Apr 1, 2010  •  In Asian, Personal, Relationships

Cultural Expectations of Family

As mentioned in my last post, my in-laws (J’s parents) will be visiting for 1.5 months starting this weekend.

J’s parents live in Hong Kong, so we only get to see them a handful of times a year. However, each visit lasts at least a couple of weeks — the longest of which was 5 months, starting two months before our wedding in 2008.

That’s right. My in-laws stayed with us for 3 months directly after our wedding.

I won’t lie and tell you that it was a piece of cake. I was stressed from wedding planning, moving to a new place, leaving my own family and adjusting to a new life. I refused to have sex with J with his parents in the house because who wants to think about their in-laws in the next room while getting intimate? More than once, I took overnight trips to my parents’ and by the end, I was so overwhelmed that I suffered from a (very) minor stroke. (Read more about it here, here, and here.)

An exaggerated representation of myself with bells palsy.

Now, J’s parents aren’t bad people. They’re nice, we get along fairly well, and J constantly tells me that they love having me as a daughter-in-law. They try their best not to interfere while visiting, and they respect our privacy. They definitely do not make my life a living hell, as some nightmare in-law stories I’ve heard.

However, whenever I have guests over, I get stressed. I don’t feel free to do my own thing, to have my own schedule, to cook/eat what I want, to leave the house messy, etc.

This holds true for all guests. I’m sure if my own parents were stay over, I would feel the exact way.

And as a woman — the person in charge of all things domestic — I become upset when anyone rearranges things around the house (especially the kitchen), as all mothers are prone to do.

So, filled with raging pregnancy hormones, I started crying when I first learned of my in-laws’ latest travel plans.

J’s parents had planned, and booked a long stay in order to help with the pregnancy. My mother-in-law wants to help cook, clean, etc so I can take it easy. But this pregnancy must have turned me into a big fat brat, because all I could think was, “Why couldn’t they consult with us — the ones with whom they’re staying — before booking their plane tickets??!!!”

You don’t have to tell me — I know I’m a horrible daughter-in-law.

I’m sure some of you are wondering by this point how J’s parents can just invite themselves over for months at a time, or why they can’t just stay at a hotel.

This is where the cultural factor comes in.

In Asia, getting married does not constitute a man and a woman breaking off from their old families to form a new family. Getting married means extending the existing family.

A typical extended family like this would usually live under one roof.

I’m not entirely certain about Hong Kong, but in traditional Korea a newlywed couple may get a place of their own for the first year or two, but will likely move back in with the parents (usually the men’s) or “take in” the parents so that the new couple can take care of the elderly parents as they grow older.

The pressure is especially great for the eldest son — who is J in this case — to take in his parents and treat them with the utmost respect.

It is for this reason that retirement homes are so scarce in Asian countries. Sending your elderly parents to a retirement home is considered the ultimate slap in the face.

So asking your visiting Asian parents to stay at a hotel, even if you offer to pay for it, would be a great insult as well.

Do you feel comfortable asking visiting parents
to stay at hotels? Why or why not?

Although my own parents do not speak English well and still hold on dearly to many traditional Korean values, they have become quite Americanized in their ways when it comes to this topic.

(Perhaps having two daughters and no sons has shaped their way of thinking? Have my parents slowly “let go” of us — knowing that traditionally, the man’s family takes precedence over the woman’s — over the years?)

They fully acknowledge that J and I became a separate family unit when we got married. They hate to intrude on our lives, and my father has repeated told me that he would like to go to a retirement community (just as long as he has access to a golf course!) when he becomes old and frail.

I have no doubts that my parents love us, and they still hound us to come visit or to meet for dinner if weeks have passed without seeing each other. However, they know that we grew up in a different generation that places importance on independence and privacy.

In fact, my parents do not like visiting us in our home, because they believe that a newlywed home (they still consider us newlyweds although we’ve been married for almost two years) is sacred and should be made by that couple without interference from others.

Obviously, J’s parents are a lot more traditional Asian than my own when dealing with extended family roles. I know that when they grow older, they will most likely move to the U.S. and that we will probably live with them, as J is the oldest son.

Do I have a problem with this? Sure, it nags me from time to time. But I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that I grew up with parents who are so different from J’s. I’ve accepted that this is my “role” as a daughter-in-law to a traditional Asian family, and I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea every day.

What are your parents’ beliefs on extended family roles?
Do you think culture plays a factor in this regard?

I’m sure that J’s parents would be coming for a long stay (I’m thinking months) right before the baby is born too. Except when they visit that time around, they will not be able to stay with us because the second bedroom will become the nursery (and there isn’t enough room for a crib and a bed). As such, J’s parents will most likely stay with J’s brother and his wife then…and I’m already feeling a bit bad about imposing on them because of my baby!

13 Responses to “Cultural Expectations of Family”

  1. I remember reading those posts back in 2008 – I had never actually heard of Bells Palsy before and I was really surprised. The weird things your body can do to you!

    Re: Your questions:

    1) I would not feel weird about asking a parent to stay in a hotel. Our apartment is very small so there is nowhere to put anyone. Although we have had people invite themselves to stay with us, it has never been for very long since it becomes evident it is a bad idea (we have no guest room so they have to sleep in our living room and my husband’s mini office is in there). I see asking someone to stay somewhere else as more of a practical solution – it’s better for the sanity and comfort of everyone involved.

    2) While we love our families, we value our space and our parents seem to get it. My family is close, but they give us our space and my husband’s family is friendly but it’s understood we have our own separate lives (plus they don’t really like where we live so they don’t want to visit too often). To go off of what you said about multigenerational living, I spent part of my childhood that way as my uncle lived with us temporarily during a divorce and my grandmother lived with us permanently. Sadly, this situation caused more grief than goodness in our family and my mother and grandmother were in a fight when she (my grandmother) passed away. Therefore, my mother has made me promise to never take her in as she grows old so we can continue to have a healthier relationship and I agreed wholeheartedly. Back when we lived together, we had a very temptuous relationship so space is definitely required. Ultimately, I think it has a lot to do with how you grew up – if you expect to live with parents, then you would probably be more okay with the idea.

  2. Kristin:

    Both the hubs and I are Chinese but his parents are much more traditional. My parents are like yours, expect us to visit and such but there is no expectation that they will live with us. My in-laws however, fully expect their 3 sons to take care of them when they are old. They do not like their eldest son’s wife (she made them stay in a hotel when the in-laws last visited) so it seems to have fallen on my husband (the 2nd son) to take care of them. Unfortunately, his mother is passive aggressive and will smile the whole time she is undermining my marriage to her son. I am not looking forward to the day they decide it’s time to move in with us.

    I really do think how one feels about the in-laws moving in/staying during visits, etc. does depend a lot on what you’re used to, what your family did. My husband finds nothing wrong with his parents inviting themselves to stay with us for a month without asking us first. They basically call and tell us the dates they’ll be in town and fully expect us to drop everything and take them around town and entertain them. They just did this last night. They’ll be coming this Aug. for a whole month… When I told Hubs I wish they would’ve asked first, he just looked at me blankly and said, "Why? They’re my parents." *sigh* My parents would never dream of doing that.

  3. My husband and I both expect to take in our parents when they get older: he because he’s a geriatrician and is horrified by the conditions of most nursing homes, and I because I’m Chinese and Jewish and that’s what Chewish kids do. We actually wrote it into our ketubah (marriage contract) that we’d "commit to caring for, and opening our homes to, our parents and grandparents in their old age."

    That being said, I’m hopeful that by the time our parents move in, we’ll be making enough money to put in an addition to the house so that they can each have an in-law suite. I definitely like my own space, and I’m pretty anal about the way I keep my kitchen as well. Thank goodness my mom is the most low-maintenance guest imaginable: she brings her own slippers, cleaning supplies (I kid you not), and Chinese soap operas on video and is happy to do her own thing.

    Somehow their eventually moving in is different from having them as a houseGUEST for 1.5 months. I don’t think I’d like that very much, so I totally empathize with your feelings. Hang in there!!!

  4. Jan:

    Well the situation is somewhat similar in India. The idea of parents living with their sons is very common, but nowadays it is becoming less common. But nlaws (or parents) would never invite themselves over – it has to be initiated by us. But we could never put anyone is a hotel though! Hang in there! You are not a bad daughter-in-law. I think asking if you need help and then booking tickets is what should have been done!

  5. Mary:

    Luckily, I’m smack in the middle in my family and I’m female so I don’t have the responsibility to take care of my parents. That falls on my brothers but if my parents ever wanted to live with me, I’ll be okay with it.

    On the other hand, my husband’s family is totally dysfunctional. We rarely visit his dad and step mom since his dad is very egotistical Chinese (very americanized) male and has never lend a helping hand when my husband needed him. My mother-in-law, I’ve never met since my husband has never forgave her for leaving him behind with his maternal grandfather. His maternal grandpa is hard headed and has pretty much alienate all his four daughters. My husband’s maternal aunt is currently living with us and has been for the last year. She’s 44 and unemployed. We’ve been supporting her since then but we don’t give her cash. I tell the husband that it had better not be a lifetime. With a kid on the way, she’s designated in home nanny in our two bedroom apartment. But still…I can’t and I hope I don’t end up supporting her for the next 30 years.

  6. My husbands Polish parents chose to go to Japan instead of coming to meet their first grandchild (granted we are going out to see them at the 6 month mark, but still I know some people would find this appalling). I’m actually glad they chose not to come because if they did my husband would have to take time off to be their host, and if they chose to come when he was still on paternity leave there would be no taking care of Jenna, it would be all about hosting his parents after they paid a large amount to come out and visit.

    If they had bought a ticket and just announced they were coming (at any time during or after pregnancy) I would have thrown a fit myself. I do think hubs has said before though that if his parents ever come we’ll be putting them up in a hotel. I have no problems with that.

  7. Emily:

    My grandma’s Korean….very traditional….and she’s in a nursing home near my mom. She wasn’t thrilled about it at first and always seems to think she’s "coming home" with my mom, but she got over it eventually. Mom basically told her that in America, things are different, and we live here now, and that’s how our lives will be. It’s really harsh and I can’t imagine saying anything like that to my parents, but somehow it made her understand and she seems to get it now. But, we have a large house and my parents completely took it upon themselves to take over a downstairs bedroom and decorate it themselves. It has a jungle theme. It makes me mad, but it’s also better than them trying to take over an upstairs bedroom. Or taking over our bedroom–which they used to do while i was in college. My parents don’t really have the greatest of boundaries, either, and it’s hard when they’re so set in their ways. You can’t change them!

  8. Kit:

    OMG. I could write an essay on this. But I won’t.
    I am Hispanic, my husband is the eldest son- he is Taiwanese. We were both raised in the U.S. though. I had no idea WHAT I was getting myself into with his parents. NONE AT ALL. I had a vague understanding of cultural expectations overall as far as his side. But little did I know my life would be like what Kristin describes- my mother in law is passive aggressive, she is a stay at home wife herself- and on the 2nd day of being married I already began receiving behind the back off handed remarks. My in-laws cannot afford to retire on their own independently- and it freaks the hell out of me as to what this means as how it would effect our life. Don’t get me wrong, I would never put my in-laws up in a hotel. But I do think there should be some respect for reasonable expectations on my in-laws side to not visit for MONTHS on end without a discussion with us first (which wouldn’t happen because they live in the same state as us right now- but when they relocate from one end of the state to closer to us, they might be with us for several months while finding a home).

    Honestly, I just flat out get anxiety when they stay with us for a weekend. The house is never clean enough, I never cook enough, I never wait on them enough- and I find it incredibly unfair they are imposing their cultural expectations on me and expecting me to tolerate their cultural expectations, when they don’t extend the same to me for my own cultural influences. (example, when I moved in to my hubby’s home- he has a bunch of hand-me-down Asian art. I wanted to switch out SOME of them with artwork we both enjoyed- but couldn’t because my husband feared his parents would take it personally that I didn’t keep up the Asian art they gave him. and he doesn’t even like the art himself!!! They don’t even live near us to see the art on a day-in-day out thing! The Asian art is still up…. none of mine is. Yet. Example #2- they think I should be there to wait on them when they visit- and disregard my family’s pre-planned functions/gatherings, if my friends have an event I hear from my husband how his mother told him I am a terrible wife/bride for leaving him home when there is housework to be done) Sorry, I am hispanic, I am an independent woman, and I have a life outside of my husband and home I feel like telling them. I don’t isolate myself from society just because I am married, I am a social butterfly and I am a professional woman too!

    My cultural background has instilled in me to have respect for my elders, never abandon them, always care for them. So I think this is why I could never just put my not fully self-sufficient in-laws up in a hotel or say they couldn’t live with us. But my parents ARE self-sufficient and fully independent and planned their life so that they wouldn’t impose on my sister and I too much if that day should come. my husbands parents- NO PLANNING was involved. they just ASSUME their sons will take care of them. I hate that.

    But the way I handle it as of right now- is I tell my husband we are partners. He has to be on MY team. OUR Team. Our team comes first no matter what. No matter what his parents attempt to impose on us. Once this kind of backfired. But on a separate occasion I flat out told my husband where my comfort level stood on certain things so he had an idea of what I would be flexible to. My husband then sets the ‘law of the land’, based off my ‘behind the scenes rantings to him’ of what I will and won’t tolerate under my own roof.

    But I would never put his family up in a hotel. I would personally feel too guilty about this. I would suck it up by visiting my parents, going to acupuncture to RELAX off my anxiety levels (maybe restart counseling if need be to vent my frustrations on to someone else besides my hubby!), go to the gym, take some classes like art or cooking to get out of the house…. But if they had to move in with us- I will work NIGHT and DAY to be able to buy a home with a guest house so they can maintain their autonomy as an elderly couple. MARK MY WORDS. I will buy a home with a guest house if they had to move in with us.

  9. Donna:

    I guess that I am lucky in the sense that my in-laws only live 15 minutes away so I don’t have to deal with them staying over but my own family – when I lived in a 650 sq foot studio in downtown Chicago, my ENTIRE family (all six of them) stayed over for a week. My mother rearranged my entire kitchen and went through my closet to point that some clothes were scantily clad and inappropriate for outside wear.

    However, having the baby – my mom and aunt both came to help me ‘zuo yuezi’ and at times, it drove me nuts but looking back on it, it was so nice having home cooked Taiwanese food while I was trying to figure out breastfeeding, sleeping, etc. And our second bedroom was the nursery but it didn’t matter, they just set up camp for a month on my couch or on my aerobed in the living room.

    Take a deep breath – it’s not easy having your personal space invaded for so long especially when you just want to be selfish and enjoy you and J time/you and J space. You and J talk about what would be best for you THREE – your health both physically and emotionally/mentally is important, too.

  10. OH MY GOODNESS. That is ridiculous. I would be TOTALLY annoyed if my in-laws TOLD me when they were going to visit instead of asking. Crazy!!

    We are in a transition period in our life at the moment. We’re moving from Northern California to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On the way we’re staying with his parents for two weeks in Idaho and we’re visiting my family in Chicago for two weeks. My husband’s parents were awesome enough to visit us in California for a few days and help us move. The problem (which really wasn’t that much of a problem) was that we were staying at a friend’s two bedroom house for our last month in California. Two bedroom. They had one bedroom and we had the other. When my husband’s parents and his youngest sister visited, they took the bedroom and we slept in the living room. Our roommates were night-shift nurses and it was really annoying to have to sleep out in the common area when people were always coming and going. Plus, his parents are Mormon, so I always feel the need to be overly-modest (in my eyes). I couldn’t wear a tank top or anything v-neck really. I was trying to relax and then trying to move, and it was annoying to share the only room with all our stuff, the bedroom, with three other people, AND to be concerned with modesty and trying to hide the alcohol.

    Thankfully his parents are very very sweet and considerate people, but it was still a sort of awkward situation.

    YOUR situation, however, would have me chomping down lorazepam. I do not envy you.

  11. I can totally understand being a little miffed at not being consulted.

    Having said that, I also totally understand the family issue.

    My family is Italian, my husband’s is Scots/Irish. Both cultures are very similar to yours in that the family is only extended by marriage. I’ll be honest and tell you that while it does get old sometimes, there is really nothing I value more than the assistance we’ve receieved in ‘learning how to be parents’. Being a mom and dad is tough, you never really feel like you know what you’re doing. You become comfortable feeling like that, but that’s not the same thing as knowing. Having someone that has been there, done that, there is a HUGE blessing! They’ll drive you nuts with their opinions, but try and remember that they managed to produce the man you love… They must have a pretty good idea of where to start.
    Hang in there, this really is a blessing. Your child will grow up having a sense of family that is unusual in America, they’ll know where they come from, and will be able to tell t heir children about your parents and his. That’s HUGE. So many here don’t have that at all. So many people have no idea where they come from.

  12. OMG, I SO relate to you. I am uber stressed whenever family wants to come visit, and this is for all family, not just in-laws. I especially relate to the part that you feel trapped inside your own house because as a woman, you are supposed to cater to your guests’ needs when they are in your house. I just can’t talk about it freely on my blog because they will read my posts. The bottom line is, when the guests want to visit you, they should ask you first, then make their plans accordingly. They should never assume they can come and go as they please just because they are family. This is the rule for all family, not just in-laws.

  13. Anita:

    As you and I have talked before, my Chinese mom assumes a role in our lives forever especially that of my brother. She assumes she’ll live with my brother and his future wife. She assumes she’ll live with us when we have kids. It’s frustrating. How can you tell them to leave, right?

    My MIL is Polish American and they take care of their own retirement whereas I AM my mom’s retirement. Although I would take my inlaws in a heart beat without question, it’s quite a relief that they do take care of themselves.

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