How I Built a Relationship with My Chinese Mother-in-Law
Today’s guest post was written by Jocelyn Eikenburg from Speaking of China. She’s an experienced blogger and writer and has written pieces for the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. When I traveled Hangzhou during Chinese New Year 2015, she and her husband even found time to meet up with me and have dinner together. She’s a wonderful person and truly an inspiration for my writing. In this guest post, she is sharing her secrets on how she has built a good relationship with her Chinese mother-in-law.
“If you’ve read my blog over the years, you know I love to gush about my mother-in-law here in China. I’ve written about everything from how she made a ring for me, simply because I complimented hers, to learning her special recipe for tangyuan. It’s easy to think we were always this close.
But you’d be wrong.
See, it wasn’t always a given that my mother-in-law and I would have a good relationship. In fact, from the beginning I wasn’t even sure the family would even accept me.
Months before I first visited John’s family home, he did the “big reveal” to his parents – that he was dating a foreigner! That led to an infamous quote from John’s father – that while it was OK for John to be friends with a foreign girl, he should not date foreign girls.
Even though the news sent me into a panic attack, John was all cool about it. He felt certain his parents would eventually have a change of heart.
Well, they did welcome me into their home for Chinese New Year in 2003. But I have to tell you, it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever had while dating anyone. It’s one thing to meet your potential future in-laws for the first time and another to stay in their house (a house that, incidentally, is totally different from everything you grew up with in your country) with the understanding that they didn’t really want you to date their son. Talk about pressure!
Most of all, I worried about John’s mother. She seemed so formal, so distant on the few occasions we interacted. It was all business with her – here’s your room, here are your comforters, these are the vegan dishes for you, sit here at the table. Everything could be answered with a simple yes, no, okay or thank you.
It was as if the thousands of miles, oceans and continents were lodged between us and nothing could possibly bridge that cultural distance. How could I ever have a good relationship with this woman, a woman who had only one year of schooling and lived her entire life in the Chinese countryside?
Well, it turns out we did have one thing in common.
My mother-in-law is a consummate home cook who has dished up some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted in China. And I’m a cooking aficionado who loves nothing more than to learn other people’s recipes for great food. What better way to forge a better relationship with her than through the kitchen?
I think it all started sometime in May 2005 when my husband encouraged me to tag along with my mother-in-law on a hike up the mountain at the heart of the village. She was going to forage for wild bamboo and fiddlehead ferns. So I trailed her up the mountain and helped her pick these edible plants that later became delicious dishes that evening. There’s something so magical about picking something in the wild and later watching it transform into a wonderful dinner. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in the US, I never had the opportunity to do this. And even better, my mother-in-law showed me everything – from how to identify the plants to how to prepare them in the kitchen.
It was so cool, and the start of a beautiful thing.
Over the years, as we’ve communed over great food, I’ve learned a lot of wonderful recipes from her (such as this delicious one for vegan Chinese-style flatbread) and also become very close to her. Whenever I’m at home, I always ask her about how to make the dishes she’s served up for dinner and endlessly praise her cooking. It never fails to make her smile.
Somehow, bonding over food has really brought us together – enough for me to feel incredibly loved by her over the years, as I’ve written in the post I Bought It for Love (or How My New Jacket Made My Mother-In-Law Smile):
It’s hard not to care about the happiness of my mother-in-law when, frankly, she spends so much of her time caring about ours. She always loads the lazy susan up with vegan dishes just for me (really delicious ones, mind you). She’s been known to get up early on weekends to make steamed bread from scratch for us, or stay up late on a Saturday to fry up flatbread that we can bring to Hangzhou to have for lunches. She has done my laundry more times than I’d like to admit, and often hangs my clothing out to sun. She doesn’t really criticize us that much. And let’s not forget how she bought us all of these necessities when we first moved to Hangzhou, things she totally didn’t need to buy.
She’s my favorite person in the family here in China, apart from my husband. I never guessed I’d say that about my mother-in-law. It’s amazing how love can transcend cultures and continents, bringing the most unlikely people together as family.
Thank you, mother-in-law.”
She has also been featured on the BBC and CCTV. Also check out the anthologies How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? and Unsavory Elements, and other publications. Jocelyn is fluent in Chinese and working on a memoir.