Meeting your partner’s parents is a nerve-racking experience at the best of times. But when you’re dating someone from a different cultural background, it can feel like navigating an invisible minefield. Overtures you may not think much of can make or break this first interaction -- if you’re not careful you can put your potential in-laws offside before you’ve even shaken hands.
Family is very important in Asian cultures, and staying at home until you’re married is the norm. What a parent thinks of a child’s romantic partner can hold significant weight. It can make your relationship much easier – or much, much more difficult.
Here is a guide for how not to make your Asian partner’s parents hate you.
Do Not Call Your Partner’s Parents By Their First Names
Do not do it, friend. Stop. You think you’re being friendly and demonstrating maturity. You are not.
At the very least, you should address your partner’s parents by Mr and Mrs. You might even call them Auntie and Uncle, which will probably earn you points since it indicates you’re putting in effort. In Asian communities, elders are often addressed as Auntie or Uncle as this indicates respect.
“But I don’t respect anyone unless they earn it,” you may say, hands shoved deep in the pockets of your baggy jeans and stained Public Enemy T-shirt hanging off your shoulders.
Respect in Asian cultures is different to respect in European cultures, and you best learn that quickly if you want your relationship to go smoothly. Respect is not earned – it is freely given, an expression of common courtesy. To not show respect is an active insult. It’s basically saying that you don’t care.
Their preference for being called by a title is not because they’re distancing themselves from you, or do not want to get to know you, or disapprove of you. They simply want to be shown respect, for them and their position as your partner’s parents.
Insist on calling your partner’s parents by their first names, and they’ll likely find you disrespectful and overly familiar. Not someone with values they want their child associating with.
Do not wear baggy jeans and a stained Public Enemy T-shirt. Keep hemlines below the knee, necklines above the cleavage, and iron your shirt. Cover any tattoos you have, and tone it down with the make up -- go for a natural look. Imagine you’re attending church and don’t want to make baby Jesus cry.
Depending upon the family, it may be a big enough adjustment that their child is dating someone outside their community. They don’t need you rocking up looking like a drug dealer in an ‘80s after school special.
Take Off Your Shoes
This one should be obvious to anyone who has ever visited an Asian friend’s house, but I constantly see people traipse into Asian homes without removing their footwear.
“But if they want me to take my shoes off, they’d say so,” you might object as you track dirt across the freshly-vacuumed floor (and they definitely vacuumed in preparation for your arrival).
No, they would not say so. You are a guest, and they are trying to be accommodating hosts, and understanding of cultural differences. While planning dinner they probably sat down to figure out how much chilli your weak arse palate can handle. They aren’t going to tell you to go back to the entrance way and take off your shoes.
But they will notice. And they will be quietly unhappy.
To avoid this, it’s easy enough to stop in the doorway and ask, “Would you like me to take off my shoes?” It shows some cultural sensitivity, and relieves them of the burden of figuring out how to broach the subject. If they say you can leave them on, ask again to be sure. Say it’s no problem, you don’t want to dirty their floor. Observe whether there's a collection of removed shoes by the door, and have a look at what footwear everyone else is or isn’t wearing to give you an indication of what to do.
And for goodness sake, if there is some extraordinary extenuating circumstance and you are permitted to keep your shoes on, keep them off the furniture. (I can’t believe I have to say this.)
Do Not Come Empty Handed
When I was a child, I always brought a gift when visiting a friend’s home. A bag of chips, usually. It took me a few years to realise that my non-Asian friends weren’t doing the same, at which point I stopped so I’d better fit in.
Gift-giving when visiting a friend’s home isn’t as much of a tradition in non-Asian households as it is amongst Asians. But when visiting an Asian household, especially for the first time, you’ll earn favour if you come bearing gifts.
My best advice is to bring food. Food is an important cultural touchstone for Asian cultures. A dessert to share is ideal – a cake, or some biscuits. It doesn’t have to be too fancy. You could even just swing by Baker’s Delight or the bakery section at Woolies. It shows that you care about family. You want to contribute, be included, and share good things with them.
Don't swear. Introduce yourself when you arrive and go out of your way to say goodbye to them when you leave. Thank them for having you. Do not swear. (I had thought this one was obvious as well, but I have been reliably informed that it is not and am suitably horrified.)
Roza*, an Asian woman married to a white man, further recommends that you "learn a few words in [your partner's] parents' mother tongue to impress them". Consult with your partner on this one -- don't just warble out a lazy "ni hao" like a racist street harasser (particularly if your partner isn't even Chinese). It's about demonstrating respect and making an effort, showing that you want to honour and respect their culture, and thus them.
Compliment The Food
The way to an Asian mother’s heart is through rapturous enjoyment of her cooking. Polish off your plate, and request seconds. Ask what it is you’re eating, and try everything they offer you (unless you have dietary restrictions, of course). If the family is adding bean sprouts or chilli to their bowls, go ahead and add it as well. You can never go overboard when showing your appreciation for the food.
Astrid* has introduced a couple of non-Asian partners to her Asian father. She advises that once you can't eat any more, you should leave a morsel of food on your plate, "or they will assume you're hungry".
"I remember my Irish ex didn't know to leave a morsel of food on the shared plates; I think in his culture it's rude to leave it so he kept eating it out of respect," said Astrid. "My dad kept ordering more dishes to be a good host (it was Chinese New Year), and my ex ended up actually being sick."
If they still continue to offer you food, former Lifehacker AU journalist Spandas Lui offers some tips:
Refusing food is the unforgivable sin when dining with Asian families. I’ve seen Asian grandmas/mothers weep when someone declined their offer of food at the dinner table.
As a non-Asian partner, if you want to avoid offending the extended family during mealtime when you’re already busting at the seams, you have two options:
- Accept your fate, eat up, and start buying clothes a size up
- Learn how to say “I’m full” in the family’s native tongue
The latter is based on personal experience. I brought my white boyfriend to meet the family last year. My grandma is notorious for cooking way too much food and for getting extremely upset when there’s still food left on the table. I had taught my boyfriend how to say “I’m full” in Cantonese and he sagaciously used it as my grandma was about to spoon his fifth serving of stew into his bowl.
My grandma and the whole family were so impressed/amused that they let him off the hook. He still uses the same tactic at our family dinners and it still works like a charm.
Offer To Help
Whether it’s laying the table, slicing vegetables, carrying more chairs into the dining room, or cleaning up afterwards, offer to do something for them. They will likely turn you down, but the fact that you offered will make them look upon you kindly. It demonstrates that you’re considerate, willing to pitch in and contribute, and humble to boot. You aren’t expecting anyone to gush over you or do extra work to accommodate you (even though they absolutely will). You want to help the family.
In a similar vein, Astrid recommends that you "always pour someone else's tea or drink before filling up your own cup". Serving others before yourself will serve you well.
Keep Your Hands To Yourself
How much physical contact do you think is appropriate in front of your paramour’s parentals? Okay, now halve it. And halve it again.
Holding hands is the most physical contact you should have with your partner, and even that is pushing it. No arm around their shoulder, and Heaven help you should you kiss. Asian parents as a group have a reputation for stoicism. Love is shown in their actions, rather than in public (or even private) displays of affection. Watching you kiss on your partner lets them know you have no regard for decorum or discretion, and just want to get your mack on.
Instead, if you want to show your affection, fetch your partner a drink. Get them their jacket if they’re cold. Offer them a bite of your cake. Your partner’s parents will be watching for whether you’re considerate of your partner and their comfort.
Get To Know The Whole Family
Though the emphasis is on your partner’s parents, you may also be introduced to siblings, grandparents, nieces and nephews. Do not ignore them. The whole family is important. If you simply try to make nice with the parents and disregard other familial relationships, they will see through your act like a crack team of FBI agents faced with a two-bit criminal.
How you interact with the family demonstrates how you might fit in with the family. Because that’s what they’re looking for – someone who will join the family. Not someone who will whisk away a beloved family member, only to be seen on New Year’s. And chances are your partner won’t want that either.
Talk To Your Partner
These guidelines will give you a good starting point, and a good reference for discussion with your partner. But you should always talk to them about what to expect. Every family is different, and the person best suited to preparing you to meet the family is a member of the family. Your partner is probably just as nervous as you are, and they want their parents to love you.
So do yourselves a favour, and set aside some time to prepare. When you’re face to face with a quietly unforgiving Asian dad, you’ll be glad you did.
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.