Dear Ms. Wai – Cold War at the Dinner Table

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Dear Ms Wai,

I have learned through trial and error that my in-laws don’t like to try my home country’s food if I cook something up for everyone. I totally understand. I recently cooked a few Chinese dishes when my Mil was over and did my best to think of a few ones I thought she would enjoy.

When we sat down for lunch, the only thing she did enjoy was the plain white rice I had cooked. She didn’t even try the dishes I made. In my home culture, not trying your host’s dishes would be considered very rude. I wouldn’t feel offended if I knew she just didn’t like the dishes I made. But I’m completely confused if what she did was meant as being respectful in Chinese culture or not.

I could imagine her not trying the dishes because she felt I spent a lot of money on the meal and she didn’t need me to spend all that money on a meal for her and the family? Or that I didn’t need to spend all this time in the kitchen to cook for her? On the other hand, I’m wondering if she wanted to tell me the exact opposite. That the dishes I cook aren’t up to her standards. I’m turning to you because if I ask my husband what her actions mean he usually doesn’t know either. If I ask her directly, she also won’t tell me. Needless to say, I haven’t tried to cook anything for her since that occurrence.

Ouch. You spend all day thinking and and preparing food for your mother-in-law and when the meal comes she doesn’t even try it and only eats the white rice?! You sound very calm, I would be livid!

It was definitely rude on her part. In China food is considered love, and refusing to even try your dishes was her sending you a message. But the question is: what message? I think the answer lies with your mother-in-law and what kind of relationship you guys have.

Does she try not to bother you guys? Does she give you hongbao every time she sees you and refuse all gifts? If so maybe she didn’t want to “cost” you money and avoided eating the food so others could have more. If she is a selfless person normally, maybe she didn’t want to try the special dishes, preferring to let others eat instead of her.


Is she the kind that comes over unannounced? Takes your clothes and washes them without you asking? Does she regularly take care of the kids? If she is heavily involved in your life, I would guess she didn’t eat because she felt slighted. Like, you were trying to take away something she considers her job. Especially if you have kids, a Chinese mother-in-law sees it as her duty to cook and clean for you guys, and she might not take kindly to you “taking away her job.” What you saw as a friendly and kind gesture, she might have seen as an insult that you were implying you don’t need her anymore.

I don’t know your situation, but I feel like the second type is probably more likely. If she was a selfless type, she would still take a small nibble, just to try. Her refusing to eat any of your food probably means she felt insulted, and saw your gesture as a statement against her and her food, or against the way she helps you and your husband.

If it happens again, then talk to your husband about it after. Don’t ask him why she wouldn’t eat, but instead tell him that you were sad his mother didn’t even try your food. Tell him that you chose the dishes especially for her, hoping she would like them, and you were sad she didn’t even take a bite. Don’t blame his mom, or get mad at her, but instead tell him your honest feelings that you are trying to respect her and do nice things for her. Hopefully that message will get through to your hubby and he might tell his mom. Or next time you make food and she refuses, you husband will stand up for you and ask his mother why she isn’t eating.

It really was just a kind gesture on your part, and you were met with unexpected rudeness. I can understand why you were so baffled. Not eating is rude in your home country and here in China too. But I guess maybe the best solution is the one you have come to: Don’t even try. No sense in stressing yourself out if your effort will be continually met with coldness. Save the special meals for nights with just your husband or other friends, and let your MIL cook what she wants!

Do you have a question for Ms. Wai? Write to her at [email protected]

Ms Wai

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