Chinese New Year with the not quite in-laws

Posted: January 28, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve just returned from spending the Chinese New Year with my girlfriend’s family in Shandong (apologies for the lack of recent updates). A few weeks ago I wrote on China’s marriage trap and over the holiday I got to experience first hand a little bit of why Chinese often rush into marriage.

This was my third Chinese New Year at her home. As is Chinese custom and social assumption, the first time I went was essentially signaling our intent to get married. The idea that I was a just a foreigner with no place else to go for the holiday wasn’t something that crossed many people’s minds. The second year, things were set in stone when one uncle went so far as to host a semi-official “welcome to the family” dinner (unbeknownst to me ahead of time). Keep in mind, we never said a word to anyone about marriage plans. This year, everyone’s attitude was basically, “What the hell are you waiting for?”

My girlfriend’s family is about the most liberal you could ever ask for. Nobody ever gave her one bit of grief about dating a foreigner and we even sleep in the same bed while staying at her parents’ place (completely shocking to most Chinese friends I tell). But that didn’t make us immune to the marriage pressure. There was no playful insinuation or beating around the bush. Every relative’s and friend’s home we visited, we were asked directly, “When are you getting married?”

I would just cop-out with the always useful “我听不懂” (I don’t understand) card and make my girlfriend answer. She’d just say we didn’t have plans yet – that I’m still finishing school and there’s no reason to rush, which is true. That was good enough for most, but not all. We went to visit a friend of the family who’s my girlfriend’s “godmother” and made a critical error.

Godmother: When will you two get married?

Girlfriend: We’re not sure.

Godmother: Then when will you have a baby?

Girlfriend: Haha, I’m not even sure I want a baby.

Godmother: (Jaw drops) But you must have a baby.

Girlfriend: Haha, I don’t know.

Godmother: You don’t have to have it right away. You can just be married for a year and then have it.

Girlfriend: We’ll see.

Godmother: You don’t even have to plan it. Just stop using birth control and see what happens.

…And that’s about the point I decided I wouldn’t be returning to her hometown until I put a ring on her finger.

There seems to be a common fear in China that if you wait one day past your 30th birthday to have a baby, it’ll have disastrous health effects for the mother or child. So now that we’re certain we won’t be breaking up, it’s just baffling to some that we aren’t actively planning the wedding and fixing to get knocked up on the wedding night.

For us it’s not a big deal. We’re strong-willed and most of the family is open-minded enough that we don’t feel tempted to bow to this pressure. We’re all but certain we’ll get married eventually anyways, so it’s easy to brush off. But it’s easy to see how many Chinese just throw in the towel and jump into a life they’re not ready for.

  1. Bill says:

    Sounds like the U.S. to me. Your parents might have been asking the same questions.

  2. alexvanv says:

    We have a common ground! I just finished celebrating my first New Year with my fiance in Shandong as well. The question is persistent. When are you getting married?? But similarly they are also very liberal and open minded. It just seems that we must get married within a year of being engaged otherwise we have broken some sort of string of events.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    Trust us, Bill, it’s not like in the US, unless one is a member of a particularly conservative community.

  4. Photo_LA says:

    see its not fair if they had to get married and have kids right away and you get to enjoy being an adult with easy to handle responsibilities

  5. lordmaster0 says:

    Yeah I got hints from my future-in-laws every now and then, but Canney and I weren’t engaged for about 3.5 years, so her family is all the more awesome to me.

    Strange thing is that we pretty much already knew that we were going to stay together after the first 6 months, but we want her to finish university first and something major like that takes time to really confirm and make rock-solid.

    Even after we got married, our relationship didn’t really change much anyways. We had some rings on our hands, but we’d already gotten matching tattoos after a year and a half, so the commitment didn’t change really.

    Good story though, better than mine:

  6. justrecently says:

    This pressure may help to explain why there are so many extra-marital affairs – and why not too many people see that as a problem. Something has to give.

  7. Augis says:

    Your girlfriend’s family is for sure liberal.

    When I went to visit my wife’s grandparents – not only I and her had to sleep separately, but also her mother and father slept separately.

    I shared the bed with my wife’s father. Needless to say, it was sleepless night 🙂

    • sinostand says:

      Haha, perfect. The first time I went, we weren’t allowed to sleep together. My girlfriend, her female cousin and I had to figure out a sleeping situation with one queen size bed in the bedroom and a single-person bed in the study. Thinking the arrangement was obvious I headed for the single and her uncle stopped me, telling my gf it wouldn’t be proper to make a guest sleep there. So I was directed to the queen and the other two slept on the floor beside the single. Gotta love that Chinese hospitality.

  8. Lorin Yochim says:

    I’m sort of interested in what people mean here when they say “liberal.” If they are quite conservative or traditional with respect to marriage and family, what makes them liberal?

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