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Make yourself at home, but don't touch anything

Not long ago I got this text from my husband, "My sister called, she's at our house. My dad let her in." I was automatically filled with questions;

Did you know she was coming?
How long is she staying?
Did she bring the kids?
Is everything ok?

His answer, "I didn't know and I don't know." As if that would satisfy my unrest!

Now I like my sister in law, Meimei, she is probably my favorite of the in laws. She makes an effort to speak to me directly even though my Chinese is not good enough to keep up with the group conversation. She is kind and playful. Her 2 children are sweet to me and mostly well behaved. I enjoy her visits but cannot understand why she would show up unannounced when it takes at least 4 hours to travel here! And she is a repeat offender.

The most intrusive occasion was when my daughter was less than a month old and Meimei called from the bus, announcing she and her 2 small children were on the way. I was struggling with post-partum as well as the challenge of figuring out how to take care of this fussy newborn. Honestly, I was just not up for any visitors, especially germy little kid hands around my apartment and tiny baby. I was in tears pressing my husband to tell her not to come. He replied that in China you cannot refuse your family, especially if they are already on the way. The inconvenience of your immediate family is temporary.

I was, of course, furious and panicking in my already fragile state, but after many tears and some distance from the situation I can see my husband's point of view. I don't like it, but I see it. This is one of many cultural issues we face as a WWAM couple. In China your loyalty and sacrifice to your family is absolute and forever. When they say, “my home is your home” they actually mean it! My husband refers to his parent's house in the countryside as "our hometown house". And when we arrive he immediately starts cleaning, moving furniture and actually making himself at home.
On the occasion I referred to earlier of Meimei showing up at our door, I came home from work to find she had started a load of laundry (mine clothes and hers together) and was in the kitchen making us dinner. My husband could not understand my stifled rage at someone, "taking such good care of us."  And in hindsight I will agree that clean clothes and a home cooked meal does seem like a kindness.  Meimei would never have thought of the fact that I would be uncomfortable with someone touching my dirty clothes or that I had something planned for the food in my cabinets; she was trying to be helpful. In this way, privacy and personal space are not expected nor respected in the Chinese culture.

However, the rule does work both ways. Meimei has an investment property in another city and there have been several times my husband and I have stayed in her apartment while she is in her rented apartment. My husband has a key to the house and also keys to the motorcycle both of which we are free to use anytime without asking permission. I often press him to just stay in a hotel because I don't want to feel like we are taking advantage of Meimei.  Maybe if I am being honest, I don’t want to be indebted to her. His compromise is to buy something for the empty house both to make our stay more comfortable and also to help furnish the home for the future. Can you imagine giving someone a spare key to your home? That is truly living up to the saying, “make yourself at home.”

While my writing may seem to suggest I have accepted this cultural difference, the battle and culture clash continue. The phrase “used to” is a tricky one; I am used to unexpected house guests because it is a repeat event but I am not so used to that it no longer bothers me.  I don’t think I will ever be ok with something that has been ingrained in me as an invasion of privacy and lack of respect. I can accept that it is not meant to be rude and is a common practice in Chinese culture but it is still and intrusion for me. Suffering this cultural conflict in silence makes me feel like an outsider in my own home and my own family.

But again I look at my own culture and wonder is it better to take advantage of people hospitality or offer words of hospitality expecting people to know better than to accept your words as sincere?


  1. Loved reading your insight on this!

    1. Thanks Sarah! I sounds so calm in writing but you know I was boiling at the time


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