A family dinner and to raise or not to raise your glass

Illustration by Ruth Silbermayr-Song

Illustration by Ruth Silbermayr-Song

On our last evening in Y’s hometown, Siping, we have dinner at a restaurant with his parents and uncles and aunts from his father’s side.

We wait until everyone is in the room and seats are assigned in order of age. The most respected person (which is usually the oldest person in the room or if it’s a company the boss of the company) is seated opposite of the door. In this case, this is Y’s oldest uncle, daye (大爷), who is also the head of the family (again, because he is the oldest person in the family). Before Y’s grandfather died, his grandfather was the head of the family.

Since Y will pay for the dinner, he is the one to choose the dishes. He doesn’t care too much about these traditions, and also lets others choose from the menu.

I haven’t been feeling well the whole day (just two words: menstrual pain), but this is an important dinner I can’t miss.

When we are almost done with dinner, daye calls out my name. The whole table goes quiet. He asks me:

“How are you supposed to call me?”
I: “I’m sorry, I don’t remember. In Austria, we don’t distuingish between older and younger uncles of our father’s and mother’s side, like you do in China. That’s why I only remember the word shushu*.”
He, obviously not too happy about my answer: “Do you also eat like this in Austria?” Pointing at the round table filled with dishes that everyone shares with one another.
I: “We don’t. Everyone has their own plate with a single dish on it. We usually eat it with soup and salad.”

I really don’t feel like talking, but I try hard to smile. Somehow I already have a bad feeling about what is still to come.

He: “How long have you stayed in China for?”
I: “For two years.”
He: “U-huh, for more than two years.”
My father-in-law chips in: “For less than two years.”
Daye ignores what he has just said and goes on: “Since you’ve stayed in China for more than two years already, I assume you’re familiar with eating and drinking habits in China. Just a while ago, my niece’s boyfriend has actively raised his glass towards me. Actually, it should have been you who did that first.”
I: “What you’re saying is that I should drink alcohol with you? I’m sorry, I don’t drink.”

I look at Y for help. He tells me that I can also use water.

Daye: “Today, we’re here to see if you two will get my approval or not. You can decide for yourself if you raise your glass for me or not.”

What do you think? Will I raise my glass? You can post your guess in the comments section beneath. The answer will be revealed in part 2 of this story which will be posted next Tuesday (8 Oct). Stay tuned!

*Shushu (叔叔) is the word you use to adress your father’s younger brother in China, the right word to adress Y’s oldest uncle from his father’s side would have been daye (大爷)

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26 thoughts on “A family dinner and to raise or not to raise your glass

  1. it’s like a criminal story or a drama when I wait for the next episode… for me I would rise if I have to but in my husband’s family people know I don’t drink and they are nice enough to not force me to do that. I hope Daye was joking!

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  2. My guess is, you raised your water glass and thanked him for hosting the meal. Better late than never. In my (somewhat dated) experience, Chinese women seldom drank alcohol, but they always toasted with their juice or water glasses.

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    • I’m not sure about family dinners, but I know quite a few Chinese women who drink alcohol quite frequently. But it seems like it also depends on the area, I’ve just been to a few places in Yunnan where young women smoke (quite rare in some other areas!) and drink, and not necessarily less than guys.

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  3. Just a bunch of old fuddie demanding authority over some silly traditions. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you say the wrong name, or don’t raise your drink or whatever. I hope I’m nothing like that when I’m older,

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  4. To my mind it is impossible to be sure about your reaction without knowing more about you. I can’t really decide whose face you are going to save . And I am really looking forward reading about your resolution next time.

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  5. It is a way to show your respect to the elderly. I guess it is common and important in northern China. I always feel stressed when dine with family members. According to the family pecking order, I need to do the toast first in my generation.

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  6. I had a discussion about a similar topic with an Austrian friend just a few weeks ago. He said that we young people have to respect the older ones. In this case we were discussing if we have to adress older people with “Sie” or “Du”. His parents used to let his girlfriend say “Sie” for about 5 years! I asked him what happens if I use “Du” when knowing his mother. He answerd: “She’ll ignore you”. I told him that this hasn’t to do anything with respect, if they force the younger person to have respect by using a silly little word. In this case they don’t have respect for the younger ones and I also want to be treated with respect – not because of my age but because of being a human being.

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  7. Ooo, I’m really looking forward to reading the rest!!! I would have raised the glass to him but I inside I would have been really angry, and my guess is that you did the same. 🙂 Though it is very rude and he doesn’t deserve any respect from you.

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  8. My guess is you had a very tactful, yet principled response. I can’t wait to read what it is.

    I probably would have asked for an explanation as to why me performing some ritual constitutes “respect of my elders” and why respecting them in this manner had any bearing on improving his life, my life, or anyone else’s. If the explanation was sufficient, I’d perform the expected action. If it was not sufficient, I would not.

    Can’t you decide to toast him at your own leisure, drink what you want when you want without being expected to show him some sort of empty gesture of respect that may or may not reflect what is in your heart? You’re a free choosing human being with the ability to determine for yourself when and how you will toast anyone. If he thinks he has a right to control your actions, no matter how small, simply because he’s an older male, what are the implications and how do you feel about that loss of autonomy over yourself?

    To me, it seems that to coerce the free acts of a human being through any method, whether it be through rules of deference or physical force, requires justification. This is true each and every single time anyone is expected to do anything. Explanations as to the legitimacy of the authority as well as the benefit of submitting to it need to be provided, otherwise the restrictions on autonomy may become wanton. Sometimes there is in fact great justifications, even for the most restraining actions. My niece, for example, would run into the streets and be harmed but for her parents verbally and sometimes coercing her behavior to refrain from doing so. The justification on the restriction of her liberty to do what she pleases is that she is 3 and unable to attest the safety of the situation herself, thereby requiring her parents or any competent adult to control her behavior on the street for her own safety.

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    • Thanks for your comment! I agree with your view, especially the middle paragraph. I’m not a person who’s very good at talking though (and Chinese isn’t my mother tongue, making it that much harder), so I didn’t say much. I also didn’t know what he was getting at at first, so I just let him talk and listened to what he was saying. He’s a relative of my husband, after all, so I didn’t want to be too rude by interrupting him.

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  9. It looks like you are now an official part of the family and no longer privy to the “special treatment” given to foreigners:) I would raise my glass of water and make a toast and not worry about it. He is old and unfortunately some of them are cranky-hope I am never like that- I like how your father in law tries to help you out by piping up with “less than two years”. That wins him some points in my book. I think your uncle will give his approval to you both regardless. Although I would also be annoyed with the uncle for putting me on the spot and making such a big deal, I think I would also be a teeny bit annoyed with my husband for not giving me a heads-up.

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    • It surely wasn’t special foreigner treatment, not even special guest treatment, and I underestimated the seriousness of the whole matter. I’m used to informal family dinners where people just talk with each other to kind of get updates on everyone’s life, and really wasn’t prepared for this. It was basically like that until daye started asking me these questions and making assumptions about me. I didn’t understand why my husband didn’t react at first, but he explained himself later and I’m actually glad for the way he acted, making this my own decision rather than his.

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  10. Pingback: A loss of face | China elevator stories

  11. I have had a couple of embarrassing stories myself, but nothing quite so loaded as that question. At the wedding they made me call my husband’s parents mom and dad. I did it through gritted teeth for the cameras and in retrospect am glad I didn’t make that big of a deal about it. Not easy to meld two cultures for sure.

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    • Haven’t had a ceremony in China yet, but I also think it’s hard to call anyone except for my own parents mum and dad, I do have problems calling people shushu and ayi, we hardly ever call people at all in German (and if we do, other than our parents we’ll call them by their names). I’ve gotten used to calling people shifu, laoban and the like here in China, so maybe it will be possible to address family members correctly (by Chinese standards) one day. I’ve heard that nowadays many Chinese don’t call their in-laws mum and dad anymore, but instead will call them shushu and ayi.

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      • I suppose it is something unique to each family – I think some people in the US call their in-laws mom and dad – just not something my parents ever did, but I am just not used to it.

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        • In Austria, traditionally people also used to call their in-laws mum and dad, so I guess it’s a generational thing that we don’t call them mum and dad anymore. There might be people who still do that, even in Austria, I just don’t think I know anyone who does.

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  12. Pingback: After the family dinner | China elevator stories

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