China’s Labour Day and the longest time I have ever spent with my brother-in-law…



China’s Labour Day and the longest time I have ever spent with my brother-in-law…

When my boss told me I would have a few days off during and after the Labour Day (May 1), I got very excited. Being all alone, with my hubby over 600 kilometres in another province, my first thought was to go and visit him and my parents-in-law.

Naive as I am, I thought no one else would want to travel during the Labour Day holidays. I mean, seriously, why would anyone wanna do that? Days after my boss announced the holidays I figured it is time to check the train tickets online. After all, there were still over two weeks until the day I planned to leave Shanghai.

 There was not a single train ticket left. Not even a standing ticket.

The ordeal of buying train/bus tickets in China

Shanghai long distance bus stationBuying train tickets in China is not new to me. I know during Chinese New Year or the one week National Day holidays it is nearly impossible to get a train ticket, if you don’t know the game. Buying train tickets (or bus tickets for that matter), is like my mother’s online auctions.

You have to know those online auctions are insane. They sell all kinds of stuff, from cloths to shoes, over jewellery and electronic devices, and everything off at least 50%! You can imagine how many people try to get their hands on that stuff, including my mother. The auctions start in the morning at 7am. You have to start preparing at 6am. Make sure the internet connection is stable, your laptop is working properly and the important websites are opening fast. About 15 minutes before the auction starts, you cannot leave the sight of your laptop. You have to start refreshing the website every minute. As soon as the first items appear you start clicking on anything you see as if your life depends on it, put it into the basket. After 5 minutes the fun is over, and you have time to have a closer look at the items you collected, and chose accordingly.

Acquiring train tickets in China is very similar. Of course, you could always go to the train station and line up for about four hours, to just be told that all tickets are sold out. No one does that anymore. You can buy them online. You just need a Chinese bank account, online banking function, and Chinese reading skills.

Train tickets for holidays are now sold 20 days in advance, and apparently the Labour Day is an important holiday in China as well. Bus tickets on the other hand are sold 10 days in advance during holidays.

After my failed attempt to buy a train ticket, I decided to try my chances with a bus ticket. This time I would follow the rules of my mother’s online auctions. You can now also buy bus tickets from Shanghai to any place in China online. As my bank account has no online banking, I instructed Jin to purchase the right ticket. He grew up in China, so there was no need for me to explain him my mother’s online auction rules.

He managed to get a coach ticket. That’s a huge bus with beds inside. Yes, beds instead of seats. It is quite convenient. Plus, the bus is usually faster than some train routes.

The perfect day off

My plan was to take the bus on May 1st, Thursday evening, International Labour Day.

A free day is always a great thing. I was looking forward to a relaxed day, with good food and lots of time for myself, before I go on the long journey back to my parents-in-law.

I had everything planned out. After sleeping in, I wanted to indulge myself on a nice Western breakfast in the Brasserie next door. There is nothing better but to start your day with a fresh croissant. The weather was supposed to be great, so I would spent the time before lunch in the park, followed by a cool Caramel Frappuccino in that cute Starbucks in the middle of the park.

The afternoon I wanted to spend in the big book store on Fuzhou road. I could stay there for hours, if possible even live there. To end a perfect day my plan was to get Sushi. Fresh made, delicious Sushi from that just opened Japanese restaurant. Stuffed with Sushi, I would grab my bags and make my way to the bus station.

I did none of those things…

The brother-in-law, who decided to be ‘helpful’

7am, Thursday morning. My phone was ringing. Initially I didn’t want to pick it up. But whoever the person calling was, he or she was very persistent.

It was Jin. “Oh, you are awake. Good.” No, I wasn’t, but go on. He started to ask me all kinds of polite things, did I sleep well, did I have a good rest, did I have a nice dream…

“Oh god, what did you do?”, was the only thing I could answer to all his questions.

“Remember, my sister’s husband is in Shanghai, too. And I might have told him that you have a day off today, and that you are so lonely, and bored without anyone being there to take care of you and talk to you. He said he would like to go and see you off. I would feel better as well, if someone is there to bring you to the bus station. There are gonna be thousands of people today.”

Typical hubby; always caring and worrying a bit too much, but who could get angry at him for that? “Ok, when’s he coming?”

“At 8.”

“Well, my bus leaves at 8:45, that’s not much time, but if he wants to.”

“I mean at 8 in the morning.” You could hear his voice dying out.

By then I was fully awake and sitting straight in my bed. “Like what… you kidding me right? Like in 45min?!”

It never takes me long to get ready in the morning, but that day I was as fast as Speedy Gonzales (the fastest mouse in all ‘China’). And as announced my brother-in-law came, of course, at 7:45am instead of 8:00am, because the only time you want someone to be late, they are too early.

It was going to be a very, very long day.

Actually, until that time I have never talked much with my brother-in-law. Except a few polite exchanges and small talk we usually very much ignored each other. Having him here with me for nearly ten hours was freaking me out before he even had arrived.

Yes, he is considered family, but what do you do with someone you barely know? And sometimes barely understand.

Our worlds couldn’t be further apart. He never finished middle school, and started working on construction sites when he was very young. He loves his life as a migrant worker, and doesn’t understand anyone who chooses to study for years in school.

We did end up talking a lot though.

I agree to disagree

I knew we wouldn’t be on the same page concerning many topics in our lives. But, I didn’t except to be so far apart.

He asked me why I make my husband study. It sounded like accusation; the evil wife who forces the poor husband to go and study day and night some useless stuff. Why would I not let him go with him to work on the construction sites? It gives you so much freedom. He told me he loves being away from home, and being able to go to different cities in China. I do understand the last part, but I was confused about the first part. How can you not miss you family? According to him, being at home day and night is very exhausting. It is much more fun to spend the evenings with your buddies. You can drink as much as you want and spent as much money as you want on whatever thing you want. It’s enough to call your wife once a day. I tried to explain him our concept. That we prefer to live close to where we work, and come home every evening, and spend weekends together with our family as well. I understand that this is not possible for many families in China. He would simply not find a good job in his home town. But even when I asked him if he would like to lead such a life, if it would be possible to have a very well paid job in his home town, wouldn’t he prefer to be there with his family, and see his children grow up? No, he wouldn’t, it means not being free. I agree to disagree.

Obviously, we also talked about children. He asked me if I would be ok having children in rural China, and let them grow up there. I said no. Simply, because not just is the education there horrible, but also because parenting over there is like from another planet. I explained that in my eyes, many Chinese children get spoilt by their grandparents and parents, and that they are allowed to do whatever they feel like whenever they feel like (this includes peeing and pooing in supermarkets or next to dining tables). I don’t have children myself yet, but I do understand that they are just children after all. However, I cannot except that you should let them run wild. There have to be rules, and parents should enforce them. I have seen five year old kids, climbing on the dinner table in a restaurant, kneeing in the food plate, one hand in the soup bowl fishing out the tomatoes. Everyone else was just laughing, yeah, because it’s hilarious, right? No. If it would have been me, my mother would have slapped my butt. This is just a random example. There are hundreds more (of course it’s a generalisation. There are well-behaved kids, even in rural China, but the majority, the parents couldn’t care less, and the grandparents just want to spoil them). He told me that it is simply not possible to educate children, and we in the west are horrible parents for wanting our children to follow some simple rules. I agree to disagree.

In general he told me, we foreigners have too many rules and it wouldn’t be good to impose so many rules on children nor on adults. Actually, that was a reaction to me telling him not to smoke in the apartment, but to go on the balcony. After all, I was not living there alone, but sharing with five other people (all foreigner with their annoying rules, yes). When I told him first he obliged and went to the balcony, unfortunately it seems that he has a short-term memory. Hours later he would have forgotten. He went so far as to smoke in our bathroom and throw the cigarette ends on the floor. It made me furious, but he is family, and telling him off again would make him lose face. I silently cleaned after him, hoping he wouldn’t need to use the toilet again.

A seemingly never ending afternoon

After lunch we more or less run out of topics to talk about (or maybe decided it would be better not to talk at all). I desperately tried to find something to do. But all of my previous planned things I could do with him. A Western breakfast? Yes, of course, someone who thinks Western food is poisonous. A walk in the park? Very inappropriate. Coffee at Starbucks? He would have thought I am joking. Who pays 30 kuai for a coffee… Spending the afternoon in the bookstore? Not sure he can even read. Sushi for dinner? Yeah, how decadent.

I felt horrible. After all he was considered family, and made all the effort to come all the way to my place to spend the day so I don’t feel lonely. But we turned out to be too different. The only thing we had in common was the family bond. But he disagreed with everything I said, and I disagreed with everything he said.

The tip of the iceberg was, when is said he misses his son, but not his daughter. For me this is a thorny topic in China. I get very upset. That was the end of our conversation.

He did take me to the bus station to make sure I get on the right bus, as Jin had ordered him to. I tried to get rid of him, I mean, send him home, many times but he was very persistent.

In the end, I am not sure if I should laugh about that day or cry.

My brother-in-law and I made an unspoken agreement never to spend a day together again, and don’t talk about specific topics. Maybe next time we meet, we just stick to the weather and food.

Did you ever have a similar experience? What to do if someone has such a different opinion to yours, but you cannot argue directly with them in order to not make them lose face? (after all they might be family, right)

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

19 thoughts on “China’s Labour Day and the longest time I have ever spent with my brother-in-law…

  1. I feel that everyone in my husband’s family have a similar way of thinking as most westerners. They all are well educated and they expect their children to follow rules.

    I also know some factory workers here in Taiwan who also expect their kids to follow rules and go out of their way to give their kids opportunities that they never had (like learning English). And I think that the educational system in Taiwan is very similar , whether in the city or in the country.

    Your experience reminds me of an article I read about Ikea in China. There were people sleeping everywhere and in one particular picture, one woman (which appears to be the grandma) is holding a bottle and the boy peeing in the bottle on the bed.

      • That picture seems like downtown Shanghai, I would say is right in the way to the bus station, near by the central railway station.

        • Why do you think that picture is ikea?! It was taken at the long distance bus station in shanghai. Right behind shanghai railway station. It says right on the top 上海长途汽车客运总站

          • I am not referring to your picture. If you read what I wrote in the first comment, second paragraph, I describe a picture from an Ikea article but I forgot to mention the fact that the picture being described was taken at Ikea – thus, to clarify, I wrote the second message. I assumed you would link the two comments together. Sorry for the confusion.

          • Lol ok no problem :) I got it now. And I have seen similar things at ikea. People sleeping in ikea beds or students studying at the kitchen table there is a vet common sight haha

  2. Well that was a experience!
    I also had a similar experience with my brother in law, less time but I promise you that seemed to be an eternity.
    He used to question everything we do, he still does but not in front of my mother in law. He is always saying that we have rules and etc etc…One day he came to me and in front of my husband said: “Listen, you need to hurry up have babies. There’s no perfect moment and money is not that necessary”…we was giving me a lesson when my mother in law said…
    “Stop it. Never pressure people”…He continued saying all that…till my mother in law said..”When your newborn needed 2 surgeries you didn’t have the money and you needed to borrow plenty from them, younger than you. Also if you had had money to register the 2nd baby you would get part of that money back, but you couldn’t. So don’t be too wise, you still own money.”
    There you can see the relationship between my mother in law and my brother in law is not good because many decisions he took were not ok for my sister in law.
    Discussions are better with her there

  3. Oh.my.God. Anna, I seriously bow down to your ability to keep up your self-composure like that! I have been in similar situations (not a horrifying as this, though…) and while I can swallow down a lot, if you make me mad – I will be mad and I won’t give a single f*ck for good (family) behaviour. I tend to play the “I’m a foreigner after all”-card where I suddenly lose the ability to properly converse in the other language or comment on you in my language, or make up an excuse to leave urgently. Or just laugh at you and just not talk anymore. I think with his background it’s understandable that your brother-in-law has a completely different view, but criticising you and kind of attacking you & your culture is a red flag. Jin chose you and knew what he was “getting”; you’re not forcing things on him! I hope your holiday makes up for this unpleasant day! :/

  4. omg.. haha. I would’ve turned on a movie, so that I wouldn’t have to say anything xD
    Thank god my sister-in-law can speak English.. however, my brother-in-law think he can control me, so the other day he messaged me on wechat and asked if i can buy a Rolex watch for him.. like wtf?! haha.

    • Wow your brother-in-law seems hardcore wanting a Rolex and all.
      Watching a movie for ten hours is a long time. Plus it’s not nice to let someone watch a movie if he comes all the way to see you…

      • That’s true, I would’ve felt bad! Haha. It was a nice thought though, coming all the way to see you because u were alone! My brother-in-law is just .. Idk.. He thought I would buy it for him -.-

  5. I think it’s great that you’re encouraging your husband to further his education, and I hope he appreciates the gem he’s got in you.

  6. 感觉和中西方关系不大,更多的是教育问题,眼界不一样。作为一个中国人,我同样会遇到类似的问题。不过无视就好,只要不是天天和你在一起的人这样,大可不必太在意。就像你表弟,毕竟你不是和他生活~_~

    • 是的,就是教育的问题。我表弟也不是坏人,我们只是长大的条件不一样,习惯的生活也不一样。他有自己的生活,我们有我们的 嘻嘻

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