn Festival because both holidays occur in the fall and stress being together with family. But honestly, it’s a terrible comparison for lots of other reasons – especially in terms of food.
To celebrate China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, people eat mooncakes. Meanwhile, to celebrate American Thanksgiving Day, people feast on turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and everything else until their stomachs can’t bear it. Food and family both take center stage in Thanksgiving – something you can’t say about China’s Mid-Autumn Festival.
My suggestion? American Thanksgiving equals China’s Winter Solstice (dōngzhì, 冬至). Not only do both of these holidays bring family together and involve huge feasts, they also share a very important characteristic – they both kick off the holiday season in their respective countries. While American Thanksgiving signals the start of the Christmas season, it’s China’s Winter Solstice that reminds us Chinese New Year is just around the corner.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an American Thanksgiving dinner of my own to prepare for here in China. To those of you celebrating, happy American Thanksgiving Day!
How do you explain American Thanksgiving dinner to your Chinese family and friends?
“Nervous” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I was about to meet John’s parents in rural Hangzhou for the first time. After all, once John told his parents he was dating me, his father famously told him that while he could be friends with a foreign girl, but shouldn’t date her.
Meeting the parents inspires all sorts of anxiety no matter where you live in the world – but even more so when you’re a foreigner and you’re about to meet the parents of your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend here in China. On top of all the usual pitfalls, you’re also dealing with a different culture, language and living customs. It’s like getting ready for an exam when you don’t even know the entire curriculum.
Fortunately, I’ve survived meeting the parents. And I’ve heard from a lot of others who have successfully made it through. Here are 6 tips I’ve learned over the years to help you prepare for meeting the parents in China:
1. Ask your girlfriend or boyfriend all about their parents
There’s always a story behind everyone’s parents. Why not find out? It’s a great way to get to know them before you actually meet them and figure out potential ways to bond with them.
I always wish I had done this before I first met John’s parents. Maybe then I would have figured out how much his mom loves to cook – just like me — and asked to watch her in the kitchen more? Or that his dad likes to read classic Chinese texts – which I’m always interested in — so I could have asked him about, say, Confucianism or Taoist stories.
2. Learn everything you can about the hometown
One thing I’ve learned from years of living in China? Everyone has a little hometown pride. So if you want to get a little closer to the parents, what better way than to learn about their hometown?
Start with your boyfriend or girlfriend first – they’re your closest experts – and also don’t forget to consult travel guides (which, depending on what attractions/history the hometown has, might tell you something). Most Chinese cities and counties even have Wikipedia pages in English, which might even teach you something your significant other doesn’t know.
3. Prepare gifts for the family
Gift giving is such an important thing in Chinese culture – so important, that you don’t want to show up to your first meeting with the parents without a gift in your hands. Chances are, they’re going to entertain you with a home-cooked dinner and even put you up for the night. There’s no better way to show your appreciation from the moment you enter their home than bearing a present for them.
But if they can’t think of anything – and you’re still stumped about what to purchase – repeat after me: fruit basket. You really can’t go wrong with buying them a nice fruit basket. You’ll find fruit baskets at any major supermarket in China or those fruit stores on the street. Everyone loves them.
4. Learn a few phrases in the local dialect
Mandarin Chinese may be the official language – but chances are, it’s not your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s mother tongue. The vast majority of people grew up speaking a local dialect. It’s their linguistic equivalent of that comfy pair of jeans you love wearing around the house, and that’s what you’ll probably hear around the dinner table.
Just think how amazed they’ll be if you can master a handful of simple words or phrases in the local dialect! Even if it’s as elementary as “Hello” or “Thank you” you’ll probably have everyone in smiles. Or laughing! After all, you’re probably the first foreigner they’ve ever seen speaking it. (My husband always giggles whenever I try out his local dialect!)
5. Dress casual, comfortable and err on the conservative side
Still, if you want to give Baba and Mama a great first impression, you’re better off leaving your Daisy Dukes and ultra mini-skirts behind. Many Chinese parents feel wary about having foreigners in the family, and stereotypes about foreigners (such as the idea that Western women are promiscuous) only fuel their concerns. Yeah, I know it’s unfair, but that’s the reality.
Look at it this way. Even in Western countries – like the US, my home country – people agonize over what to wear to meet the parents for the first time, enough to write articles about it. Here’s what one of them wrote: “No matter how classy your mini-dress is, his mom will say the skirt was too short.”
Instead, go for something that’s casual, comfortable and on the conservative side. Think nice jeans and T-shirts (with long or short sleeves) or sweaters if it’s cooler out; for summer, you can do nice shorts or skirts just above the knee or below.
My husband is still shocked that I never used to wear long johns under my clothing while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Even though I faced a winter that could last as long as four months or more, with below-freezing temperatures and tons of snow, staying warm was never an issue. We had central heating at home and pretty much anywhere we traveled. Even our car had heat.
Meanwhile, my husband’s hometown sits at the very same latitude as New Orleans and Houston, and he’s spent his entire life counting on long johns to help stay warm through the fall, winter and spring. Why? Because he’s used to having no heat inside the house, wherever he is – even in school.
So don’t just look at the weather when you’re packing your bags – ask your girlfriend or boyfriend what it’s actually like in their home. Find out whether they have any heat, including hot water, and if it will be available when you’re there. Also, ask him or her what they usually wear around the house at home.
Here’s a good general rule of thumb – China’s Yangtze river is like the Mason-Dixon line of heating through the country, where North of that people usually have some form of heat provided by the government (they turn it on sometime in November and off sometime in April) and South of that people do without. That said, there are ALWAYS exceptions and it pays to ask ahead of time.
And please, if you’re traveling during the winter months, don’t forget your long johns – trust me!
6. Bring photos
As the old cliché goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words – and who couldn’t use an extra thousand words or two when you’re in front of two parents you’ve never met? Photographs provide a perfect way for you to connect with your significant other’s Baba and Mama without saying a lot. You can show them your family, pictures from your hometown and even the beautiful places you’ve visited. Thanks to the photos I lugged around to my first visit to meet John’s parents, I was able to break the ice with his dad and finally make a connection – enough to make him realize I was the kind of foreign girl worth dating (and, later, marrying).
What has been your experience with meeting the parents? What advice do you have?
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