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Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

My Chinese Mother-in-Law Comes to Canada: A Foreigner in A Foreign Land

Chinese mother-in-law in Canada from Uncleweed

Since moving to Beijing and marrying my Chinese husband, it has been one adventure after another as I navigate this Chinese culture as a foreigner while also navigating the demands of a relationship. If there’s one main thing that I’ve learned to do since moving to China, it’s this: when we are in a foreign environment as opposed to our home countries, we must suspend all former perceptions of what is “normal.”


This summer, our family spent time in my home country of Canada. The air was clean and the sky was bright blue with fluffy clouds. When it does rain, the Canadian raindrops actually clean the car rather than dirty it. We enjoyed boating on the river, lots of swimming in fresh water, and precious time with my friends and family whom I miss dearly when I’m back in our home in Beijing. Our daughter, who was born in early 2012, was able to visit with her maternal grandparents who were thrilled to see her again. It was a great holiday.


My husband has been to Canada several times over the years, but the difference this year was the presence of my mother-in-law. On her first trip to the West, my “popo” (婆婆) bravely set off across the skies to join us for nearly a month of our summer, leaving behind her husband and arriving to a land in which she couldn’t even order a cup of coffee. Besides “hello” and “thank you,” she has no English language skills whatsoever.


I had mixed feelings about her coming.


First of all, I was excited for her. I knew she had never seen my part of the world. I hoped Canada would happily surprise her. I looked forward to her exclamations about sweet corn-on-the-cob bought from the farmer directly, her marveling at the perfection of sky and nature, especially outside of the cities, and her pleasure at being introduced to new foods, new products on store shelves and new ways of living that would be shown her through the various homes in which we stayed throughout the month.


I also was quietly grateful that she’d finally be ‘on my turf.’ I hoped that she’d finally understand what it’s like for me to live in a foreign land. I thought perhaps her journey to Canada would bring our relationship closer.


I admit that I worried about her trip to Canada as well. I was concerned that she’d feel powerless and irritable about the language barrier, that she’d hate the food, or that she’d complain so relentlessly, finding so much consistent fault with Western ways, that I’d fantasize about leaving her stranded on a downtown Toronto street corner while I drove away in peace.


I brushed these thoughts, away, however, and welcomed her with open arms like any good daughter-in-law, even picking her up from the airport on my own and shuttling her to a quiet retreat for a few days to get over her jet lag. My job was translator and cultural interpreter and I did my best to help her through the experience.


The first week with my MIL was, well, trying. That’s the nicest way I can think of to describe what it was like to deal with a woman who was too stubborn to admit to being jet-lagged, cantankerous about the food (or lack of food worth eating in her opinion), and extremely judgmental and quick to make assumptions about everything that constituted her first impressions of Canada. My worst fears started to come true. She made dozens of sweeping generalizations as though a week was enough time to understand all of Canadian culture, and she regularly said or did offensive things in front of friends or family without editing herself and/or without awareness.


Now I know she had no experience of the West. My compassion was well stacked for her arrival. She was bound to do some strange things in the eyes of my friends and family and so that was to be expected. No harm done.


But, saying offensive things was unfair. I was the only one who understood both parties and I had to “fake translate” a few of her commentaries regarding situations about which she felt free to speak openly because “no one understands Chinese.” Later, when we were alone, rather than asking her to be considerate of my difficult position as cultural bridge, I maturely chose “the fear tactic” and reminded her that because of China’s rising global status, many, “MANY” people study or have studied a bit of Mandarin and perhaps some of my friends and family are among them. I chose well. She quickly reeled it in.


Behaviourly, however, my mother-in-law was just being her Chinese self. That includes things like wearing what appears to be a nightgown as her “house attire” at all times of the day, including outdoors on the patio. Or, hanging wet laundry from anything that she could find indoors and outdoors to the point where clothing has taken over the yard or the living room, much to my mother’s or friend’s confusion. Whether it’s rarely putting things in the refrigerator at night or barking orders at everyone regardless of their level of Chinese comprehension (including English-speaking waitresses), obsessing about the extreme cost of vegetables or grumbling about the absence of proper knives or woks in Western kitchens, my MIL was simply a Chinese woman in a foreign land.


Yet, while in Canada, she was the foreigner for once.


On that note, it took two solid weeks of constant reminders before she stopped calling Canadians “foreigners.” I must have reminded her 20 times that SHE was the foreigner there, while THEY were locals, common folk, average Canadians who thought all of what she was experiencing was normal. After the constant reminders finally clicked in, she began to call everyone “bendiren” or “locals”(本地人) but continued to shake her head about “their strange ways.”


My hope that her experience in Canada would bring us closer to mutual understanding was probably far too Western of me, I admit. My mother-in-law, while a strong and capable woman, is not one big on empathy—at least, not the type that is displayed or communicated, especially when it comes to daughter-in-laws. Besides, her role in Canada was as an outsider. She had not come to further understand Canadian culture or language; she was on vacation. If we ever move back to Canada and she comes to stay for long periods of time, perhaps then she will be more informed as to what it’s like to live in a country that is not your own. Until then, I am at least grateful that she has glimpsed my world.


After the first week, we found some rhythms that suited her, bought her a proper cleaver and scoured Chinatown in Toronto for the foods and spices she prefers. Her mood improved after that and I’m happy to report that I had no fantasies of street corner desertions!


A few days before her departure from Canada, I asked her if she had enjoyed her time in my country. She replied that she was anxious to get home and that Canada was far too “biezhe,” which means oppressive or suffocating (憋着) since she couldn’t speak the language to engage with others. She added that the scenery was beautiful, however. Oh, and later she admitted to something else while I was in earshot that she really did love that sweet corn-on-the-cob.


That was enough for me.


I am an anomaly. I straddle two worlds, two cultures and two languages. Most people do not live this kind of life and have no frame of reference for such a dual existence. Besides helping me cultivate more patience, seeing my mother-in-law in a non-Chinese environment for the first time helped me realize that her vacation in Canada and my residence in China are really not the same experience. She was simply a foreigner in a foreign land, temporarily.


It also made me comprehend, all the more, that the question “What is normal?” ought to be permanently replaced by the question, “What is common?”


The answer, I’ve learned, is forever dependent on the cultural arena in which the question is asked.


© 2013, Ember Swift. All rights reserved.

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Ember Swift is a Canadian living in Beijing who gave birth to her first child in January 2012. She is also a professional musician and writer who has released 11 albums independently, toured internationally and writes for several international publications in addition to keeping three distinct blog series active. Her official website is located at

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsbravo   |  Thursday, 19 December 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Your patient, forgiving and empathetic attitude towards your mother-in-law is highly commendable. She is a lucky lady to have you as a daughter. Hope she can see this through her cloud of ethnocentricity.

  2. CommentsJenny   |  Friday, 20 December 2013 at 1:13 am

    Ember’s posts make me really uncomfortable. She has an obvious superiority complex without acknowledging that many many people speak both Mandarin and English and live what she calls refers to as a dual life. She doesn’t seem to realise that if she were properly bi-cultural, she wouldn’t find so many problems with Chinese-ness and wouldn’t feel the need to be embarrassed about her mother-in-law. So Chinese people where pyjamas around the house – so what? So, Chinese people haven’t travelled much – so what? She seems to stack these things up as reasons to dislike the Chinese. I don’t know much about China or Chinese people but as a psychologist I would encourage Ember to seek out someone to talk to as she is obviously having trouble reconciling her Western upbringing with her Eastern home.

  3. CommentsAngie   |  Thursday, 02 January 2014 at 9:02 pm

    I think the position of Ember was Empathy. Its really hard for human being of any culture, specially of different generations has a full comprehensionof

  4. CommentsOlga   |  Monday, 13 January 2014 at 12:54 pm

    I like this post. And I don’t think that Ember has a superiority complex. When in China, she is trying to behave what is expected of her. Why can’t sh expect it of others? And there is a difference between trying to like a culture, to understand it, but fail- and not even trying, just like the CHinese MIL.

  5. CommentsFiona   |  Tuesday, 14 January 2014 at 8:47 pm

    I don’t know about superiority complex but there is a definite difference in tone between this article and this one: I do agree, Ember’s articles sound like she wants to be congratulated for putting up with her MIL but… Well poor MIL! That generation of Chinese people are really struggling with the changes in their country, they haven’t had the cultural training that we have and lack the technological and language skills that we have. The poor old woman is just living her life, trying to raise her family, not trying to offend her DIL. I do also agree that Ember is a long way from being an anomaly but I put that down to the difference between English self deprecation culture and N.American pride. The comment irks me but I can see from the other commentators here that they appreciate it as honesty.

  6. CommentsBrenda A   |  Tuesday, 25 February 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Superiority complex? Embarrassed by “Chinese-ness” and her MIL? A dislike of the Chinese? I just read an excellent and well articulated article. It is posted above. I do not believe that Jenny has read the same article if she truly believes that the author is expressing herself in the manner she states. I am actually baffled that Jenny is making the claims that she is. Ember clearly writes and acknowledges that many people (world wide) speak both English and Mandarin. The word or even the intonation of the author being embarrassed by her MIL’s behaviour is just not present, nor is her dislike of “Chinese-ness”. On the contrary, it is honoured, celebrated and joyfully poked at in a Canadian setting. The author is MARRIED to a Chinese man and they have HALF CHINESE children. She is not anti-Chinese and she is not embarrassed or ashamed that her culture is just as important as anyone else’s.

  7. CommentsInCultureParent | Do WASP Westerners Deserve Visibility in a Foreign Culture?   |  Tuesday, 01 April 2014 at 11:38 pm

    […] by critics, but recently a couple of comments really got under my skin. They were in response to a piece I wrote about my mother-in-law’s journey to Canada—her first trip to the West. The comments accused me of having a superiority complex over Chinese […]

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