My Take: the best way to survive the Inlaws

The Chinese In-law Series continues...  this is the 3rd in a planned 4 part installment.   You’ve heard me now over the last couple of years say plenty of things about the in-laws.  By now I’m sure you’ve figured out what it takes to get along with your Chinese In-laws.    

Having a harmonious life with your Chinese in-laws is far more important than getting along with the counterpart Western in-laws.   An unsuccessful relationship with your Chinese “Mom and Pop” will likewise quickly destabilize ones relationship with the wife as well.   While one can get along with one while not necessarily with the other in a Western marriage, it is much more difficult to separate the two in a Chinese marriage.

Are there other ways to get along?  Of course there are.  Am I perhaps exaggerating when I list the issues below?  Maybe.   All the same, let me codify things a bit for you, only slightly tongue in cheek.

The first rule goes back to what is probably my post popular post to date(steps to deciding which Chinese girl to marry).  It is equally relevant here: 

If within your power to decide, DO NOT MARRY AN ONLY CHILD!  Remember, we are not talking about marriage, but the in-laws.   And I’m sure you already know why; marrying an only child guarantees the in-laws will be coming to visit on a “semi-permanent” basis.    And once they get their permanent residency permit, you will need a bigger house.  Not just one guest room, but two.  (And then you have to plan for the kids.)
China makes it so hard to receive permanent residency.  Not the United States.  It’s pretty much automatic.  Just take a picture and pay a fee, have your daughter fill out the paperwork…..than wait.  Simple as that.  

Marrying a lady with multiple siblings really, really lessens the time you will spend with the in-laws.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  You want to see them.  They are part of the family.   But when that “visit” is 360 out of 365 days a year, it’s different.
When the in-laws “move in”, everything in your life changes.  The menu, the private time with your wife, the way you are allowed to raise your kids(or discipline them), leisure activities.  Everything!  (quick case in point: today we are going on a day trip.  However, our destination will be decided by the M&L)

And if your wife, as I’ve alluded to earlier, has a strong relationship with her parents, or believes she must heed their every need, you the husband(former sex partner), are done for.  Kaput.
So marry one with a couple of brothers and sisters.

Which brings me to…

Try and be gone when they do visit

For the past decade(until this year), I’ve averaged 50% of my time in China, per annum.  Being away from the in-laws is a good thing.  Let’s face it:  they are not here to see “YOU” anyway.  They’re not.  They’re here to see their only daughter, and the grandkids.  Your presence isn’t missed.  The only things they will ask or inquire about as regards yourself is “salary and job”.

“How much money does he make?”

Even my parents don’t know but I’ve given permission for my wife to let hers “generally” know.

“How’s his job coming”?, etc….you get the picture.

Contrast this curiosity with other things: 

Even when my dearest relative, my grandmother passed away, and then a few months later my brother was killed, did they not once offer sympathies or even bring it up.   In short, their curiosity as regards my personal life is purely financial.   My in-laws refusal, or cultural inability to express the simplest of condolences really told me all I needed to know about their feelings towards me.   Perhaps the Chinese way of showing sympathy is simply “giving one space”.    Still, I did expect to at least receive condolences.    

Like I said earlier, if the wife is overly submissive to her parents, like mine is, than the Lord of the House(you), will just wind up becoming a guest of your own realm.  So it’s best to just be gone.   Let the kids and the in-laws “bond”.   Meanwhile, make sure you are doing “your thing”, and take a business trip somewhere.

Don’t laugh at their idiosyncrasies

What am I talking about here?

My wife’s parents have a few(we all do):

Ballroom dancing in the garage is one.   Rather, make sure you film it for the grandkids and posterity.

Walking backwards down the street…(your neighborhood), is another.  While popular in China, it’s still quite laughable in the West.   (And draws attention to us.) My mother in law actually fell down and broke her wrist doing this last year.

Every society has its own quirks. I think the funniest of Chinese quirks among the elderly is the propensity for dying their hair black.   …………even with the elderly, the Chinese are obsessed with appearances.   My F&L is 76 years old, and yet I’ve never seen his full head of gray hair.  Same for my M&L.  Naïve waif I was, I did not notice until nearly ten years ago that their jet black hair was….fake.  All this time, they’d been dying it!  (laugh at me, I deserve it….but why I assumed their hair was “naturally” black well into their 60’s is beyond me)

They even sent me on a “hair dye” shopping trip in Hong Kong once.  All I recall is that it was some type of hair dye “#51”.   Still I don’t know why they just couldn’t go down to the local CVS.

Still when you are done laughing don’t forget to tell them they look nice.

It’s really all about the social class

If you are marrying a peasant, the above may not apply.  But if you are marrying into either money or prestige, than guess what….it will.

Social class, while a topic in every country, is much more a sensitive label in Asia.  It comes hand in hand with FACE.  The main difference is perspective.  The West will say things like “we know he’s not wealthy but he has a good head on his shoulders and has a good job and the two of you will do fine”.   

The focus is on the longterm.    Not with the Chinese, and not with the in-laws.  The focus is on NOW.  We don’t want to hear how things will be in ten years….or twenty.  Or five.  Fuck the Future.  Face means nothing unless you obtain it instantly in China.  We want our daughter to marry into a good setup…NOW!

Compatibility doth not matter.  It taketh a backseat.  Love?  That fades.  But Benjamin Franklin….that’s something that can be seen and felt.  Mr. Franklin has symbolic value.
This is probably why the divorce rate in China is so high now.  The focus is so much more on FACE, than on the above.  The family needs to look good.  The in-laws just don’t have the patience to see how things will wind up in fifteen years.   And with so much wealth in China, marrying a foreigner simply doesn’t have the cachet it used to have.   And that’s a good thing.  All the more heartbreak that is saved.    So if you want to really get along with in-laws, than marry down a rung or two in the social class.  You will need the buffer, trust me.  (this feels so perverse to write.   It is simply anathema to how much of the West thinks.)

And if you should have a career setback, than all I can say is look out.   The odds are your in-laws never had to apply for a job, or write a resume.  They’ve never had a performance review much less a job interview.  They will have no inkling of the career pressures one has in the West.  None.  Nor do they care.   From personal experience I can say it’s all about today, not yesterday, or tomorrow.

Real estate

Probably the best, simplest thing one can do to get on the best side of the in-laws is buy their daughter an apartment in China.  In her name.  Now, this takes on more emphasis in China, than ever, thanks to the New Marriage Law.  Basically, nowadays, the Chinese Govt has responded to the rampant materialism in life today in China, by decreeing that the apartment belongs to whoever “bought it”.  It ignores the complexities of life.  Maybe the husband put down the down payment, for instance, but the wife makes the payments.  (As an example) 
Unlike in the West, it seems the concept of “community property” simply does not apply in China anymore. 

Now, as I’ve written before, I’ve strongly urged the laowai NOT to buy an apartment in China, but rather to wait until returning to the Home Country before doing so.   Buying an apartment in China is quite frankly economic suicide for any prospective groom.    There is always the temptation, in the beginning of a marriage, to just “give in” and for the sake of convenience, just “buy” an apartment in your wife’s name.  Even if you make the payments though, it’s hers.  But that is the way China thinks. 

The in-laws want economic security for their daughter. The key to that in overcrowded China is real estate.  It’s not college.  It’s not working hard for that next promotion.  It’s not starting one’s own business.  It’s pure and simple real estate.  And if you want to get on your in-laws good side right away, than this is the way to go. 

The language barrier

Let’s be clear.  The in-laws really have no interest in communicating with you.  They don’t want to meet your family.  My in-laws have met my parents once in twenty years.  Just once.  They have little or no curiosity as to how my family lives.  (However, if you are from a rich Western family, it will be the opposite.  As I’m not, they don’t. )

Their primary interest is getting their daughter married off to a fellow and securing her economic future.  That’s pretty much it.   Don’t feel guilty if you can’t speak Mandarin.  (You probably do not.)    If you do, you may feel “special”, or “proud” of your ability to communicate.  Whatever.  The feeling will pass.  Yes, I do admit I write from colored glasses.  And I paint with an unobjective wide brush.  But I’ve seen even Chinese struggle with the problem of the in-laws.  We have one Chinese neighbor who so could not stand his in-laws that he put them up in an apartment, rather than have to deal with them in his own house. 

I’m sure there are plenty of in-laws that one would get along with.   In the beginning, speaking Mandarin helps, but in the long run, it’s more of a hindrance really.   Once you’ve failed to meet their expectations, they will simply stop speaking to you, and start the old trick of speaking “in front of you”. 

It’s worse for me, as I’m from the South, and we have these chivalrous notions of respect.  It’s not in my DNA to tell my in-laws thus to just fuck off.
So if you do not speak Mandarin, I believe your odds of getting along may actually improve, as counterintuitive as that sounds.

Don’t let your wife work

Nevermind while in China nearly every lady has a job.  In the eyes of the mother in law, any job her daughter has takes away from raising the kids, and quite frankly, from hanging out with her.  When the in-laws are in town, they need a driver, you see.  Someone to take them shopping, or to maybe even visit friends.  Nevermind my wife has an MBA.

The wife not working is a great sign of Face to the in-laws.  It’s a sign of how well the husband is doing.  The worst possible scenario could be if the son in law is jobless while the daughter works.  I readily admit I’d rather have my wife home taking care of the kids.  Trust me it’s a full time job.  But I recently got my wife an easy job with fair pay, and a short commute.  It’s her first job in nearly six years.  But in the eyes of the mother in law, I may as well have sent my wife off to the Gulag.   She often exclaims out loud her daughter is 苦死了.   I can only roll my eyes. 
Many a Chinese lady today is looking for a laowai that will marry them and take them to San Francisco.  These ladies have done their homework.  And it also shows they do not wish to assimilate.    Yet most of America requires a car.   And without a driver(the daughter), the in-laws feel helpless.   They’d rather she stay home than take advantage of that graduate degree.  

In the end…Just ignore them

I’ve heard people say one needs to “dominate” the in-laws.  Lay the law down.  I’ve tried that, as far as my DNA would take me.   “Laying down the law” is a lot easier with the wife than with people you’ve been brought up to treat on a pedestal.   Again, it’s especially bad form in the South to speak in a disrespectful way to one’s “elders”.    But walking away always works.  And that’s what I do.

Want to get along with the “know it all” M&L?  Or at least avoid a shouting match in front of your kids?  Walk away.  Reasoning will not help.   Once you see how ridiculous the whole thing is, and if you think you can “wait it out” until they leave, by all means do so. 

You will realize you cannot win.  You cannot reason with people used to a certain status.  And that their complete ignorance of non Chinese cultures will serve more as a brick wall to enlightenment than an opportunity to harmoniously co-exist.   So “Man-up” and just walk away.   

So there you have it. 

My take on the best ways to get along with the inlaws.


  1. is this blog meant as satire or is there really someone this stupid? I can't figure it out....


  2. Read the other 140 posts Grasshopper and get back to me in 6 months.

  3. While I agree that some of things apply even more to Chinese, it is generally good advice to not marry an only child. Much more likely to be spoiled rotten. Also, women the world over marry at or above their class. Men tend to focus on the physical attributes more.


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