In China they say marrying a person means marrying their family. This could not be more accurate especially in relation to one’s Chinese mother-in-law (MIL). Often a presence larger than life, it is fair to say that in China she is the one who can make or break your relationship. While in the West generally speaking her personality would hardly be a reason to end a promising attachment, in China this is not unheard of. For this reason, if you are looking for a serious relationship with a Chinese, even more so when it’s a Chinese man, there are a few points to consider in relation to his mother. Here is the checklist for your future Chinese Mother-in-Law.
An Open Mind
By the mere fact that you are a foreigner looking to date a Chinese, your MIL has to have an open mind. There are two types of reactions I have commonly encountered when son or daughter brings home a foreigner: we aren’t marriage material because we are all promiscuous cheaters or the baijiu bottles are being decanted because of the future mixed babies. However, even when there is acceptance on the surface, it can still be difficult in the long run. While many MILs might enjoy the idea of having a foreign in-law for face reasons or all those little mixed superhumans our genes will produce, they might not be as readily accepting of the consequences that you will do or see things differently than a Chinese person. The key to it all so the question whether MIL is willing to respect and accommodate that you might not want to buy a house for her daughter, or not pop out an army of little superbabies with her son right after the wedding.
While I have given up on trying to brainwash my MIL to abandon patriarchal ideas of child rearing, a wife’s duties or a woman’s appropriate behavior (in any age category) she will at least do me the courtesy of granting me my own views. If you learn that your potential future MIL has more of an approach of Chinese way or the highway, then – unless she lives on a different continent – you might want to think really hard about whether you want that struggle and negativity in your life.
Location, Location, Location
I’ve found that in many relationships that struggle in China – be it between locals or with an international partner involved – there is one clear factor that can cause serious marital issues: the proximities of one’s in-laws. The rule of thumb tends to be the closer the in-laws the bigger the problems. It is not uncommon for in-laws to live with their offspring – often to take on child caring duties – and certainly there are those who can handle it. I tip my hat to them. Yet, I personally would recommend if at all possible to try and find a solution other than cohabitation. The way in which Chinese express their care is by expressing concern and criticism for every last little corner of your life – or as Western minds might perceive it by nagging the socks off you and being overbearing. Now I can happily accept this for a limited amount of time – but the idea of constantly being told that my clothes aren’t weather appropriate or my drinking cold water is slowly killing me and other opinions peppered with cultural assumptions that I might not share is not tempting to put it lightly.
While I am lucky in so far that my MIL is fairly lightweight in the nagging category, it can and often does create a very negative environment if you have a hypercritical MIL. Especially when there is a different idea of what constitutes personal space and being a good wife. So do yourself a favor – if they insist on moving in with you for anything other than a temporary necessity, you might want to move out.
I’ve found the relationship between traditional Chinese parents and their offspring fascinating: there is a form of codependency where while the child is young he/she depends utterly on the parents. But as everyone grows older the parents very willingly become quite dependent on their child for help — while still maintaining the authority that age affords them in Chinese society. So a parent might happily tell you they cannot do that simple thing they’re asking your assistance within the same breath as telling you you’re of course doing it all wrong.
In this ever-changing world it is entirely normal that as you age, you are less and less in step with the latest gadgets and regulations and therefore you will need assistance from your child in some matters. However there seems to be a tendency where Western minds might be tempted to try and deal with an issue ourselves or call the handy man. But in China it’s common to call up the son and tell him to fix your router, fill out your tax return, or book that holiday for you. So when you’re browsing for potential MILs it might be helpful to gauge how mentally independent she is. The degree to which she will depend on your spouse or you will vary on a case to case basis; but if she is calling you ten times a day for help with switching on the TV box you might want to hit the pause button.
It is quite common in Chinese culture for children to pay a part of their salary to the parents as a way of filial piety. It is also in many cases the parent’s retirement plan. In a country where pensions exist but are merely a pittance, it is law of the land for elderly to look to their children to pay for their upkeep. That’s where the traditional saying “having sons in preparation for old age” (养儿防老 yǎng er fánglǎo) comes from. In some cases however, the expectations of what “upkeep” entails and how much of your money should go to the parents can become quite extreme. Especially in cases of divorce, there are those traditionally bred mothers who might entirely rely both financially and emotionally on their child and spouse to provide for them.
On the other hand as more and more Chinese are moving upward into the middle class, this practice is not as common as it used to be; as the parents are financially more secure, the need for their children to pay for them decreases. If you don’t fancy spending all your hard-earned cash on MIL’s latest trip to Europe or another pair of shiny diamond earrings, you might want to get an idea of how high her financial expectations are towards you and your spouse, before jumping into a lifelong and potentially financially draining commitment.
One thing that amazed me about my MIL was that in the beginning of our relationship when my husband acted out of turn, she would defend me and tell him to get a grip. While this has slightly tapered off over time, in general she hasn’t been afraid to tell him when he’s wrong — and to me this is crucial. To many mothers in China, her son is her sparkling prince who can do no wrong — and this can go so far as for transgressions to be excused because “the wife must have done something to make him cheat.” While of course she can’t take your side on every issue, I think it is a good indicator whether she is willing to see your side of things. Chinese mothers have a lot of power over their offspring and you don’t want her constantly enabling your spouses bad behaviors.
Probably the biggest factor in making MIL a potential deal breaker is the need to control their offsprings’ life and by extension yours. Whether that’s telling you what career to chose, where to live, when to get married, when and how many babies to have and how to raise them… the traditional Chinese MIL puts all her opinions on you and expects you to listen. Independence? Your own life? Your decision? Forget it! MIL has spent the last 2.5 decades investing her whole being into her little prince or princess and she expects a return on that. Especially since she doesn’t really have much else in her life to keep herself occupied. If this is the experience you have made – run as far as the wind can carry you. And if you decide that you love your partner enough to put up with the potential of being micromanaged for the rest of your days, again, you probably want to consider moving to another continent.
Finally, this is a rather personal one, but a major reason why I get on with my MIL is because I admire her. She built a successful business on her own in the 90s as a divorced woman in a comparatively small town. She’s tough as nails, independent and fits hardly any of the stereotypical MIL behavior that we foreigners tend to worry about. I respect her, while my personal convictions would have made it difficult to think highly of a person who exhibited all the behaviors I mentioned above. Now your worldview is certainly different from mine, and maybe you can deal with many of the characteristics of a traditional Chinese MIL as mentioned above – if so, I think that’s great! Let me know how you do it! In any event, make sure that your MIL is worth the time and possibly money you invest in your relationship!
As I leave you to ponder this hopefully useful MIL checklist, it’s time for me to devote my attention to planning where my future son is going to go to university and how many mixed babies his future wife will have to pop out until I’m satisfied. Until next time!