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?
The other night, while staying over at my in-laws’ place in the countryside, my husband and I were just about to get ready for bed when it hit us.
Oh crap, we’d left the laundry in the washing machine all afternoon. We’d forgotten to hang it out to dry.
We bounded downstairs to the laundry room with flashlight in hand, and fully expected to spend 10 to 15 minutes doing what we should have done more than six hours ago.
Except, when I ran over to the washing machine, it was empty. Totally empty. And when I turned my head, sure enough, there was our laundry, neatly hung on clothes hangers on a bamboo rack.
As much as I felt relieved that I’d been saved the trouble of doing that laundry this evening, a slight sense of guilt pricked me.
Once again, my mother-in-law had done housework for me. Housework I could have easily done for myself…and should have done, given it was my laundry.
It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m in my thirties and still enjoy laundry assistance from my mother-in-law whenever we stay at her home in the countryside of Zhejiang Province. But it’s true. This sort of thing happens ALL the time.
So in the spirit of being honest, I’m sharing 4 embarrassing things that I’ve experienced with my Chinese in-laws. Here they are:
#1: My mother-in-law will still do laundry for us
Yes, it’s true. My mother-in-law has been known to hang up my clothing left in the washing machine…and she’s even done entire loads of laundry for us.
To be sure, though, I generally don’t ask her to do it. Even I know it’s embarrassing to be in your 30s and have your parents or in-laws do your laundry. (I mean, come on, anyone who has seen Legally Blonde would remember how Elle and Brooke howled over the fact that Warner still took his laundry home to get it cleaned.)
Here’s what usually happens. Either I put the clothing in the washing machine, but stupidly forget to hang it up on time (like I mentioned in the introduction). Or, my mother-in-law grabs my dirty clothing without telling me, and does the entire load for me (this happened ALL THE TIME when I stayed with my in-laws during the summer of 2011).
Sometimes, though, I do ask for her help. The other day, we were in a hurry to leave their house and I had just thrown a load of laundry into the washing machine. So I asked her if she could hang it and she said, “No problem” with a smile.
So now you know one of my biggest dirty secrets.
#2: My mother-in-law cooks all our meals
When we stay with my in-laws at their home, there’s one thing we can count on – three square meals, all home-cooked by my mother-in-law. Always.
This is the complete opposite of how things work at my parents’ home back in the US. There, the assumption is we’re on our own and have to make our own meals (or buy them). Unless, of course, my dad or mom specifically asks us to join them for a meal (or invites us out).
The difference totally blew my husband’s mind.
Anyhow, here at my in-laws’ home in China there’s never any concern about cooking. Everyone knows that when it’s lunch and dinner, my mother-in-law’s voice will echo through the corridors – time to eat! – and we’ll all come bounding down the stairs.
It’s a strange place for me. I spent so many years handling all my cooking (and enjoying much of it). Now, when I’m staying with my in-laws, I just show up to eat at the table.
I have spent some time with my mother-in-law in the kitchen, learning how to cook from her. (She taught me how to make vegan Chinese-style flatbread, for example.) But in many ways, I feel foreign in her kitchen, a feeling that has nothing to do with my nationality, actually. After all, she uses a fire-powered wok to do the majority of her cooking, and I honestly have no idea how to manage the fire. Given how clumsy I am, I might just burn down the kitchen if I tried!
Now that I think about it, maybe it is better to leave the cooking to a woman who won’t cause a conflagration in the kitchen.
#3: My in-laws give us money more often than you think
When a friend of mine — also a Western woman with a Chinese husband – posted in a private chat about how guilty she felt because her mother-in-law gave her some cash to buy a new laptop (her old one crashed), oh, how I could sympathize.
I thought about the many Chinese New Years that had passed since John and I returned to China in late 2013, and how his parents always gave us heaping hongbao filled with more money than adults in the family should have.
I remembered how my mother-in-law handed over an additional stack of bills last year because my husband was starting his business (and she wanted him to have some “lucky money”).
In America, the ultimate badge of adulthood is having your own place, separate from mom and dad.
Well, the most embarrassing thing I could mention on this list is the fact that we’ve lived in the same house as my in-laws – for long periods of time.
Even now, we divide our time between an apartment in Hangzhou and their home. Heck, they added an entire suite to the house just for my husband and me, which proves how welcoming they are.
It’s worlds away from America. I can guarantee you that if I asked my American friends and classmates, none of them would say that their parents or in-laws renovated their homes so they could live together. It’s just not done there.
As embarrassing as it is to admit this, I have to confess I’m also grateful. This suite they’ve provided us is symbolic of the incredible support they’ve given me and my husband.
Life isn’t always easy for John and me. But knowing that we have a couple of incredibly loving parents behind us – willing to do things that I’m a little embarrassed to talk about – makes the hard times a little more bearable.
If you’re all grown up, is there anything you’re embarrassed that your parents or in-laws still do for you?
You could easily call my Chinese in-laws’ home a family farm. There’s a garden out back that supplies the majority of our veggies. Chickens and ducks roam around (and, often, beyond) the front yard. And there’s a guard dog keeping it all together, stationed at the door (and, when we’re eating dinner, under the table).
It’s all a far cry from my childhood home in the Cleveland, Ohio suburbs. And over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about farm animals.
Here are 5 interesting things I’d like to share with – including the real reason why chickens cross the road (ha ha!):
#1: How to feed a dog scraps from the table, instead of dog food
Back in the US, my neighborhood was a world of golden retrievers, terriers and poodles that lived for those daily helpings of dog food from the supermarket. I couldn’t imagine ever feeding dogs anything else…until I started spending time at my in-laws’ home.
Here, dogs are a mainstay in the house, where my mother-in-law loves them for protecting the house. (Whenever the current dog barks, my husband likes to joke the dog is “on duty”.) But when it’s mealtime, there’s no canned or packaged dog food on the menu. Instead, “Bruiser” (yes, that’s the dog’s name) enjoys leftover bones from the table and/or a mixture of leftover rice/veggies and things like lard, fish remnants, and discarded meat.
Isn’t it odd that, to me, anything but store-bought dog food is unusual? When you think about it, this is how people must have traditionally fed their beloved canine friends. Now that I’ve seen another side of how to feed the family dog, I can’t help but wonder if all that canned pet food is such a good idea.
#2: Shushing the chickens will make them run away
I’ll never forget the first time I heard my mother-in-law saying “shhhhh!” around the house. Who did she need to quiet?
Then I noticed that every time she said this, the chickens would high-tail it out of the room with a glint of fear in their eyes. Like they were caught stealing from the rice stores.
What I’ve learned is that “shhhhh!” sounds threatening to their avian ears, and it’s nearly effective enough on its own to banish them from any room or space. (Sometimes you have to add a hand motion, but they usually get the idea.)
It has become so ingrained in me that I swear if I ever heard “shhhhh” in a library, I might still think of panicky chickens dashing out the door.
#3: Hot ashes can dissolve the most stubborn animal droppings
Okay, okay, so this will probably never end up as a tip in your Good Housekeeping magazine. But trust me, if you have free-range animals around your house – especially chickens and ducks – things can get pretty sticky. (Pun seriously intended.)
Thankfully, when your house happens to have a fire-powered wok (like the family house here) hot ashes are plentiful. Just tip them directly on the pile in question, let it sit for a few minutes, then sweep it away with your broom of choice.
I’ve watched my in-laws do this hundreds of times and it’s almost become second nature to me. Can’t believe it either. Who would have thought that this girl born and raised in the Cleveland, Ohio suburbs would become a pro at tackling animal droppings? 😉
#4: Dogs and chickens can coexist…sort of
No, I swear that’s not a typo. While it doesn’t seem intuitive to keep dogs and chickens together, I know it’s possible because it happens here at my in-laws’ home.
But it can’t happen without a little help and oversight from my mother-in-law. She knows you have to train the dogs. Last year, she had to discipline “Bruiser” a number of times for trying to nip at the free-range chickens. (I also could have sworn that I once caught “Bruiser” with some chicken feathers around the mouth.)
#5: Why the chickens really crossed the road
Who hasn’t heard that time-honored joke? You know, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.”
Well, I’ve seen the chickens here cross the road. A lot. And honestly, I don’t think that’s the entire answer.
I know why the chickens really crossed the road. There’s lots of grass, bushes and trees over there, so they can forage for their most favorite food of all – insects and worms.
It’s that simple.
Have you ever lived on a farm or a farm-like home? What have you learned about farm animals?
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