Dear Ms. Wai,
I’ve been in a relationship with a Chinese man for over 3 years. We live in a Nordic country and he has been living here for about 7 years.
We have visited his parents and family every year at least once. Last summer we had his parents come over to us for the first time but the visit didn’t end at a good note. My boyfriend and his parents had a fight the day before they were going back home. They have made up since and we are paying them a visit this summer for a week.
The thing is every time we go to see them my boyfriend ends up having a fight with them. My level of Chinese is very basic so I’m oblivious of what they are fighting about and my boyfriend is only willing to tell me what he feels is necessary for me to know.
After that fight last summer we had a deep discussion about our relationships with our parents. He told me about his wish to have a better and more meaningful relationship with his parents but he he doesn’t think he can ever have one as his views and his parents views are in conflict. The more he told me made me realize how his situation is so much different from mine but how similar it is with my mum and her parents. Both of our parents were born in the sixties but obviously to completely different cultures. How there are these interesting generation gaps let alone the obvious cultural differences.
I feel as I can’t relate to his situation I don’t know what to say or what to do to help him build a better relationship with his parents or if there is anything I can do with my limited ability to communicate with his parents. Is there anything I can do?
This is a surprising letter. Usually when a woman writes to me about problems with the parent it is because the parent’s are too overbearing, or overstepping their bounds in the relationship with the couple. But you want almost the opposite. You want to step in and help your partner and his family get closer. That’s a very commendable instinct and it shows a read depth of care from you. Very sweet!
But you have more than a language and culture problem, you have a time problem. These feelings between your guy and his family probably go back a lifetime and might be hard for any of them to fully articulate even in their native language.
China is an unforgiving society for children who don’t get along with their parents. Unlike western countries, where is is “cool” to not like your parents when you’re a teenager, Chinese kids have enormous pressure to not only love their parents but respect and admire them. Even when their parents are drunks, abusive or not in the picture, Chinese kids are taught their parents gave birth to them, sacrificed for them, and therefore children must revere them at all costs. But this is unfair. Some parents do not deserve the respect of their children.
Hopefully your guy didn’t have anything so terrible as abuse or neglect when he was a kid, but regardless, not all families click. In the west we understand that, but in the east, it’s seen as his personality flaw if he can’t have a good relationship with them, not theirs. So he probably feels a lot of guilt about that. And really, don’t we all want approval from our parents?
But you are an outsider and even if you all spoke the same language and lived in the same place, it’s not your place to fix. It’s between him and them. This isn’t your fight to solve. The only thing you can do is support him, listen to him when he wants to talk about it, hug him when he doesn’t.
Even though these visits trigger him, I think you shouldn’t end them. The trips are more than just visiting his parents, it’s his time to go back to his country, eat the food he loves, speak to people who understand his language etc. It’s important for you too to go with him so you can learn more about his past, and his culture.
But maybe to lessen the time together with his parents you can suggest taking a trip to another part of China. You can do a few days with his parents, then a few days away, then a few days back together again. Enough time for him to visit and see them, but not too much time to get on each others nerves. (Although if they always fight the last day, only the last day, then the argument might be about him living so far away and choosing a foreign life. If that is it, then there will be no way to avoid that fight.) But if the fights come around after spending too much time together, you can try to make the time with the parents shorter.
So you can’t go in there with a magic wand and fix the relationship between them. With the language, the culture and the physical distance there are just too many things you don’t understand and if you try to throw yourself between them, you could make some serious mistakes. But you can be there for your guy when he is dealing with the stress of his family. You don’t have to relate or personally understand his struggle to support him. Just be aware that he is struggling, and during the stressful times just listen to him. Don’t push him to make a better relationship or criticize him for not getting along with them. Having your support will mean a lot to him, and make you closer as a (possible) family in the future.