Marrying Chinese? Better get used to in-laws in the house
usnook | 2013-07-31 17:31

By Michael Knapp
As long as marriage has existed, couples have grappled with the problem of in-laws relationships. Even today, young men work hard to impress parents of girlfriends.

Recently, a young Chinese girl told me her overweight boyfriend was dieting and working out because he was soon due to meet her parents. He feared they wouldn't approve of the relationship if he was out of shape.

I've asked hundreds of Chinese students, "What's the most important thing in your life?" Most reply, "Making my parents happy."

My observation is reinforced by another question I ask Chinese singles, "What kind of person do you hope to marry?" After intelligent, kind, gentle and successful, another frequent answer stands out, "Someone who will care for my parents."

While Chinese are experts at honoring spouse's parents, Americans sometimes make jokes at the expense of in-laws. I've heard American husbands say things like, "My mother-in-law is coming over this afternoon. I'm going fishing." Mother-in-law jokes are an American tradition. No wonder Chinese don't understand our humor. To them, there's nothing funny about slamming her parents.

Imagine an American husband who can't even tolerate an afternoon with his wife's mom trying to survive a cross-cultural marriage! When his wife announces, "Honey, my mom is going to move in with us," he'll think it's a joke.

Parents of a Chinese bride aren't expected to pay for the wedding, which can really catch an American off guard. My Chinese friends find it funny that in the US the bride's family picks up most of the wedding expenses.

Chinese guys save for a long time for a wedding. I tell them to just marry an US girl, since her parents will pay for it. It's strange that we Americans expect the parents of our bride-to-be to pay for the wedding, but afterward, crack disrespectful mother-in-law jokes. It's an important lesson in American culture for Chinese girls looking for a cross-cultural marriage.

The American mother-in-law image worked well for us when we invited my Chinese mother-in-law to visit us in the US. We planned a one-month visit; short by Chinese standards, but for Americans it's an eternity.

We waited in the Beijing heat outside the American embassy for my mother-in-law to emerge with her new visa. But, like the vast majority of applicants, she came out with bad news. No visa.

The US government thinks when Chinese enter the US on a tourist visa, they won't leave when their visas expire. Sometimes it's true. So, when applying for a tourist visa, the applicant must persuade the officer that he or she will indeed return to China within the time of the visa.

How can you prove that an elderly lady, who's retired, penniless, and has little to go back to in China, would not just stay in the US with her daughter and son-in-law? We were persistent. A couple of weeks later we sent her back to the embassy for a second try. Nothing was different this time, except for a note I wrote for her to hand to the visa officer.

This may be hard to understand in Chinese culture, where it isn't cool to joke about in-laws, but knowing the visa officer was an American, I wrote, "I'm an American. You are an American. If your mother-in-law visited you, wouldn't you make sure she would leave within a month?"

This time she came dancing out of the embassy with a visa! We weren't sure if it was the letter or our prayers, but my mother-in-law was about to make her first trip to the US where she would spend a month in our rented home by the lake.

Mothers-in-law aren't all the same, but I have no trouble getting along with mine. She's very understanding when it comes to cultural differences. She supports the mainly Western way we raise our kids, and having her around is a real joy.

She's never lived with us on a permanent basis – she understands Americans don't do that. But she has stayed, on several occasions, for more than a month. And, I'm glad she's here!

For those thinking about marrying a Chinese girl, you should expect long visits from your in-laws. It's part of the culture you'd better get used to. But, despite the jokes, there's really nothing to fear. It's all part of the spice of cross-cultural living.


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