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Laowai meets future in-laws

WHEN you meet your sweetheart's family for Chinese Lunar New Year, it means you're serious and plan to marry. There are lots of dos and don'ts, and Sam Riley advises how to make a good impression.

No matter what culture you come from, meeting the family of your partner is always a big moment.

But in China meeting the "in-laws" during Spring Festival, the country's most important family holiday, takes on a whole new dimension - especially if you are a foreigner.

Across China people travel to be with their families for the celebration that starts with nianyefan, or Lunar New Year's Eve dinner.

It is customary to visit family throughout the week, particularly in the first three days of the new year.

Beyond considerations of etiquette, like what gifts to take and what are good table manners, there are also some tricky relationship questions to be navigated.

Unlike other cultures where meeting the parents typically signals a move from initial courting to a steady relationship, being introduced to family in China can come with different expectations.

It was something this scribe discovered last year when embarking on his first foray to meet the family; it was at a restaurant in Putuo District.

After excitedly telling his old China hand friend his Spring Festival plans, the determined bachelor nodded sagely and then warned: "You better be serious - you know this means marriage."

Being just months into a relationship, a second opinion was sought: the diagnosis confirmed.

This green horn had gone from the dating ballpark to the marriage stadium. And it was time to step up to the plate.

Hong Kong native etiquette expert Lawrence Lo trains employees of multinational companies about the intricacies of etiquette in a global business environment through his company LHY Etiquette Consultancy.

But he recommends treading carefully when it comes to affairs of the heart and family in China.

"It is very easy to avoid questions of marriage: if you are not serious about your partner, do not go to these Spring Festival events," says Lo.

"You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings and the parents will likely take your visit very seriously. They may put on an elaborate dinner and go to some expense, so you have to take that into consideration."

Questions of serious intent are not limited to foreign men but also women from abroad meeting their Chinese partners' family.

American Hannah Rollens has been in China for more than eight years and is heading to the small town of Baoding in Hebei Province to celebrate Spring Festival with her husband Zhang Lei.

Her first experience of Spring Festival came a number of years ago with someone who is now an ex-boyfriend.

The couple took a grueling 30-hour hard seat to Jinzhou, Liaoning Province. Rollens was one of the only foreigners in the city during Spring Festival.

"They wanted to know what kind of person I was, if I was just playing around or if I was serious about their son," she says.

Rollens says that like foreign men, who can expect a fairly direct question about marriage, she fielded questions from family about which country they planned to live, if she wanted children, how many and so on.

A fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker, Rollens advises partners suddenly thrust into the family hot seat to keep their cool.

"My strategy was not to take offense at anything because there is no offense intended by asking these questions," she says.

"This attitude has served me really well and I just roll with the way that my family wants to interact."

This Spring Festival Rollens is planning both gatherings with family and the couple's wedding ceremony and banquet.

While she doesn't have to face marriage questions this year, she says being honest is the best way to deal with direct questions.

"To some questions, I would simply say, 'I don't know' and other times I would say, 'We are working that out'," she says.

Etiquette consultant Lo says partners faced with the thorny marriage question should think about their answer carefully beforehand.

While I was in the early months of my relationship, and my girlfriend's parents understood it was too early to consider questions of marriage, this open-minded view was not shared by some relatives.

This guest was faced with three keen baijiu (distilled spirit)-drinking uncles and the canny interrogators waited until he was well into a long line of ganbei (bottoms up) drinks before popping the question.

The slurred "I am giving it serious consideration" fell flat among the expectant uncles.

Lo, the son of a former diplomat, suggests a more polished response.

"There is another way of getting around the question," he says.

"Because Chinese people like to pick an auspicious date to get married, you could say: 'This may not be a good year to get married - I have to check the calendar and find a good date'."

While waiting might work for some, Lo says those who are sure of their feelings shouldn't hesitate when it comes to getting an invitation to Spring Festival celebrations.

While it is generally considered rude in many cultures to invite yourself to an event, in China asking a partner "if I can come along to Spring Festival?" shows serious intent, says Lo.

"If you are serious about a relationship and interested in visiting in-laws during Chinese New Year, asking directly shows sincerity," he says. "But give notice early as the family will probably have to plan ahead and may want to do some home decoration or buy special food."

But Spring Festival can throw a curve ball, even to an expert.

Lo recalls that when he first went to meet his wife Annie Zheng's family in the small town of Shantou in Guangdong Province, he was surprised by the first impression he made.

He was dressed in T-shirt and shorts, given the balmy, 27-degree-Celsius day.

The rest of the town's inhabitants were rugged up for winter in sweaters and long pants and were impressed with the hardy Lo's choice of winter attire.

"In her hometown no one wears shorts and a T-shirt over Spring Festival because it is considered cold. I was the only one dressed like this and to Annie's mother it was a brilliant sign," he says.

"It shows a sign of strength so the whole family was talking about it, saying: 'Wow, he is strong, potentially they will have good babies'."

So as Spring Festival approaches, there will be some nervous foreigners set to meet the family of their partner for the first time.

They may have done their homework, researching some handy phrases and know something of the culture surrounding Spring Festival (see box).

They should arrive armed with gifts, a red envelope or two and a big appetite.

But as they anxiously gird themselves for the big evening dinner with family, perhaps the best advice is given to this edgy boyfriend by his girlfriend as they are about to cross the threshold of the family home. "Relax, don't think too much, just come along and enjoy the festival." Lawrence Lo's dos and don'ts for Spring Festival


Ask the Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend about the right gifts. But remember you can never go wrong with a bottle of top-brand baijiu and carton of classy cigarettes. Other gifts have important meanings, and the value and importance of gifts should match the recipient's rank in the family hierarchy. Chinese do not send greeting cards, it is much better to take practical gifts, such as health food items and supplements - much more useful than, say, a photo frame. Gifts should be nicely packed in red or gold color paper. They must be brand new, and must not be recycled gifts from your grandmother! Note: Food, supplements and other items from abroad are highly regarded since they are less available in China.

Study up and do some homework on traditions and meanings of Chinese New Year. Significance of fish, inverted "??" ("fortune" character poster), worshipping the kitchen god, chu xi (New Year's Eve), making dumplings and so on. All have deep traditional meanings and knowing some will give you bonus points.

Learn the standard gesture of Chinese New Year greetings, It's not a handshake. Rather make a fist with the left hand and cover it with the right palm; move the hands back and forth at chest level, elbows down, while saying xin nian hao, or "Happy New Year" in Chinese . This is known as gongshou, or hand/fist-wrapping, a martial arts greeting. It shows one is not bearing weapons and comes in peace.

Prepare to give hongbao (red envelopes) to relatives' children. Preferably of newly printed money, no tattered and old bills. Go to the bank in advance to arrange this. Denominations at your discretion, usually a new 50-yuan or 100-yuan bill works nicely.

Pace yourself in eating throughout the festive period at potential in-laws to be. You will probably eat nonstop and there's lots of local food. Some may seem strange, it's okay not to eat, just be polite and say you have an allergy - it always works since there are so many possible allergies.

Perfect your use of chopsticks prior to arriving. You will be using them a lot during the season. Skillful use can give you "face" and show everyone you are at least dexterous in this form of Chinese culture.

Dress in festive colors, namely red. A red sweater, tie and socks are fine. No black or white, the colors for funerals.

Despite the fact that it is a holiday period, do get up early and avoid late morning lie-ins as relatively are likely to begin visiting in the morning.

Consider inviting the family out for a meal as a courtesy. Lunch is best as many older relatives may not wish to eat after 6pm, which is early in Western culture.


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