Tiny potatoes from my mother-in-law’s garden still litter the floor in the corner of our kitchen, ready to serve up their starchy delights in several more meals. Slices of crispy fried shaobing, my mother-in-law’s specialty flatbread, and heaping bags of the local smoked tofu from her village still cram the shelves of our freezer. We’ve barely dug into the jar of my mother-in-law’s mouthwatering homemade pickled kale, which perks up just about every stir-fried and stewed dish you could imagine, and we still have two more we haven’t even opened yet. And in the third drawer down next to the sink, bundles of rice noodles from my mother-in-law’s pantry have fed us for weeks already.
Whenever I gaze upon this abundance of flavors and foods for our next lunch or dinner, it reminds me of my mother-in-law and her boundless love for us, most often translated through treasures from her kitchen.
Like most Chinese parents, she would never say “I love you”, a phrase constantly showered upon me during my childhood. But over the years, I’ve found it in flavors of her lovingly prepared dishes, as well as in the items from her kitchen, pantry and garden that she always urges us to take home, with a forcefulness no less potent than any verbal declaration of affection.
Food has become a delicious means to bind us closer together, across cultures and continents. One of my favorite things to talk to my mother-in-law about is her home recipes, which I’ve come to miss since moving to Beijing. Sometimes we’ll call her on the phone, where I’ll ask her how to prepare potato cakes, a tempting stir-fry that turns these root vegetables into buttery cake-like morsels tossed with hot peppers and garlic. Or inquire about how much of the pickled kale I should use to make her classic tofu with pickled vegetables, a mouthwatering take on bean curd that transports me right back to her kitchen in the village.
Whenever she lovingly repeats every step with care and concern, making sure I understand her techniques, and patiently answers my questions, I know what she’s really saying to me. And it warms my heart, even long after we’ve said goodbye.
Becky writes, “there is nothing within a traditional British upbringing that can prepare you for living with Chinese relatives.” If you’ve ever lived with Chinese family, this post is for you.
Do you have a story about Chinese family or something else you’d like to share on Speaking of China? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your writing published here.
When Disney taught me about happily ever after, they forgot to add in some additional clauses about cross-cultural relationships. In particular the challenges that accompany a AMWF (Asian Man, White Female relationship). Thus when I fell in love last summer to the sweetest, gentlest man I’d ever met, I never realised that the happy ever after I’d always longed for had inadvertently sent me on a cultural collision course. In fact, despite being in my mid-20’s, I assumed, as my good friends Cinderella and Pocahontas had once taught me, that love could, and would, solve everything.
As I’m rudely awoken on the other side of the planet a year or so later by my boyfriend’s mobile, I can’t help thinking I may have been a little naive. I pretend to be asleep despite knowing exactly what will happen next. Sure enough, within minutes the doorbell, which his mum has erected in his room, starts ringing. From this point I know that my cuddle time is very shortly to expire. As if on cue, I hear shouting in Mandarin coming progressively closer and, before I have time to move, his mum barges into the room and begins tidying around us.
It’s hours before I’d planned to get up. It’s Saturday. I want to cry.
I’d never planned to be in this position, but after my partner’s student visa had expired and following eight-months struggling with the many nuances of long-distance relationships, we’d decided that enough was enough and so, despite protests from my friends that I was crazy, I packed my bags and headed to live with my boyfriend, and his Chinese parents.
A month into the experience and I can say categorically that there is nothing within a traditional British upbringing that can prepare you for living with Chinese relatives.
In the UK, we are taught to strive for independence, in China children are taught to be deferent to their elders. In the UK we value personal space, in China the concept doesn’t really exist. In the UK we are reminded that it’s the taking part that counts, in China people are reminded that success (which is largely measured by the size of your bank balance) is what matters.
None of these things are right or wrong but the gulf between the two can, at times, seem unbridgeable.
Perhaps the hardest thing for a westerner trying to make AMWF’s work is that you have to completely redefine your concept of space. The fact that you are a grown adult and have been making your own life decisions for many years ultimately means very little. For example, you will be asked many times a day about your food; what you’ve had, when you had it and would you like anymore?
This is nothing more than an expression of love, and to be treated with such hospitality is something you’d be unlikely to find back at home. Nonetheless, when the first question you’re asked each morning is what are you having for breakfast, it can get a little grinding.
For all the times I want to scream (and there are many), there’s the time I get to spend with my best friend. The truth is that however hard it gets, being without the person you love would be far worse.
For those considering moving to the East to be with their loved one, you must be aware that the step you are trying to make is a huge one. You will feel nagged, claustrophobic and completely alien. If that sounds daunting, then it’s meant to. But if your partner is prepared to make you part of his family, and you’re prepared to sacrifice so much in moving to be with him, then it sounds like your awkwardly packaged happy ending might be something worth fighting for.
Becky is a self-confessed golf addict blogging about the world’s best, quirkiest and most obscure golf courses at The Nomadic Golfer.
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.
“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?
Sometimes, I think the love of a Chinese family is one of the best kept secrets in the world. And if ever there was an example of that, it’s our upcoming move to Hangzhou. As we trade the countryside for city life, I still can’t believe how my husband’s family has gone out of their way to help us make the transition.
Okay, I know rice cookers, pressure cookers, dishes, woks and bedding don’t appear out of thin air. But when my mother-in-law suddenly pulled out all of these brand-spanking-new things (and more!) from storage in our house, it felt like some magic trick. Or the wedding registry I never imagined I had signed up for.
Because, after all, we never asked them to buy any of these things. But they bought them anyway!
My mother-in-law has continued this apartment hocus-pocus almost every day leading up to the move, trotting out new things during lunch, and has even pulled a few extra-special surprises out of her own proverbial hat (including honey and even veggies from her garden).
Making it an auspicious move
“It’s not superstition. It’s the Book of Change, a Chinese tradition.” Whether or not you agree with my father-in-law, the fact remains that good luck matters to my in-laws in every important aspect of life — including moving house.
So naturally, once we announced the news on Saturday, my father-in-law whipped out that indispensable little red book in his library — the Chinese Farmer’s Almanac, based on China’s Book of Change. It lists every date in the year, recommending what you should and should not do on that date. According to his almanac, the best upcoming date for our move (and preparing our new bedroom) would be this coming Tuesday, May 27.
And believe me, this stuff counts to them. How much? Enough for my mother-in-law to make a second phone call to my husband’s oldest brother (who initially said he couldn’t move us on Tuesday), convincing him to do it earlier in the day!
Money? We didn’t ask for money!
Compared to so many Americans I know, Chinese families seen to operate on a completely different wavelength when it comes to money — and my husband’s family is no exception.
You don’t even need to ask them, “Could you lend us some money?” It’s a given they will, which I still haven’t quite gotten used to (yes, I am a bag of nerves whenever John has to borrow cash from his family — and John always thinks it’s so funny).
And more often than not, you don’t even need to bring up the topic of money with them — because they’ll do it first.
That’s exactly what my father-in-law did the other day when he sauntered over to John and me in the yard. John’s dad had this serious look on his face that made me all nervous inside, as if he was like my dad and about to lecture us on something we messed up in his house. But this “serious talk” turned out to be nothing more than him saying, “You’re going to need some money for your move. How much?” (A question that, of course, I felt too embarrassed to answer. I mean, here’s my father-in-law approaching me with a gesture that seems too generous to be real, and expecting me to give him a number?)
Days later, I discovered a thick stack of crisp, red bills lying in the corner of our room — an amount that turned out to be more than three times more what I expected!
Sometimes it’s not even a question, but an order. Like, yesterday John’s oldest brother phoned him out of the blue just to say “Open an account so I can send you some money” when John hadn’t even asked for it. After my husband recounted this to me, I was shocked (in a good way)…and then almost wanted to pinch myself.
Nope, it wasn’t a daydream.
In the end, it’s all about the love
My Chinese relatives will never hug or kiss us, or say how much they love us the way my American relatives do. But they’ll pony up brand-new apartment essentials and money without us asking them, and make certain we move on the luckiest possible day. It all comes down to one simple idea — this is how they show us their love.
Now if you excuse me, I’ve got a move to get ready for. Hangzhou, here we come!
That hard-to-buy-for person? To my parents, that could have been John’s father — given the conversation we had yesterday about what to give him for the holidays.
“Wouldn’t he like, say, one of those pocket knives?” my dad asked. “Or a letter opener? Or even a tool kit?”
But John shook his head “no” at every suggestion, leaving my dad surprised and even laughing. After all, we essentially vetoed what he considered the top three must-have gifts for the average American guy his age.
While John’s dad was only a few years younger than my dad, he was a world away when it came to interests and needs. Unlike my dad, John’s dad wasn’t one of these handyman types who liked tinkering around the house, and would never have imagined that anyone needed a special tool to do something as simple as opening a letter. He cultivates bonsai in the garden, dabbles in painting and calligraphy, pens his own articles and self-published books, and reads the newspaper from front to back everyday. And while I’m sure some American men out there must share his passions, I’ve yet to meet him.
It’s no wonder, then, that cross-cultural gift-giving challenges so many of us — enough to keep a steady stream of “what should I buy him/her in China” e-mails flowing into my inbox.
In the end, my parents settled on an engraved pen — sure to please a certain “cultured” retiree in Zhejiang with a penchant for writing.
“My parents miss us,” said John, who beamed like a Mid-Autumn moon. “They want us to be back at home. They like it better when it’s renao,” or lively.
While working on to-dos for our trip back to China, my thoughts turned to living in the family home once again. And just like that, John reminded me of the warm welcome we’ll enjoy when we move back into the same two-story building his parents call home.
I felt that same welcome from John’s parents during the summer of 2009. On the phone, my father-in-law spoke of home renovations they planned to complete before our arrival. “Why are they wasting their money on that?” I once asked John. Turns out, the renovations were a whole new addition to the family home — including a two-bedroom and bathroom suite that my father-in-law would later dub our xinfang, that new home every newly married couple should have. “This is your home,” my father-in-law said to me once, after I claimed John and I didn’t have a home of our own.
In the US, this reads more like a fairytale — or even a myth. While your parents might kick in some cash for your wedding, they’re sure not likely to leave a “vacancy” sign on for you and your spouse to move in and call it home. And as for the married child, well, moving back home with your spouse is an utter embarrassment — or even life failure.
But John’s parents wanted us living with them so much they made room for us — literally.
And, strange as it may seem, I want nothing more than to live with them too. I love the way his father gets excited about the flowers in the garden and Chinese poetry and writing about the history of his ancient village. I love how his mother keeps me stuffed with the most sumptuous home-cooked vegetarian dishes, and won’t let me do my laundry, and teaches me how to cook with her fire-powered wok.
Maybe most Americans can’t understand why I’m excited about moving in with my in-laws. And that’s okay. The more time I’ve spent with John, the more I’ve realized that not everything about the white US culture I grew up in makes sense either. Sometimes, it’s not about what makes sense to the world or to others, but what makes sense to you.
All I can say is, I’m already missing my mother-in-law and father-in-law and can’t wait to be home with them.
Almost two months ago, while scanning through my inbox, I came across a post called How to be Mistaken for a Prostitute in China. What a title — and what dazzling writing. I devoured the entire post, right down to the byline introducing the author and her forthcoming memoir about her experiences in China.
That’s how I first discovered Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, and I’m thrilled to be sharing her essay with you, titled “Three Words From a Chinese Father”.
Thanks so much to Dorcas for contributing her work!
“I miss you,” my father said to me over the phone.
I hadn’t seen him for four days. He had been in the hospital for more weeks than I could keep track of, and had recently been transferred to a specialist hospital about an hour away from home. I was only a freshman in high school at the time, so I had to attend school during the week and could only visit him on weekends. My mom spent most nights at the hospital with him while I stayed home alone.
My surprise lasted only a couple seconds, during which I became very still and swallowed hard. “I miss you too,” I choked out, holding back tears. They were the three most significant words my father had ever said to me.
When he passed away less than a month later, they became the most significant words he would ever say to me. He had never said “I love you” to me. That night was the first and only time he ever told me he missed me.
My father had never been a man of many words. He left that to my mother, the chatty, extroverted half of the pair. For years I barely understood what he did for a living. All I knew was that he was an engineer, which in my young mind meant one thing: trains. I imagined my dad driving steam engines across the back roads of America, always somehow returning home in time for dinner. (He was, in fact, an electrical engineer.) I certainly knew nothing about his childhood in Guangdong Province in China, the few years he spent there before the realities of the new Communist regime prompted his family to send him away to Hong Kong.
I’m sure being the only male in a family with three women—his wife and two daughters—didn’t help. My father would often escape to the garage to tinker with small pieces of technology—a circuit board, a watch, a cassette player. He would take a Chinese-language novel with him to the bathroom or bedroom and remain out of sight for hours. Or he would park himself in front of the television to watch a San Francisco 49ers football game.
By the time I was ten, I had become an obsessive 49ers fan. It had started from curiosity, from a young girl’s intangible desire to connect with her father, but it soon became my own passion. I would pepper my dad with questions about the rules, about certain plays, about this player or that coach. He didn’t seem to mind having his younger daughter impose upon his weekly ritual; I suspect he secretly relished it. We fueled one another’s passions for the sport to the point where we drove my mother and sister a little nuts with our single-minded devotion. I promised my dad that as soon as I was old enough to work and earn money, I would take him to a 49ers game.
I began following my father into other arenas of his life. When my mom and sister went shopping for clothes at the mall, I would go with my dad to the bookstore. I watched with awe as he practiced his pseudo kung fu moves with a wooden rod from a closet. I often stood behind his chair with my chin resting on his head as he and my mom lingered after a meal.
He enjoyed telling corny jokes at the dinner table, jokes that often made my mom groan and roll her eyes. I would always laugh loudly at his jokes, even when I didn’t understand them, and was rewarded by a knowing, just-between-us grin that my dad would send across the table. In those fleeting moments, I may not have understood what he meant, but I felt like I understood him.
It’s hard for me to explain why I felt this way. In many regards my dad was the stereotypical Chinese father. He didn’t trouble himself with the day-to-day details of raising two daughters. He wasn’t the type to shower us with hugs or kisses. He wasn’t the one we went to when we were in need of parental advice. Looking back, I can’t remember a single conversation of deep significance that I had with my father.
But this is what he did do: on one of the rare occasions he cooked dinner for the family, he made salt-and-pepper prawns with so much salt and pepper that my sister and I were raving about it for weeks. (My mother promptly scolded him and switched us back to bland, low-salt food the following day.) He sincerely thanked my sister and me every time we gave him yet another striped tie for Christmas. He watched Beauty and the Beast and other Disney movies with me. He let me into his world and the things he loved on a regular basis. But he just didn’t let me in; he welcomed me and let me know—somehow, without words—that he was delighted to be sharing these things with me.
And finally, just weeks before we had to say goodbye forever, he overcame thousands of years of cultural norms and said aloud what he actually felt: “I miss you.” At the time none of us thought he wouldn’t make it; we were convinced that a cure or a miracle was just around the corner. I wonder, though, if my dad knew he was running out of time, which is why he chose to give me what remains one of my most precious memories of him all these years later.
Those are not the three words that we typically think of in American culture. “I love you” has taken on the status of myth and legend, three tiny words with the power of giants to slay or fairy godmothers to bring enchanted happy endings. We wonder if any relationship can ever feel authentic or complete without these words. Even I have occasionally fallen into this trap.
My dad never told me he loved me—at least, not in words. In the end, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I knew he loved me. And with each passing year that he’s not in my life, I know it with even more certainty.
I miss you too, Daddy.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience as a Chinese American living in Shenzhen, China. Learn more at www.transformativewords.com or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.
“Your parents raised you up to such a big age, and they still haven’t enjoyed the benefits of having you.” That’s what the mother of one of my husband John’s best friends said to him a few years back. By then, John was already over 30 by then (30 is an age where, according to the saying that comes from Confucian ideals, a man should stand on his own feet and earn a living) and still a graduate student — meaning, no job, no owned apartment and not much money — with no children.
“Didn’t you feel invalidated when she said that?” I asked John the other day.
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