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. Continue reading “How I Broke Chinese Family Etiquette To Save A Baby Mobile”

Things We’ve Learned About Going Meatless in China From Our Chinese Families

Eating dinner at the family table at my Chinese wedding ceremony -- while I dine on the veggies, my husband goes for the pork.

I’m excited to share with you my first-ever collaborative article, which I wrote with Susan Blumberg-Kason. Susan is the author of All the Tea in Chicago and the forthcoming book Good Chinese Wife, a memoir of the five years she spent trying to assimilate into a Chinese family.

This article grew out of stories that Susan and I swapped over the past year about going meatless in China, and especially going meatless in a Chinese family. Hope you enjoy it.

—– Continue reading “Things We’ve Learned About Going Meatless in China From Our Chinese Families”

There’s No Vacation for Chinese New Year in America

Chinese New Year Family Photo
My Chinese father-in-law was surprised to hear we had no time off — but he’s never known a world without Chinese New Year, like I have.

“Will you have time off for Chinese New Year?” Even though my father-in-law had retired more than 10 years before, he asked this question to us this past Saturday night with all of the wonder of a young child during the holidays.

“No, the semester already started,” John said.

“They gave us vacation for Christmas, not for Chinese New Year,” I added. “Christmas is the big holiday in America.”

“Oh,” my father-in-law said, with a voice that dropped off in surprise.

But he’s not alone. Every time we’ve called our Chinese friends back in Hangzhou, the “vacation during Chinese New Year” idea invariably sneaks into the conversation. And every time we tell them, no, there is no such thing in the US, they answer with astonishment.

Why wouldn’t they? Continue reading “There’s No Vacation for Chinese New Year in America”

Ask the Yangxifu: Carolyn J. Phillips On Charming A Chinese Family Through Food

Carolyn J. Phllips
Accomplished Chinese food writer and yangxifu Carolyn J. Phillips talks with me about food and what it takes to charm your Chinese family at the table. (photo from

A few weeks ago, Carolyn Phillips wrote this to me:

Food is such an integral part of Chinese culture that it’s really hard to fit into a Chinese family if one isn’t adept at the cuisine. I suppose this is true to some extent with any country, but the Chinese are probably on par with the French and Italians when it comes to the importance of dining well. 

This is probably doubly important when a yangxifu doesn’t speak Chinese fluently but still hopes to be accepted. Have your readers talked much about this? I truly feel that the old saw about the way to a man’s stomach etc is gospel for us yangxifu.

Carolyn should know — she’s a yangxifu who devoted her adult life to mastering the art of Chinese cooking. She blogs about food at Out to Lunch and tweets about it as @MadameHuang. She’s also working on two forthcoming books on the subject — “Simple Pleasures from a Chinese Kitchen: Authentic Seasonal Recipes from Every Region of China” and “Culinary Goddesses: The Women Who Changed Our Dining Landscape… Recipes Included.” — and is a regular contributor writing about Chinese food for Zester Daily. In addition, she’s even fluent enough in Mandarin to do court interpreting.

In any event, Carolyn has discovered a thing or two about what it takes to woo a Chinese family that truly loves to eat through food. So I sat down with her — from one yangxifu to another — to talk about all things related to food and Chinese family. As Chinese New Year approaches, it’s a topic that will come in handy for lots of readers.

Just be warned, Carolyn mentions a lot of delicious Chinese food with links to her recipes — you may not want to read this one on an empty stomach. 😉 Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: Carolyn J. Phillips On Charming A Chinese Family Through Food”

Ask the Yangxifu: On Being Vegan in a Chinese Family

Jocelyn and her Chinese inlaws at the table
Can this vegan and her non-vegan Chinese family share the same table in harmony?

Allison asks:

I’m a vegetarian in China and am finding that in general vegetarianism is a really difficult concept for people to understand here. Did John always know you were a vegetarian? How did that affect you guys when you were dating? and is/was it awkward with his family? Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: On Being Vegan in a Chinese Family”

What if My Chinese Husband Was The Only Child?

What would it be like if my Chinese husband were an only child? (photo by Joseph Hoban)

“How is it your husband has two brothers? What about the One-Child Policy?”

The question came out this afternoon while sharing stories from my summer in China at a party — and, more specifically, photos showing my husband actually has two older brothers. One of the women at the party suddenly blurted the question out, because the idea of siblings just didn’t mesh with the narrative she’d heard all along about China.

I told them he was born in 1978, the first year the One-Child Policy began, and he happened to be the youngest in the family. “But most of the men younger than him don’t have brothers or sisters.”

I thought about this later on, long after I left the party — what would it be like if my Chinese husband were an only child? Continue reading “What if My Chinese Husband Was The Only Child?”

All You Need Is Destiny

A bride and groom holding hands and dancing
In marriage, is love really destiny? (photo by Scott Snyder)

“I think love is destiny.” My Chinese sister-in-law Wenjuan blushed as said these words, her own definition of love in marriage.

But even though I understood her every word, I still didn’t get it. “What do you mean by that?”

She glanced down at the table and then met my eyes with an almost virginal shyness, as if she were yet to understand everything about love. “If a couple has destiny, then they have love. Love is a part of destiny.”

Love is destiny. I thought about her words long after we left the table — especially when I pondered something my Chinese father-in-law once said at my wedding ceremony:

There’s always someone out there who really understands you, they are destined to cross a thousand miles to meet. The same idea will bring two people together.

He never spoke of love between John and I; just that we had this destiny that bound us forever in marriage. I heard the same when I attended Lao Da’s wedding earlier this summer. When the bride’s mother praised their union, she called it “destiny” over and over again, never once coming out and using the big “L” word.

In China, how many times had I heard “destiny” invoked in the success or failure of a relationship? Before Lao Da found a wife, he used to shrug off the dates gone wrong and the girlfriends that never happened with this phrase: “We didn’t have a destiny to be together.” At the same time, so many Chinese friends praised the “destiny” between my husband and I — to the point that even I embraced “destiny” as the reason he and I came together.

If love really is destiny, then maybe that Beatles song could go another way — “all you need is destiny.” 😉

Have you ever heard “love is destiny”? What do you think? 

Ask the Yangxifu: My Chinese Boyfriend is Too Critical

A close up of a network monitoring program with a critical alarm displayed.
When her Chinese boyfriend gets very critical with her, a Western woman wonders, is this normal, and what should I do? (photo by Rob Rosenhamer)

Anna asks:

I came to China about six months ago with the intention of staying for four years to study at University. Three months ago, I met my current boyfriend — Chinese, 24, owns his own hair salon — although we’ve only been “officially together” for roughly two weeks.

He’s from Henan, and his parents are very poor farmers, so he was never able to get a good education and some of our outlooks on life are very different (although we value that about each other). He’s very bright and intelligent, though, and he’s always been the sweetest person to me. He’ll even accompany my classmates and I to the bars and clubs on weekends, and doesn’t mind hanging around the international dorms even though he can’t speak any English. Point is, he’s a great guy.

I’m a digital artist, and a few days ago I showed him some of my artwork. He said he really liked it, and asked if I could do a digital portrait of him. Of course I said okay, and went straight to work that night. I worked really hard, and it turned out really well. I was so excited to show it to him! But… when I did… all he could say was, “You made me look too old. I look 53. I don’t really like it… did you make any others?”

My Chinese is just intermediate, so for a minute I thought he was just joking around and trying to be humorous. But then I realized he was dead serious. Now… I don’t really mind so much that he didn’t like the picture… everyone has their own tastes… and although, to me, he doesn’t look 53 but in fact looks younger, I understand that he might have a different perspective.

What I DON’T understand is why he was so critical about it right off the bat! He often offers me those scolding-words-of-encouragement that I’ve come to appreciate… but he’s never been so directly negative before, especially about a gift. He really hurt my feelings. Is it normal/cultural for Chinese boys to be so harsh about these sort of things? Did we cross into the super-critical-is-okay boundary when we declared ourselves official? He really hurt my feelings… but I don’t want to make a big fuss if it’s jut something normal. The last thing I want is to seem petty to him. What should I think? What should I do? Has anyone else had a similar experience? Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: My Chinese Boyfriend is Too Critical”

My Chinese In-laws’ No-Drama Goodbye

A rubber yellow hand on a stick, as if waving goodbye
The way my Chinese in-laws said goodbye to John and I, it could have been any other morning. But it wasn't -- we were leaving for the US, for another two years. (photo by Alexandre Caliman)

It looked like every other morning when I’d left my Chinese in-laws’ home this summer. My Chinese mother-in-law grumbled about how large our bags were, but then proceeded to push more honey pears and mooncakes into our backpacks. As usual, my Chinese father-in-law paced around the first floor like an expectant father – and only stopped when we climbed into my oldest brother-in-law’s car. Through the window, they appeared with the same calm and content face I remembered every morning, pushing heaping plates of breakfast my way (on this day, I had vegetarian dumplings stuffed with tofu and pickled vegetables and sweet fried rice pancakes) while asking why I’d risen so late from bed.

But this was not just any morning. John and I left his home for the US – which meant we wouldn’t see his family for another two years. When I waved at my Chinese mother-in-law and father-in-law through the window, that was the closest to a “goodbye” that we had.

As I thought about that moment over and over at Shanghai Pudong Airport, I couldn’t help but wonder – is that all there is? Continue reading “My Chinese In-laws’ No-Drama Goodbye”

For My Chinese In-laws, Scolding is Love

A finger-puppet couple with the wife visibly angry at the husband
I didn't understand why my Chinese mother-in-law always argued with my Chinese father-in-law. But, according to my husband, maybe that's their way of showing love (photo by kamil kantarcıoğlu).

My Chinese father-in-law isn’t just a husband and parent in our home. He’s also a punchline, and a virtual punching bag.

I’ll never forget that day in May when I watched my Chinese mother-in-law storm out into the yard and holler up to my Chinese father-in-law. “You’re just like a Bodhisattva! Always staying up and never coming down!”

I don’t know what he did to deserve that Buddhist curse. But after spending more than two months here – where almost a day wouldn’t pass without my Chinese mother-in-law naming my father-in-law’s stupidity du jour – I can guess why. Continue reading “For My Chinese In-laws, Scolding is Love”