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The domestic wrangles of expat men and their Chinese fathers-in-law

(Global Times)    10:13, May 25, 2015

German-born Thomas Derksen, 28, can still recall his extreme trepidation the first time he met his Chinese father-in-law.

"I had seen photographs of my father-in-law before meeting him, and he looked very serious and severe in all of them," said Derksen. "My wife had also told me that he didn't want a foreigner as a son-in-law, because it would make it harder to communicate. He was also worried that his daughter would end up [living somewhere] far away from him."

To try to win his father-in-law over, Derksen brought chocolates and other gifts from Germany to the restaurant in Shanghai where they had dinner together. Because of the language barrier, Derksen said he barely spoke that day.

"But I felt after that first meeting that he liked me," said Derksen. "He invited me to sleep at their house, which shocked my wife."

At the time, Derksen and his wife were not yet married.

In March, Sina News reported that in recent years, cross-cultural marriages have accounted for around 5 percent of all marriages in China. Since 2011, an average of 1,200 such marriages have been registered in Beijing each year, according to a 2014 chinanews.com report.

Living with the in-laws

Since their first meeting more than two years ago, Derksen has lived with his wife's family on-and-off while doing an exchange at Fudan University as part of his bachelor's degree in East Asian studies at the Ruhr University Bochum in Germany.

Derksen said that being in such close quarters with his father-in-law led to some inevitable disagreements. "I eat bread and drink coffee in the morning," said Derksen. "He likes to eat noodles and rice for breakfast. At the beginning, he found this difficult to accept."

Another source of early tension, said Derksen, arose from his refusal to wear socks and slippers inside the house. "They tried to persuade me [to change] at first. But gradually, they started to be accustomed to our differences," he said.

Derksen said that his father-in-law continually tries to teach him how to better fit into Chinese culture.

"Chinese people tend to be more complicated than Germans when it comes to certain issues. [For example], I tend to just say what I mean [in a straightforward manner]. But my father-in-law has taught me that I need to speak in a certain manner when I'm speaking to certain people on certain occasions," said Derksen. "I like listening to what he says because if I want to live in China and do business here, I need to understand more about the culture."

In addition to following his father-in-law's advice, Derksen said he had made a big effort to learn Chinese, which impressed his father-in-law.

His wife always admonishes him for paimapi- "kissing ass" toward her parents.

"I tell my father-in-law things like 'Oh, you're so handsome and cool' when he buys new clothes or a new car," said Derksen, smiling. "Chinese sons-in-law might not be as forward in giving praise."

Derksen admitted that he is still a little afraid of his father-in-law, but he knows that they have the same expectations when it comes to his role in the family and how he should treat his wife.

"He's always saying to me that as a man, I should prop up the family," said Derksen. "I know he wants me to treat my wife and them well. And I can do that."

He said that these days, when he had disagreements with his wife, his parents-in-law would even sometimes side with him.

"They will point out that my wife has a bad temper," he said.

Relationship from a distance

Peter Krasnopolsky, a 36-year-old English teacher from the US, said that his first meeting with his father-in-law did not go very smoothly, as he and his wife were late to pick him up from the train station.

"He was visibly unhappy, acting rather reserved, but still polite," Krasnopolsky said. "So, I didn't make such a good first impression on him."

Krasnopolsky said that when he met his wife, she had already gone through a brief marriage and a divorce, which might have made her parents more wary about any new men in her life. At first, he said, her father was more ambivalent than supportive of their marriage, and even now, their relationship is somewhat distant.

"I have not changed myself much [to win his favor], but I would like to think that I have done okay in supporting my family and I have tried to be respectful to the extended family," he said.

Krasnopolsky said he is the only foreigner in his wife's extended family, and is still unable to participate in conversations properly because of his poor Chinese.

"They probably see me as cute, but dumb. It's a double edge sword," he said. "But being an American does not give me any special advantage. The in-laws seem to appreciate that our kids are growing to be bilingual, but that's about it."

Krasnopolsky, who lives with his wife in Beijing, said he only sees his parents-in-law a few times a year, as they live in a city in the south of China.

"When we do meet, our relations are still rather reserved. We are not really close, but we try to show respect to each other," he said.

When it comes to disagreements, Krasnopolsky said he had his own way of dealing with them.

"The best way of resolving any disagreements, in my experience, is to agree with my in-laws and then do what I think is right," he said. "We may have some debates about [how to raise the children], but instead of trying to prove that I am right, I just do things my own way."

Krasnopolsky said that from what he could tell, Chinese people tended to try to avoid confrontation when they knew it wouldn't lead to a result.

"Another important aspect is to keep any disagreements within the family and not expose them for outside judgment," he said.

Nationality not important

Zhu Fuqiang, Derksen's father-in-law, said it takes time for a father-in-law to get the measure of a son-in-law. He admitted that initially, he was unhappy with the idea of his daughter marrying someone from another culture, but had come to see Derksen's good qualities.

"[My son-in-law] is honest. He doesn't drink alcohol or smoke and he takes good care of my daughter. These are his good aspects," said Zhu.

He said he was also pleased that Derksen was not as reserved as many Chinese men, and had taken a strong interest in Chinese culture.

"My son-in-law can speak good Chinese now and he is immersing himself in Chinese culture. For my part, I also try to embrace the cultural differences [between us]," he said. "Having a foreign son-in-law, the cultural differences can be bothersome. But my daughter threatened that if I didn't give her my permission to marry him, she would refuse to marry a Chinese man."

Unlike his wife, said Zhu, he continued to keep a distance from Derksen, in order to maintain his sense of authority.

"I know he is still afraid of me. But I never criticize him directly," said Zhu. "In Chinese culture, we make comments in a tactful manner. For instance, instead of saying he is too fat, I will suggest to him that he should go for a walk or a swim."

Zhu said that as a father, the nationality of his son-in-law was not what mattered most. "What is important is the kind of person he is," he said.

Krasnopolsky also said that his nationality and the cultural differences between him and his Chinese father-in-law was not a problem.

"I think the main qualification [that my father-in-law wants me to have] is that I love his daughter and his grandchildren, and I fully meet this qualification," said Krasnopolsky. "As for material side of things, my father-in-law appreciates my work ethic and the fact that I can take care of my family, even if I cannot offer my wife and kids a life of luxury."

As for whether there was anything about his father-in-law he wished he could change, Krasnopolsky was quick to answer with a quip.

"I don't like that my father-in-law doesn't drink much. If he did, we would probably bond better!" he joked.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Editor:Gao Yinan,Huang Jin)

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