Getting the In-Laws Out

Scenes from a cross-cultural marriage.


Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the August 2011 edition of NewsChina.

Mixed-race romances are always vulnerable to culture clashes. Both parties were raised differently and consequently have very different ideas of what a marriage should be. But, two years after moving in with my Chinese boyfriend, I really thought we’d come to grips with anything that our diverse cultures could throw in the way of contented, marital bliss. After all, we’d got the OK from his parents—no mean feat for a mixed-race gay couple in family-focused China. I was over the moon that I’d been informally welcomed into the fold, though I was careful to remind myself that we’d need to sweeten the deal with grandkids somewhere down the line. But, all in all, things were perfectly idyllic, and I consequently adored my boyfriend’s parents.

Then they came to stay with us. Again and again and again.

As we grow into adulthood, leave home, go to college, get a job and our own place and finally, hopefully, settle down with a life partner, we foreign devils believe that each rite of passage comes with its own itinerant upgrade in equality. By becoming “homeowners,” we arrive in society and finally attain equality with those who gave us life. Which means, in short, mom and dad have their home, and you have yours. Masters in one are guests in the other.

Well, in China, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Confucius set out very clear instructions on how families worked 2,500 years ago. Female bows to male, younger bows to elder, the son bows to the parents. Period.

Success and social standing don’t alter the family dynamic. You’re not even absolved of complete subservience to your forebears when they die—there are sacrifices to be made. Every year. And you’d better look like you mean it. While modern China may have dispensed with many of the social niceties of Confucianism (my boyfriend, for one, seems to be able to wear any hat he likes when in the presence of a government official), Chinese parents have yet to develop any sense of boundaries with their offspring. The normal rules of social boundaries do not apply. Your son’s home, whether or not he paid for it himself (as my boyfriend did) is your home.

I’ve never invited my in-laws to stay. There’s never been a need—they invite themselves.

As a result, I’ve never invited my in-laws to stay. There’s never been a need—they invite themselves, typically barely a day in advance, duly arriving laden down with bulk-buy food (that I have implored them not to bring) to add to the stockpile we have failed to diminish since their last visit. The only thing they never bring with them is a return ticket, making it impossible to determine how long we’ll be sharing a living space (two weeks is the norm, but my “mother-in-law” has been known to stay longer). As soon as they’re across the threshold, I have to relinquish all claim to my tiny one-bedroom home in favor of the matriarch. Why? Ask Confucius.

The self-appointed lady of the house proceeds to do all the cooking, cleaning and housework. If I try and intervene, I get dismissed or criticized for “not doing it right.” My rugs are taken up, laminated and concealed under the bed for being “too dirty”; my clothes, down to the most intimate items, are rewashed, refolded and reorganized without my consent, and my kitchen surfaces bear scars from having frozen foods bashed against them at 5A.M. which, for some bizarre reason, is the hour my mother-in-law chooses to begin making breakfast. We don’t get up until 8A.M.

Being a guest in one’s own home may appeal to some—meals are cooked for you, your laundry is done and every surface is cleansed, sanitized and polished without you having to lift a finger. However, what we might expect from a hotel is not necessarily what we want in our own home. We all have a routine. I like my rugs. I like my bed. I like my diet. But to my Chinese mother-in-law, it doesn’t matter what configuration her son’s house is in when she arrives, because when she leaves, it will have been reorganized to her specific standards. In short, neither me, nor my boyfriend, will know where anything is. But she will, and that’s what matters.

China is faced with a generation of children incapable of caring for themselves.

I am habitually the first to leap to the defense of Chinese culture, at least the good bits. But this manifest inability for parents to cut the cord and allow their offspring to live independently is taking its toll. China is faced with a generation of children incapable of caring for themselves. Kids have gotten used to food, clean clothes and entertainment magically appearing out of thin air. From infancy and well into adulthood, Chinese parents routinely barge into their children’s lives to do all the hard labor. Otherwise, the more undomesticated kids would likely get scurvy.

The trouble is that I am domesticated. Ironing, cooking, vacuuming—from elementary school onwards, if I didn’t do my chores, I wouldn’t receive my allowance. My boyfriend is hardly a Little Emperor either. He cooks, cleans and even sews, having covertly learned these skills through observation rather than tuition. We manage fine. We don’t need Mom’s help—if anything, her zeal is a hindrance to our relationship, usually leading to rows.

Our apartment has floor space of just under 50 square meters. The only door you can close for privacy is the door to the toilet, and even then, whatever you do in there is audible to everyone else in every other room. This is the reason behind the degree of intimacy in my relationship—there’s literally nowhere to hide your ugly side. This is also the principal source of difficulty in my relationship with my mother-in-law. She knows too much, and comments accordingly.

“Oh, he’s going to the toilet again,” is a particular favorite.

I find her level of interest in her son’s physical condition and bowel movements to be on a par with an overly-devoted family doctor, and struggle to understand why this woman doesn’t concentrate on her own life rather than spend her time attempting to micromanage that of her independent, forward-thinking, financially solvent son.

In China, children don’t turn to their parents for psychological support.

But maybe that’s the point—for a Chinese mother, a domestically independent child means the end of her parental raison d’être. In China, the absence of a more egalitarian, emotional foundation to familial relationships means that children don’t turn to their parents for psychological support—preferring partners, friends, co-workers or, increasingly, the Internet. Parents handle the practicalities, but you don’t “share” much. If my boyfriend needs a shoulder to cry on, he turns to me. I’ve never seen him hug his parents, or call them when he’s in need of reassurance. Whatever emotional crises aren’t dealt with internally are outsourced to me—he has told me that he’d never call his mother for emotional support because she’d fret too much.

In this regard, my mother-in-law, being retired, has little to do but twiddle her thumbs, at least until the first grandchild appears. I guess I can forgive her wanting to hang on to the mama mantle a little longer. But she’d better keep her interfering, rubber-gloved hands off my goddamn rugs.