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LAST WORD: Playing Nice with the In-Laws
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“Never rely on the glory of the morning, nor the smiles of your mother-in-law”.  This Japanese proverb illustrates a simple truth:  mother-in-laws have maligned men in all corners of the world for a very long time.  Perhaps this is why they’re often targeted by comedians and are frequently the punch-line of jokes.  English comedian Les Dawson once quipped, “I saw six men kicking and punching the mother-in-law. My neighbour said ‘Are you going to help?’ I said ‘No, six should be enough”.  
 
Father-in-laws are hardly immune from attack as well – the hit movie franchise “Meet the Parents” parodies the futile attempts of Ben Stiller’s character to win the favour of his prickly father-in-law, played by Robert DeNiro.  
 
Contrary to what my opening might suggest, the purpose of this column isn’t to criticise my in-laws.  In the two years I’ve known my wife’s parents I can say that they are among the warmest and most sincere people I’ve met.   That said, (you should’ve known there would be strings attached), it definitely took some time for us to find our comfort zone.  After all, some aspects of the relationship between a man and his in-laws are universal – they are able to transcend language and cultural barriers.  
 
To illustrate this point, I’ll offer you an exciting glimpse into my personal life: this past week I bought an entryway coat rack for my apartment; the day after I put it together my mother-in-law happened to stop over our place to cook dinner for my wife and I.  Not a moment after I walked in the door I became the recipient of a ten minute lecture about my free-wheeling spending habits.  Apparently, between the coat rack and other luxury purchases such as the microwave stand for the kitchen and the new mop for the bathroom, it was determined that I was being a little too loose with my money.  
 
Last week’s topic was the apparent poor quality of my winter coat.  The week before my choice of breakfast food was on trial; wheat toast with peanut butter, banana and honey probably seemed very exotic and strange compared with traditional Chinese staples.   
 
Whether it’s the food I eat, the clothes I wear or the way I spend my money, my mother-in-law’s opinion will always be voiced.  And like the Japanese proverb, she’s reluctant to show any type of satisfaction with me.  Once, while I was present she was asked by another family member, “Do you think Christopher is good?”  She glanced at me, gathered her thoughts for a moment and replied, “He’s alright – his work habits are good.”   
 
Not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement - not that I need to be showered in praise by her – she knows that her daughter and I love each other and that I’ll do my best to be a good husband a provider for our family.  These are probably enough to make her happy, but if not, she also probably realises that she’s stuck with me. 
 
The point is that dealing with in-laws is rarely easy – and adding a language barrier and cultural gap into the recipe only complicates things. 
 
As a Case in point, when Jenny and I started dating two years ago, I could barely speak or understand Chinese – now, although I’m far from fluent, I can generally keep up with the conversations.  Up until about a year ago I never knew how much Jenny shielded me - now, I can understand most of what’s being discussed but I have the advantage of being able to play “dumb like a fox” if I want to avoid a particular topic.  There are some subjects (like the tattoo on my left arm) that I know they’ll never be able to compromise on.  
 
Overall, however, I can honestly say that having Chinese in-laws has been a net-positive. I’ve come to feel that most of what may seem like criticism is actually nothing more than tough love. I try to view everything with them through the same lens as I do with my grandparents, who were born in the “Silent Generation” – often characterised as being overly cautious and frugal as a result of having parents that suffered the Great Depression.  
 
My in-laws were born during turbulent times in China – the new Republic had just been formed and the country was still recovering from the ravages of World War II and civil war.  These two concurrent events left the country in shambles; people grew up learning the virtue of hard work and delayed gratification. The mentality of people in today’s world is much different and my in-laws are understandably slow at adapting to the times.   
 
I come from a generation that seems to have everything right at its fingertips, and from a society - the US – in which the people (and government for that matter) often live beyond their means.  Frankly, I can learn a lot from their habits.  alt
 
As I’ve gotten to know them better, I’ve come to appreciate and admire their thriftiness.  Jenny’s father has worked blue collar jobs his entire life and his daily habits demonstrate his unwavering dedication to saving every last bit of money he earns.  He would happily eat bland food and wear old clothes everyday in exchange for the future security of his wife and daughter.  Likewise, although her mother is quick to criticise me if I pay too much for a kilo of bananas, I know her heart is in the right place.  
 
When I first started considering the possibility that I would marry a Chinese girl and have Chinese in-laws, I began thinking about the short and long term impacts it would have.  I’d say the verdict is still out, as it seems to be advantageous at times and an obstacle at others, depending on the situation.  
 
In as much as I’ve had to learn how to successfully co-exist with my Chinese wife, I’ve also had to learn how to interact properly with her parents.   A marriage always requires compromise and understanding of your partners’ views, but the importance of this skill is magnified in a mixed-race family.  I’ve built a good relationship with both of my in-laws and feel that our communication has improved dramatically.  That said, when I know that we’re too far apart to agree on something or when I just don’t feel like “facing the music”, I’ve always got one silver bullet to fall back on: “Ting bu dong”. 

 By Christopher Ribeiro
 
 
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