Chinese Family Life

Chinese parents and paying back your debt


Source: China Daily

No, I’m not talking about making my Chinese in-laws to pay back my student loans, but about filial piety. On paper respecting your parents, elders and ancestors sounds all very good, but what it’s actually like to live 5 meters from your Chinese parent’s or in-laws?

Disclaimer: This post is recommended to be read with a hint of humour.

Chinese parents love helping their children, even after they have grown up. They come knocking to your door and wash your floors. They make special Cantonese soups and fill your fridge with fruits so fast you simply don’t have enough time to eat them all. Chinese parents will give you advice from left and right on how to dress, how to furnish your house and what to eat. “Parents know best” is their motto.

Well, who wouldn’t want someone to cook and clean for you? Now comes the trick! There is no free lunch.

Chinese parents don’t do things for free, they will expect you to pay it back someday. Some parents want red envelopes with cash on holidays. Some want their children to pay back by spending more time with them and taking them on various trips. Some expect you to listen to all their advice just because “I made that soup for you when you were sick”. In a way or other you will need to pay back.

“Did I raise you up for nothing?” is one of the favorite saying of a Chinese parent. They will remind you how they brought you up in difficult situations and will use that information to get you do what they want.

“Look what neighbor’s kid did for their parents!” is another pet phrase of Chinese parents. Here kids aren’t brought up with praise, but with criticizing and noting their shortcomings. And no matter what you do it is never enough, you will never be as filial as that famous “neighbor’s kid” (which you have never seen, is he a legend?).

So what do you do when you feel like you will never be able to pay back your debt? If you are an independent Finn you will probably try to avoid accumulating that debt and refuse help as much as possible. Of course in a Chinese family it’s much easier said than done.

How about you? How are you paying back to your Chinese parents or in-laws?


  • Zhao

    Yes, you are understanding right. There are some problems with Chinese parents-kids relationship. In Chinese parents’ ideas, their son/daughter are always kids no matter you have married or not or how old you are. They are active to do everything for the children, they think this is the way to show the love and care. People lose hobby after becoming parent, since they think taking care of children is the biggest task and waitnessing children’ growth and progress is their biggest joy.
    Generally, graduating from the university (around 23-23yrs) is regarded as the first step to get independent, but in Finland, it’s 18yrs. Then most people start working after 23, the second step is getting married. But even the son has married, the parents would think how to help take care of your child since they don’t think young couple can take care of the child well, and they think the baby too weak. Then usually 30yrs is regarded as a sign to be indepedent for son. But even after this, parents still keep watching the child’s life and try to do whatever to help.
    Chinese parents usually never think their way of treating children have any problem…
    Good luck.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Like you said, the differences between Finland and China are huge in this regards. Finnish parents let their kids do things on their own, even if they fail. Chinese parents think it’s better not to let them fail, but do things for them.

  • Betty has a Panda

    You forgot to add that they blame all their failures in life as soon as the child doesn’t pick up when they call after the first ring, or when you are too busy they will scream at them how ungrateful they are. And that if they gave birth to a chicken it would be more worth because it can lay eggs.
    And they try to make them look bad in front of their children’s partners to make themselves look better.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Ungrateful is definitely a word my husband is used to hearing. I usually don’t hear anything directly, only through my husband.

    Betty has a Panda Reply:

    They say it to him in front of me all the time, because I don’t understand. But I can see what they talk about because of Mr. Panda’s reactions. And I do not approve of it!
    I hate it when Chinese mom sometimes tries to make him look bad when I talks to me. It is so awful! -.-

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I often have similar feelings. My Cantonese is almost non existent, but I can spot when the discussion is going into an argument.

  • Autumn Ashbough

    Hmmm. I think my Chinese-American in-laws are weird. There’s not much giving to us, but there’s no insistence on giving anything back. I’m treated more like a servant (see a future post!), but the husband and I are expected to take every piece of advice or instruction given, without question. Anything else is inconceivable!

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Like a servant? That doesn’t sound nice at all. Need to check that post.

  • Marta

    My MIL might in some way think we are still children, as she often buys food or cooks for us, but up until now she has never asked for anything in return! They also almost never give us advice or tell us what to do… only once she told my bf to stop seeing his ex wife’s son, I think because she thought it might bother me. After I told her I was completely fine with the kid she didn’t mention it anymore. I don’t think I would take it very well if they were constantly meddling and asking to repay, I would probably do the same as you… try not to use their help at all.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I’m sure my in-laws also see us as kids! I guess lots of parents do, but then again in Finland parents would let their kids do things on their own from a much younger age.

    Your MIL sounds very nice!

  • R Zhao

    I think it’s good to teach children to appreciate their parents and realize the sacrifices their parents made for them (though frankly, I don’t know if this can be fully understood until someone has a child him/herself). BUT I think people should do things because they want to, NOT because they are guilted into it.

    I will do whatever I can to care for my mother-in-law (and parents) when they become older and if they face an illness. Yeah, I guess I feel I owe it to them, but I also want to do it because I love them.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I totally agree that people should do things because they want to and I believe that most children will help their parents when they need help because they love their parents. But I personally think that the decision to have kids is that parents’ decision so the kids don’t really owe them.

    R Zhao Reply:

    I used to feel that way but after having a baby I realized how much my own parents sacrificed for me and I feel a lot differently. I also think living in China has affected my attitude too. Of course a child didn’t chose to be born, but parents could have also chose not to have children. I’m grateful my parents made the choice to have me and all the care they have given me.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    It will be very interesting to see how one’s ideas and values change when one becomes a parent :)

  • Carina Anna Jokela

    Chinese in-laws! Yay!
    The moment I got to know them, I religiously visited them twice a month for dinner and discussion – even when at that time, my Shanghai guy still lived out of China. My guy’s mum would even take me to the Chinese hospital for some 调理 etc.

    When my guy came to Shanghai, I put some effort to make sure he reconnected with his parents. I try steer the conversation on neutral “what did you eat, how did you cook these beans, remember to wear more clothes” -stuff.
    The parents spend a lot of time telling their long-lost son how he should do things, reminding of his mistakes. I’m starting to get some of it too, as they disagree with my job choices and habits. Mostly our dinners go well, we just nod and smile, nod and smile :)

    As a Finn, I hate the “feeling of debt” as well. On 中秋节, when we were out, they came here to clean, buy food and wash clothes. If we need some stuff, like pots, lamb meat or washing powder, my guy shamelessly asks his parents, as “they can get it cheaper”. Using parents like this hurts deep in my heart, it feels like a debt I have no idea of how to repay. But I know it makes the parents happy, they feel like they can help.

    I’m trying to get used to it. I think of a phrase my mid-European, very family/friends network -oriented ex-bf said:
    “You are not able to fix everything. If yes, you wouldn’t need anybody with you”

    We are people. We do best in families, tribes, networks. 承认这一点就可以了。

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    That nodding and smiling sound very very familiar! Especially with a larger family dinners when the discussion is entirely in Cantonese and I can’t follow it at all. I’m just eating slowly, smiling and nodding.

  • Timo

    Oh yeah, I familiar this great text is :)
    My wife surely heard tons of stuff about the neighbours kid and she told me that she has no clue who her mother has been talking about for all those years…
    The interesting thing in the case of my wifes family is that my wife basically had to fight for everything on her own by hoping also that her mother wouldnt stop her doing these things like studying English and Finish in order to go for university in Finland. Well, these days her mother is always telling her friends how great she was by giving her daughter everything she needed and never stopped her doing anything :p

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    That seem to be a common trait in Chinese parents! Your failing are your own fault, but your success is because of your parents raised you so well ;)