Dear Ms. Wai – The In-laws are moving in. What do I do?!

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Dear Ms. Wai,

I am lucky to be with a  Chinese man. We live in New Zealand and we are engaged! I had always expected to marry someone of a similar cultural background to me but a few years ago this man swept me off my feet with his kindness, intelligence and sense of humour and he happened to be Chinese. He gets along really well with my family and friends. They find him very charming and think I’ve got a great catch. However, I find his family difficult to get along with and so different to my own. Some of them speak some English and I’m learning Chinese. It’s fine at the moment while they are living in China but they have plans to move here.

I know I probably shouldn’t complain because they have actually been very welcoming and generous to me with food and gifts. I have also made an effort to be kind to them. I just find my future mother-in-law very overbearing and unusual. She is constantly in contact with us and recommends Chinese medicine and acupuncture to me for all health problems. As a nurse in a Western country, this doesn’t fit with my idea of medicine at all.

Her taste in fashion, furniture, food, politics etc could not be more different to my own. I also find my future father-in-law quite different to my own father and I struggle with his smoking and drinking. I worry about what the cultural differences and personality differences will mean when we have children. My fiancee adores his family and doesn’t seem to notice that his mother is quite intense.

Do you have any advice?

First off, congrats on finding a great guy! Most WWAM couples met in Asia and it’s nice to hear a story that started outside of Asia and happened unexpectedly. Also, the fact that you are learning Chinese to be able to communicate easier with his family shows real respect and love for him.

But let’s get to the meat of your matter. His parents. If you are already having trouble with them thousands of miles away it’s going to get much worse when they move next door. Not to scare you, but in-laws are sometimes the biggest problem a WWAM couple can have.

Nowadays the mom can just suggest you drink some herb, or eat some strange food when you are sick and you can nod and smile and do what you please when you hang up on Skype. But when she comes she will make you eat said food and wake you up with said herbal drink and stand there and berate you until you drink it.

It all comes down to cultural differences. While western parents would never walk into you and your husband’s bedroom without knocking first, Chinese parents will. While western parents would never wash the undies of their adult children, Chinese parents will. While a western parent would use the emergency key you gave them for emergencies, Chinese parents will come in all hours of the day and night to clean or watch TV or whatever.

The door is never really closed when you are married to a Chinese guy. His family always has a key (literally and figuratively).

To them it is a sign of love, to you, it is a sign they don’t respect you. Like you said, cooking you food, buying you gifts is ultimately kind. But cooking you food you don’t like and buying you gifts that please them and not you shows, to us Westerners, a lack of respect or care for a person and understandably makes us mad.

But your hubby won’t get why you are mad. First off, if he doesn’t notice now, he won’t notice later. But if he did, he would be unlikely to intervene. A son should respect his mother and not talk back, and after all, “it’s just medicine…can’t you take it to keep her happy? My mom made it special for you.”

Secondly, it’s what he expects. A Chinese adult male expects his mom to wash his clothes, cook his breakfast and buy things for his house. After all, what else does she have to do? (A common thought in China, not my own!) You don’t say why she is moving to New Zealand but I assume it is solely because of her son (and not for work). If so she will feel like it is her duty to take care of him (and you) and will be extremely vigilant.

Wanna go on vacation? Better include them. Have plans to go out with friends? Better tell the MIL first so she doesn’t call you angry she has made dinner and she is standing in your kitchen waiting for you even though she never mentioned it before. Marrying a Chinese guy means marrying his family, for better or worse.

And when you have children? Hoo-boy, it’s only going to be cranked up to 11.

So what can you do?

You’ll need to pick your battles. No one can fight all fronts all the time. So you will have to make some items non-negotiable from the start and diligently enforce it to show you are not fooling around. You’re going to have to be the bad guy. But save it for things that really matter to you.

Like smoking. You maybe can’t stop the father from doing everything, but smoking is a danger to others and traditional Chinese culture is still largely blind to the damage it does. (In China it is still common to smoke around pregnant women!) But it is a gross and dirty habit, as well as unsafe. You can’t stop him from smoking but you can stop him from smoking in your house. You need to make it a rule and you need to stick by it, not even allowing standing at the window smoking (because that changes to sitting by the window smoking, then sitting near the window smoking, then sitting at the table smoking). You’ll need to not only constantly berate him but maybe even physically take the cigarette out of his hands if he won’t listen to you (I don’t know the level of stubbornness he has). Eventually, the parents should respect your wishes when they see how serious you are, even if that realization happens months or years later.

You’ll also need to have a talk with your fiance about what “rules” you are going to insist on. Before his parents come, he might agree with you and say you are right but be ready for him to act differently around his parents. If he tells his father he can’t smoke in your house and enforces it, then it will go a lot further than if you say it. But it is hard for a son to tell off his parents and goes against Chinese culture in a big way. “But she’s my mom and she’s just doing that because she cares about us,” or “That’s just the way my dad is, he can’t change,” is a common wall many a woman has beat their head against.

Meanwhile some of the smaller stuff you are just going to have to deal with and try to let go. For sanity’s sake. Maybe the medicine goes on your verboten list, but could you deal with the food? You can have a drawer to stash all the unwanted gifts but maybe the least hideous you can put out on display? Can you smile and nod when she talks about politics?

Privacy and private property isn’t really a common concept in a Chinese family and with your in-laws coming to a new country and culture they might try to latch on to you and your fiance even harder. Maybe none of this will come to pass. Maybe the in-laws will find some friends and have lots to do and your relationship will be great. But if the worse comes just try to relax and remember the love of your husband and see it as a really unique and interesting opportunity to have experiences many of your peers never will.

Most important of all, find a group of friends you can bitch to. ‘Cause with a Chinese mother-in-law coming to town you’ll need a good support group you can let off steam.

Are you married to a Chinese guy and have had to learn to deal with an overbearing mother-in-law? Tell us some solutions you’ve found in the comments. If you have a question for Ms Wai write to her at or leave a comment below!

Ms Wai


  1. Here is something from the perspective from the AM side of the WWAM relationship.
    I suggest that before the arrival of the in-laws the wife have a straight talk to make sure the husband will cover her back. If he is aware of her wariness and cares about her, he should be ready have some spine in the upcoming cultural conflicts. He can act as her selective filter to shield her when he is interpreting for the gatherings. He should make it plain to his parents that they are now in a foreign countries and there are certain things that they should or should not push onto the wife in her native land. This trick is especially effective when the parents are fresh off the boat. It worked really well with my immigrant parents in their interaction with my Canadian wife.
    I firmly believe the suggestion of having the young wife snatch the cigarette off the father-in-law’s lips is a BIG mistake. The senior man will lose so much face in front of his family that it will just poison the in-law relationship from then on!!!! In any culture, such shabby treatment by a young whipper snapper on an elder is just not proper.

    1. Do you have any advice on how to navigate the smoking issue? I successfully managed to get three elders to stop smoking. They just got bored of smoking outside so stopped by themselves. I didn’t have to take the cigarette off them though as they never lit up inside as I made it clear that wasn’t allowed. If they did light up inside what would you suggest? Just reminding them? But what if they keep doing it? I once found someone hiding msg in my food even though they knew I was against it, they just assumed I wouldn’t be able to find out. I took the bag of msg from the kitchen and tipped the contents into the bin outside. The next day was probably a little tense but it didn’t leave a lasting bad feeling.

  2. Seeing the stubbornness displayed by my smoking co-workers I understand the Herculean efforts required in persuading any of them to quit. It is such an addiction, that would take more than your valiant but lonely fight to win. May be the joint effort of your husband’s family, yourself together with the aid of gradual reduction devices like nicotine gum, e-cigarettes to help with the difficult quitting. Die hard smokers are psychologically dependent on the nicotine and can’t just turn it off like a switch. Good luck.

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