Guest post: “My Chinese mother-in-law: How to deal with the expectations”

Anna Z from Lost Panda

Today’s guest post is written by Anna Z. She 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 dedicated 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. Enjoy her post!

A mother-in-law, no matter from which country can or cannot be scary. I have read hundreds of funny, interesting, or sometimes sad and scary stories about the mother-in-law all over the internet.

I have married into a Chinese family. I have married their only son, which in China is a very special thing to do and comes attached with strings. We have lived with my Chinese parents-in-law on and off since I first came to visit them a few years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I am very lucky to have these Chinese parents-in-law. Even though they live in a small village, and the mother has never ever left the village, they are both very open-minded about me being a foreigner, a Western woman as it is.

But, they live in a village. They grew up with specific traditional ideas of how a married couple should live their lives. So, once in a while my mother-in-law can’t help it and likes to remember me/us how we should live our lives and what we should do next. After all you don’t want to give the neighbors more material to gossip and make our family loose face, right?

“You have been married for a long time, why is there still no big fat grandson for me to hold?” 你结婚了很长时间,我怎么还不能抱大胖孙子?

Lost Panda 01

This is my favorite one, and lately I hear it frequently, not just from my mother-in-law, but from anyone who meets us on the street or in the supermarket (or just barges into my room…).

I think this is a very common comment for people who are married to a Chinese partner. Asking specifically for a grandson is not just language specific (as there is no 大胖孙女, big fat granddaughter in that saying), but it is embedded in China’s culture. A son will be the head of the household. While daughters marry “out of the family” and become part of their husband’s family, sons remain within the original family structure. Therefore, when the son marries, it is his responsibility to care for his parents, but a daughter’s first responsibility is to her in-laws and not her parents. Another really important aspect for having a son, and why my mother-in-law will ask for a grandson until she succeeds, is the family name. In our case, my Chinese family has a very rare family name, and is the only family with this particular family name in this village. So for them to keep this family name alive it is vital that I have a son. Otherwise, if we only have a daughter, and she has children herself later, those children will traditionally take on the family name of the father (never of the mother), thus our family history would be dead. I understand the importance for them, but it is really out of my hand.

Tip: If your parents-in-law, especially mother-in-law, keep on forcing you to have children, and pressure you in believing that a son is the only right child to have (for all kinds of traditional old-fashioned reasons), stop them/her right there. Try to talk to them. Usually, as good parents-in-law as they are, they will listen. Very early in our relationship, when this topic came up, I sat my mother-in-law down and told her that having children is a very personal choice. No matter how much she want grandchildren, at the end of the day, we will be the parents. And we will know when the time is right. Having a son or a daughter is no up for discussion as it’s really not something that will be decided by us but rather by god (or simple biology). If your mother-in-law is a reasonable person she will listen and accept it. But don’t full yourself, there will still be the occasional question. In our household we got it down to once a month.

“You have to buy a house and a car, or other people will say you are a failure!” 你们必须要买房买车,要不别人看不起你们!

Chinese mother-in-law

Social pressure is the same in China as in other countries. The difference is what is seen as success and what as failure. For us this means that in the eyes of everyone else, we are a failure. And my mother-in-law likes to remind us that it is really time to buy a house and a car in order to make the neighbors shut up. The problem is, I don’t believe in measuring your success with a house, a car, a boat, a horse, or whatever else people see as luxury items. But in China money is very important. We have friends who took out loans in the hundreds of thousands just so they could buy a house and a car. Especially the men have it tough. If they want to marry a girl in this little town (or village) they first have to show her the car license and the house ownership papers. In this aspect my husband is very lucky.

Tip: Many Chinese in-laws might think it is important for a young couple to own a house and a car. And I know of very generous in-laws who actually buy the young married couple all these things. If you are not one of those lucky parents-in-law lottery winners (like me) than you have to make a decision. Do you really want to buy property and are you sure you want to stay in that town for a longer period of time? Then go for it. But if you have doubts, don’t let the pressure get to you. The family, the neighbors, they just talk, but at the end of the day it would be you who has to pay off the loan every month, so make a wise decision. We are still renting and I know of a few people who also rent. There is no shame in it.

“He is too old to study something new!” 他太老了,还学什么呢?

Chinese mother-in-law

Yes, my mother-in-law literally said that to me last year when we talked about my husband. Until last year he was a full time Kung Fu trainer at a school for only foreigners. He likes being a teacher and he will always go back for summer camps, but let’s face it, a Kung Fu trainer doesn’t really earn that much (if at all). So, we decided he should learn something new, something he could use later, maybe even if we go abroad one day.

Under a very professional and renown doctor (we found through guanxi) he studies acupuncture and tuina (Chinese massage) since beginning of last year. He really enjoys it, and as he is very familiar with Chinese herbal medicine and basic traditional medicine to start with, it was very easy for him to learn quickly. His mom, however, wasn’t very happy about our choice. In her eyes he is too old! Yes, he is only 26 this year! But 26 here in the village equals 46! You should have at least two children by now, one house, one new car and a running business. Thinking about studying something new at that age seems like an idea from another planet for my mother-in-law.

Tip: The only way to change traditional old thinking is to talk. Communication was the key here. It took my mother-in-law about two to three months to come to terms with our decision. And she absolutely approved when my husband helped her with the severe neck pain she had for years. I know in some place in her heart she still wishes sometimes we would be like everyone else in the village. But we are not, and sometimes it makes her proud. And that is the key. After telling her exactly what our plan is, and showing her that the choice was made wisely, she understands, and she supports us in every way she can.

“You shouldn’t be playing with the computer all day long!” 不要天天玩电脑啊!

Chinese mother-in-law

Everyone whose work involves a computer might have heard this statement at least once! Especially for the older generation it is hard to understand how you can make money staring into a screen all day long. I remember last year when I stayed at my Chinese in-law’s and had to write my final master’s thesis, my mother-in-law thought I was not normal. I would be staying inside from morning till evening and staring into my laptop screen. Obviously I was reading all the hundreds of articles and books I had previously scanned and copied when I last visited London. Writing a thesis in that format about China, in China, with google and any other important resources being blocked, wasn’t easy to start with. Having an overcaring mother-in-law constantly interrupting to remind you not to play too long with the computer wasn’t really helpful.

Tip: Solving this issue can be really easy. At least when it comes to worrying mother-in-law – the neighbors and other family members are another story. What I simply did last year: I took my mother-in-law by her hand and sat her in front of my computer. I started showing her all the articles and books I had to read, and the thousands of words I had already written. She got very dizzy and from that day on I wasn’t interrupted again. They even brought me lunch to my room saying I shouldn’t waste any minute by going downstairs. Sometimes just telling her doesn’t work. She cannot grasp it. But showing her always works. I still do it in regular intervals. Otherwise she forgets and returns to her old routine of telling me not to play with the computer.

Living in a different country is never easy. Living with your parents-in-law can be very tough. But if you have understanding ones, it is always a good way to first try to talk to them before just getting angry and telling them off as annoying. Mostly they really just mean well, and as in my case don’t know any better. Showing them and explaining to them doesn’t just help our relationship, but it helps them grow and learn more things.

I wouldn’t want to change my Chinese in-laws for the world. They are amazing people and we have learned so much from each other.

How do you deal with your in-laws’ overbearing expectations? I’d love to read your stories.

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!


  1. Hi Anna!

    It sounds like you really are patient and understanding, as R Zhao said above.

    I think we all need to listen and keep an open mind when it comes about our relationship with our Asian partners’ parents. However, I think the real friction and frustration happen when your inlaws feel entitled to dictate how you and your partner live your life, rather than just having different opinions and politely discuss about it.

    Having different views on life is only natural when there is such a wide cultural and generational gap, but trying to impose your opinions and decisions on others is not cool. I hope I don’t come across as judgemental and racist here, but I think as foreign wives/ girlfriends we need to pay attention to overjustifying our in-laws’ pressure all the times. True, they care about us and they think they act in our best interest, but that does not mean we always have to accept their pressure and intrusion as “cultural difference”.

    • I totally agree with you. Different opinions on how we should live our life are normal. No matter the culture. I have similar discussions with my mother in Germany. Of course, the topics are different, but she as well likes to give advice and tell us how we should do things and live our lives. I think this is very natural, especially for people who are close to us. I don’t really think that any of those people, no matter if close family or neighbors are evilly trying to impose their view on us. After all, what can they do? No one can force anyone to do anything. Even if they would hold a gun to our head and say “buy a house now”, we simply couldn’t haha

  2. LOL, oh, getting the “Where’s my big fat grandson?” question down to once a month! That is awesome. Well done. I did not realize that “fat” was part of the phrase, as my in-laws yell this in English. Constantly.

    I love that you showed her the computer. Good work. My Chinese-American guy had already written a thesis on his computer at home in college, so I do not get “playing with the the computer” comments.

    Once Andy had a job, the Chinese parents were adamant about Andy buying a house as soon as possible, so he bought a house and car and had no money until he got a roommate. He still shudders, remembering how he ate hot dogs in the dark to be able to afford the house. It turned out to be an excellent investment, but I think he would have preferred to rent a little longer and save up more money.

    As for the car, well, Andy drives like a maniac. I kind wish there was no car. 😉

  3. robert

    I’m so lucky that my girlfriend has 2 sisters with kids, which get all of the (very likely to be) future in-laws attention already, and that we, in far away Shanghai, are, for the most part, quite forgotten. Since they already have 2 successful (car, house, kid, job taken care of) children, they’re not under so much pressure of giving us a hard time (pfew!).
    But you all have my respect for dealing with nagging neighbors, in-laws and whoever else gives you a hard time. I know I could not deal with all that.

    • yeah my strategy is waiting until my boyfriend’s sisters will get married and have kids first, so the in-laws will be focused on them. In this way, by the time we get married and have kids too the in-laws’ enthusiasm about the whole thing will be faded. I am evil, I know 🙂

  4. the pic is really really cute!
    Deal with mother in law is the most difficult thing in the world. Speak less listen more,buy gifts, keep her happy done!

  5. Anna your husband has good skill,you guys really need save money to start own busniess.Forget buying house 1st. Cos in China house is so expensive. In southafrica.i ve seen people teaching kungfu which is not professional. He has over 200kids in class. He charges about 40dollars around per person for 4lessons. This industry has huge potential. And parents won’t mind those money to spend on kids 培养孩子兴趣。Make plans !do not work for someone else. Work for yourself. This is your life:)

    • Thank you Terry. We were thinking about opening a kungfu school. But in developed countries like Germany it is really difficult to make a living with those school. Kids usually just go to training maybe two or three times a week. Living costs are high, so are renting a place to train those kids, at the end of the month you usually pay extra instead of making money. We have lots of friends who tried to open a Kungfu school in Australia, USA, Canada, UK or Germany, and nine out of ten failed or are barely surviving. That’s why he studies acupuncture now to have more chance and more income.

  6. At least we got one thing done with the big fat grandson (okay not so big and fat ..) so this one thing which is not bothering us anymore if it actually ever bothered us. As we lived always far far away from my Chinese in-laws we had to never go through all this talk. Furthermore my in-laws are very open minded so they accepted me right away (at least I believe so) even though I was still a student without real work!

    I should hire your husband for massage and acupunctre as I really need those fairly often due to all kinds of pains in my back and shoulders

    • haha no problem Timo, I send my husband via kuaidi over to you so he can torture you a bit… I mean give you some tuina massage and acupuncture.

      My in-law are quite open-minded though. After all they accepted me into their family right away. It’s just that they have to deal with pressure from outside as well. As my father-in-law is often outside the village working in another city, he is free of the gossip and daring questions. But my mother-in-law is confronted with those neighbors day in day out, and some of them are her friends… no matter how hard she tries to accept our way of life, she will always full back into the old habits and give in to outside pressure.

  7. Your tips are excellent, Anna. You seem to be able to keep your emotions in check so you can come up with thoughtful solutions. My in-laws always lived far enough away that we didn’t get any pressure from them even though we had three girls and no boys.

    Love your art work!!

  8. Very good tips! Sometimes this kind of comments can really get to your nerves but getting angry is not the best option…Communication is indeed the way to go!

    My MIL doesn’t really pressure us though. I’m thankful for that, haha.

  9. Uh-huh

    Love the illustrations, they speak a million words.
    Your tips are so incredibly simple, but probably true. I guess I’m just sick of being told to be patient and communicate. Communication. If only I could never hear that word again.

    Still, hearing about your success really lifts a weight from my shoulders. Thank you.

  10. Allison

    My Chinese (well she’s from Hong Kong) MIL, just moved into our house and there are all kinds of issues. She tells her son, my man, the problems who then relays them to me, but there is never a dialog about stuff, its just a dictatorship since “she’s the mom”. I would love to have a sit down conversation with all three of us to air out all the problems and try to come to some form of compromise. Any advice?

    • Not really, what’s your husband’s stance on it? Every MIL can be different and I don’t know enough about yours to be able to give you any advice, some wouldn’t mind talking it out in person, I guess, while for others it would be better to have your husband talk to her. If you feel you need to talk about it in person, maybe you should go for it. You could also consider talking with her alone (without your husband) – if you have a common language you can use, that is.

  11. A.

    My Chinese MIL, AKA, the empress, thinks everyone in the world exists to serve her, especially her foreign daughter in laws, even though she immigrated to another country. Her “foreign” daughter in laws are seen as free slave labour (better deal than a Filipino maid) but her own daughter can do whatever, and is under no obligation to help her mother. If I could start my marriage over again after all these years, I would have never, ever tried to please this woman, as there is no pleasing her, so why bother? I would have set the boundaries very, very high and not jumped through the crazy hoops of trying to please someone who just saw it all as a delightful, entertaining game. When she enters my home, no matter how much effort I’ve put into the meal, she picks, picks, picks at the food, feigns food allergies, complains, whines, pulls the food apart, turns up her nose–yet will walk into a restaurant and eat the very same foods. To be honest, there is nothing okay about the abuse Chinese mother in laws inflict on female outsiders to their families across the globe. It’s archaic, and abusive. There’s really nothing in any culture that could, or should, justify their entitlement to be dictators like this–what’s hilarious is my own Chinese MIL did nothing, NOTHING, to help her own mother in law. The nerve to expect of others what you are unwilling to do yourself. Let’s stop pretending that culture excuses the abuse these women inflict on other women across the world. It’s not okay. The oppressed become the oppressors? When will the cycle end?

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