I met my Chinese family within four months of dating my-then boyfriend now husband. The nerves set in as soon as it was settled that we’d return to his hometown for the most important festival of the year: Chinese New Year, more often referred to as the Spring Festival, 春节 chunjie, in China. Not only was it the first time I ever celebrated the Chinese New Year, I did so in the countryside, in a village where I was the first 外国人, waiguoren, foreign visitor.
Therefore, I did not want to only impress my potential-in-laws but to represent myself and my origins well. I had only been in China for five months and my Mandarin did not consist of more than twenty phrases. On top of that, my partner’s parents mainly spoke the local Shaanxi dialect. And although my partner primarily served as a translator, interpreter, and cultural ambassador in order for my in-laws to get to know me better, there were several ways in which I ensured my Chinese family became acquainted with me through my own behaviors, nonverbal communication such as universal gestures and body language. These things can go a long way when meeting your Chinese family for the first time when words can’t suffice.
We tend to lose sight of the fact that nonverbal communication can say as much or even more about who you are, where you come from, and where you’re headed. The universal facial gesture, a smile, works wonders to soften your in-laws and lighten the verbal communication barriers that likely exist. Making genuine attempts to offer assistance will be denied but it’s another way to show you care. Learning a few key phrases, 新年快乐, xinniankuaile, or Happy New Year will help break the ice when visiting or meeting your partner’s extended family and neighbors.
I communicated to my in-laws, using my limited Mandarin, my husband as an interpreter, or nonverbal communication that I enjoyed the meals they prepared. I ate pretty much whatever food was placed in front of me, never put my chopsticks upright in my rice or bowl of porridge, waited until invited to sit at the table, and ate with a voracious appetite to express my gratitude.
My husband did not mind communicating on my behalf, but he made certain to give me opportunities to contribute to the conversation after meals, seated on a 炕, kang. It might have been getting an answer directly from me, translating, and following up, if necessary. He prepared his family by letting them know my food preferences, and even prepped me about his village’s situation, his home, and his family.
He ensured I knew that Chinese New Year meant visiting family, going to other villages where no foreigners had ventured before, and did his best to introduce me to the complexity of family relations. When my limited Mandarin failed me, my husband would speak up or before visiting a new relative or neighbor, he’d whisper to me the venerable name and greeting I should use.
Uncle and Aunt do not suffice in referring to your in-laws’ brothers or sisters. All family members have a very specific name that indicates their position in the family: eldest, middle, youngest. Cousins, even neighbors of the same generation can’t be called by such names, instead non-blood relatives are still honored with blood-related titles: 哥哥, gege, 弟弟 didi, 姐姐, jiejie, 妹妹, meimei. Knowing how to refer to everyone, or asking your significant other when you’re unsure, is a great way to break the ice with all the members of your Chinese family.
In the Chinese countryside, a village operates much like a big family so consider, when words fail you, to act graciously, smile, and discuss your queries privately with your Chinese spouse. A gift of the drinkable, usable, or edible variety would be the final accoutrement to easing the first meeting with your Chinese family. Looking back on my first encounter, showing I was comfortable, that I did not feel out of place, and my voracious appetite for Chinese cuisine all served me well.
Marissa Kluger married her significant other, who happens to be Chinese, about a year ago. They live in New Jersey. She reminisces about Xi’an and muses about life in the US at Xiananigans.