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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