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The big dinner with your Chinese in-laws

THE Chinese Lunar New Year is a family time, and it is a side of Chinese life foreigners are usually not privy to - unless they're married to a Chinese.

In that case, being invited into the extended family fold for festivities the Chinese way can be both a privilege and a puzzle.

How to impress the Chinese parents in law? How to navigate family stress? And how to know the correct things to do, say, give or wear in this tradition-laden season? These are some of the questions faced by mixed-culture couples.

American Kim Bennett has been married to his Chinese wife Jing for 20 years. They have lived in China for more than 10 years.

When he first started spending Chinese New Year with his Chinese family, he found it "intensely boring" due to language barriers. "The family eat and then spend most of the evening in front of the TV, eating sunflower seeds and watching the CCTV gala. It's the same every year," he recalls. "I started practicing calligraphy at the back of the room to keep occupied."

This seemingly trivial point reflects deeper stresses encountered at this time of year. Bennett is a community charity worker and has counselled many couples in his community, including mixed foreign-Chinese couples.

"Typically the foreign partner may not speak Chinese, and can't understand what's going on. They may find it tiring to visit house after house, day after day, giving presents and spending time and money in what is supposed to be a break from work," says Bennett.

The tight-knit, extended structure of Chinese families may be a culture shock to the foreign spouse, causing him or her to feel they had married the entire family rather than one person.

But, says Bennett, it's important to understand how important this family connection is for the Chinese spouse. "Don't expect them to give up their traditions as soon as they get married. Discuss the family's expectations for the holiday period, and go for a compromise. If you really need some time alone, then make those plans, but also make time for family," he says.

In terms of Lunar New Year traditions and customs, Chinese families are often forgiving and don't expect foreign spouses to know exactly what to do.

Shanghainese Yvette Madany, a charity volunteer, has been married to her American husband Peter, an IT professional, for 24 years. They have already spent two new years with her family in Shanghai. She says her parents give her husband a lot of latitude in festive customs.

"I wasn't nervous about spending the first Chinese New Year with my husband and parents. We simplify a lot of traditions, like giving a hug instead of requiring kowtow."

Small mistakes can be overlooked. Peter, for example, remembers that at one dinner he drank the wine that was placed in front of him straight away, instead of toasting everyone at the table first. "Where I grew up it didn't have this symbol of toasting each other," he says.

But he finds it is not a big problem if you get into the spirit of the happy season. "As long as you are well meaning, flexible and follow people's lead, it is easy and enjoyable. Just don't try to fit it to some other holiday you know, like Christmas or Thanksgiving and force other people to change. Celebrate with those around you."

From the Chinese perspective, says Yvette, it's enough if the foreign husband just "eats, nods and smiles," even if he can't join in the conversation.

While parents-in-law may go easy on foreign sons-in-law, foreign women married to Chinese men face other pressures.

Laura Tang is an American woman who has been married to her Shanghainese husband for 17 years. They recently moved to Shanghai, and Laura, a stay-at-home mom, is preparing for her first Chinese New Year with her Chinese parents-in-law.

The preparations center on food - particularly a big Lunar New Year's Day dinner - Laura is cooking for a party that already numbers seven people with a good possibility of more being added.

She is cooking American food, but is worried about how much food she has to prepare. "A Chinese woman may have 20 dishes on the table for a dinner like this. I feel under pressure to be in the kitchen all day - I don't want to be seen as skimping," she says. "It has a bearing on how I am seen as a wife and mother, and there's more pressure to impress. I will also clean the place, prepare good tea, and get out the good porcelain."

When she first came to live here, Laura was expected to cook all three meals a day for her husband, kids and in-laws who came to live with them. They have now worked out a compromise but Laura finds her mother-in-law still likes advising them on what to eat.

Though Laura says her mother-in-law is relatively relaxed, in Chinese culture the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law is traditionally strained.

"Mothers-in-law are notorious for interfering," says Bennett. "Chinese children remain their parents' child forever - there doesn't seem to be the same goal to become independent like in a Western family. My mother-in-law tried to exert great influence, but thankfully my wife and I are both independent. I just had to communicate my limits in as sweet and nice and respectful a way as I could!"

Marc Tessier, a Canadian editor, says his Chinese mother-in-law shows that she's approved of him by cooking his favorite dishes every time he visits. Even when he and his Shanghainese wife hosted their in-laws last Chinese New Year, the mother-in-law did the cooking.

For Tessier, the relationship with his father-in-law was tougher. Two years before he got married, he met his future in-laws at CNY - it was double stress: Chinese New Year's and meeting the in-laws. The couple married over a year ago.

He remembers it was awkward due to lack of language, and his wife was under the most stress as she was the translator.

"Her dad was very uncertain of where the relationship was going - probably because I'm a foreigner. They are very traditional and they have heard that foreigners have a different view of relationships - that it doesn't necessarily lead to marriage. It was a trust issue," says Tessier. "But since we've been married, he has said that I'm a good guy. I've proven myself over time."

Expert's advice

Getting on with Chinese in-laws

The older generation may have had little exposure to the outside world. The key is to be calm and have the Zen of not losing one's temper - use the Chinese spouse as a middleman to explain things.

The office CNY party

Many offices will have a CNY banquet. Expect a lot of drinking, so pace yourself and go easy on the alcohol at the beginning. The night may be long with karaoke after dinner, so it's a good idea to prepare some English songs. You can call it a night after a few songs and leave the party to carry on with their Chinese songs.


It's traditional to give health and nutritional supplements as CNY gifts. Gifts from your home country, particularly things not available here, are welcomed. Combine the two with foreign-brand vitamins, lotions or even shampoo (but make sure it's not "made in China"). Imported food is also good, including chocolates, wine, tobacco and charcuterie. Wrapping should be red or gold, and pairs of things, like wine, are lucky. If in doubt, a fruit basket is always safe.

Hosting Chinese friends

Chinese eat early, so start the dinner around 6pm, and end around 9pm so people can catch the Metro home. Make sure there's more food than required as people may bring friends. More food is a sign of abundance rather than waste, and it gives face to everyone involved.

Visiting Chinese friends

Always take a gift when visiting someone's home, and do not be "fashionably late" as Chinese do not have this custom. If your hosts are making dumplings, offer to pitch in as that's a festive group activity. If there are little kids under 12, prepare a hongbao (red envelope) of 50 or 100 yuan - preferably crisp and brand-new notes to signify a new beginning.

Special thanks for Lawrence Lo, founder of LHY Etiquette Consultancy, specializing in cross-cultural and etiquette trainings. For further information, visit


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