The power of a hug

The power of a hug

You might have heard people saying things like “Chinese parents don’t know how to show affection towards their children” and some people even conclude because of this they simply don’t love their children enough.

Yes, parenting in China is very different to parenting in the West. But just because a culture is different from your own, you shouldn’t make unreasonable conclusions.

My parents-in-law are amazing people, warmhearted and very caring. However, all those years I have had the chance to observe their interaction with their children, they have never ever said ‘I love you’ or hugged their son, after he had left for over a year.

I asked Jin, if it was different when he was younger. It wasn’t. Even when he was going to school in another province, and came back maybe once a year to spend the Spring Festival at home, they would greet him with a simple ‘Have you eaten?’.

For someone who has grown up kissing my mother goodnight every single night, and hugging her tightly every time I leave for China or come back to visit, this display of seemingly affectionless behavior has shocked me in the beginning.

But over the years I have learned one thing: The nuance of parental love is often better expressed through action in China. It is similar to the use of ‘thank you’ I have written about a while ago.


My father-in-law has a very pragmatic and sometimes even straight forward, way of showing how much he cares about his children (and now even me). Every single phone call,  or every time we visit he would ask us if we have enough money. And even if we strongly emphasize we are all fine, he would get out his dirty sock from under the bed, take out a bunch of Renminbi notes and try to force them down my husband’s pockets.

My mother-in-law, however, is very subtle. She is the over concerned Chinese mother, constantly reminding us to wear warm clothes, drink more hot water, sleep enough and eat enough. Most conversations with her end up being a detailed description of what we had for dinner, just to calm her worries that we are indeed fed well. And if Jin comes back after a year away from home, the welcoming ‘Did you eat?’ is always followed with a feast of Jin’s favorite dishes.

Over the years I have become incredibly proficient at reading their cryptic emotional signs, but sometimes I am still thinking (or missing) the warm direct affection my mother gave me when I grew up (and still does now).

One day I decided to challenge those unspoken rules of old traditions, customs and different culture. After all, I am not Chinese, and being in a cross-cultural relationship should not just give husband and wife the possibility to learn new things from each other. My parents-in-law have the same right. As much as I have learned from them, I would like to give back. I have become good in using the subtle way to show how much I care about them, or engage in a fight over the bill at a restaurant when they visit our city, or endure my mother-in-laws screams when we have allegedly spent too much money on them… however,  once in a while I just feel like hugging them.

Though, there is an invisible line. It might be accepted to hug your mother-in-law, but I would never dare to hug my father-in-law. He is like the Eiffel tower, strong and fierce, standing there. But my mother-in-law, in all her frailty, just screams for some more affection.

Last year, after spending the whole winter and summer with them, when I was about to leave China for a while to go to London, I decided to break the rules. While everyone was saying the usual ‘take good care of your health’, ’eat well’, ‘sleep well’ and so forth I just grabbed my mother-in-law and gave her a big hug, telling her it was her who should take good care when I am not there.

She started crying. And I am sure I saw some glistering in my father-in-laws eyes (though he pretended something flew into his eyes).

I know Jin’s parents show their love through immense generosity, unwavering support, and a lot of food, but I think a hug, at the right time, can be even more powerful.

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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.

11 thoughts on “The power of a hug

  1. don’t get me wrong but I feel good that not only my husband’s family seems weird – they never told him ‘I love you’, hug him too much, he didn’t say he loves them too. recently when he called he said ‘thank you for everything’ and his mother just cried. for me it’s so weird: at the airport my parents had to push Sing to hug his mom goodbye but when I was leaving my country my parents couldn’t stop crying and saying how much they love me.
    and it’s the same ‘eat better, eat more. do you have enough money?’ as the ultimate care-question haha.

    btw. you didn’t only bring the tears to their eyes, honestly my eyes were like glass reading it :3 love this post :)

  2. My parents in law are similar however already after the first time there I hugged my mother-in-law when we left. I would surely not do that to my dad in law though :p
    My wife also hugs my parents everytime we arrive or leave them.
    Everytime we leave China both of my parents-in-law get sad, MIL openly crying and father-in-law hiding it, pretending something got into his eyes :)

    • Ha that’s interesting. It seems Chinese parents really all behave very similar. And yes as I said, I would never hug my father-in-law haha I think that would be very very awkward.

  3. I was shocked when my Japanese boyfriend said the same…that they never say I love you to each other. It made me so sad for both of them, but I realize they say it in the ways you mention; food and money.

    I’m glad you found the courage to break through the traditions and give her a hug, that’s lovely.

    Unfortunately in my case I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that close with my boyfriend’s mother. She goes in stages, from buying me food and clothes, to telling my boyfriend that I’m a good ‘friend’ but has he found a girlfriend yet?

    • I think saying ‘I love you’ is very usual at least in China. But it is also a bit because of the langage. Saying it in English seems normal, ‘I love you; is ok for your husband or friends or family. But if you take, for example, the Chinese version ‘wo ai ni’, it is just reserved for couples. It’s a strong affection, not suitable for parents-children relation. Don’t know how it is in Japanese.

      It looks like your mother-in-law has not fully accepted you yet. I hope she does one day. Sometimes it just takes longer.

      • It’s similar in Japan – they usually say 大好き (daisuki), which you can probably recognize as ‘big like,’ even for couples. They never really say 愛してる (aishiteru), I love you, except for songs, it seems.

        Maybe some day she will, but we’re not married yet (which she’s probably thankful for, hah!), nor will we be anytime soon. She seems pretty prejudiced though, so I don’t know if she ever will, fully.

  4. Such a touching post! I love that picture of the four of you. Your in-laws look strong and friendly.

    Once, when I was starting to learn Mandarin, I asked my husband how to simply say “hi.” (I thought ni hao was too much like “How are you?”) Of course, as he told me, the simple way to say “hi” is to ask, “Have you eaten?”

  5. This is such a sweet story! While I’ve never hugged my in-laws before, I’ve thought about it. I did hug my husband’s grandmother when we returned though. She had been sick last year and even this year has been in and out of the hospital. So I hugged her because I was grateful she was still healthy and with us. Hugs are powerful indeed.

  6. We have also crossed that line a couple of years ago.
    When T’s baby nephew was in hospital, he had to undergo two different surgeries in his intestines, he was only a couple of months old. We went to visit them, went to hospital, and during the whole time I could see how my sister in law had her eyes full of tears but was holding back.
    We took her out for shopping baby items in the store next to the hospital and after we gave her the bag with everything she needed I hugged her. She then started crying and saying how much she worried about her baby boy and how she cant stop thinking about it. Then my husband hugged her again and gave her some money, she didnt ask for it but we knew she needed money. Two surgeries are expensive.
    With my mother in law it was more or less the same. She recently lost her sister, she passed away and she didn’t want to talk anything, just silent. When we were leaving my husband and I hugged her both at the same time, team work, and she couldn’t stop saying how crazy we were at the same time she cried. She was very emotional.

  7. I deeply agree with the author’s writing that “Jin’s parents show their love through immense generosity, unwavering loyalty, and a lot of food”. Being a native Chinese we do express ourselves differently to the western people. There’s a saying in China goes “Action speaks louder than words”. This could be part of the reason that parents in China (especially the old generations) don’t express their affection like the western culture but they do show their care through life-time support to their children with the best they can. Every family would have a different situation though, but a loving family would always behave pretty similar I reckon.

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