Disclaimer: In Real Life is a platform for everyday people to share their experiences and voices. All articles are personal stories and do not necessarily echo In Real Life’s sentiments.
Since I was young, I would always have my Chinese friends over for Deepavali or Christmas parties. But I’ve never been to one of their Chinese New Year celebrations.
10 years down the road, who knew I would be engaged to a Chinese guy? I was actually able to put this to the test!
I got into an interracial relationship with a Chinese guy
My husband and I met in 2008 during our clubbing days. In the beginning, we were polar opposites of each other. We thought we had nothing in common, but as time went by, we discovered we had similar values and goals, despite the fact that we grew up in different cultures.
Somehow, our 1-year anniversary turned into a 2-year anniversary, which turned into a 5-year anniversary. And before we knew it, we had spent 8 years together as a couple.
However, in all our years of dating, I wasn’t invited to my boyfriend’s Chinese New Year celebrations in his hometown, Penang.
Each year, I would wonder ‘Is this the year his family will change their mind?’ And each year, I would be disappointed yet again.
My boyfriend’s parents did not approve of our relationship, because of my race
The truth is, my boyfriend’s parents had never approved of our interracial relationship.
They would bring up Indian stereotypes like ‘Indians will force you to get married quick” or say things like “What would others think if you married an Indian?”
His parents perceived Indians as ‘low class.’ They would constantly question the things we had in common, picking at the seams of our bond.
This was even though we were both Christians and shared the same religious values.
Whenever I would go over to his house, his family would be very cold towards me, especially his mother.
I would greet her with, “Hi, how are you aunty?”, and she’d stare stonily at her phone, refusing to acknowledge my presence. She wouldn’t even look at my face.
Once, she even went as far as to avoid sitting at the same table as me for a meal. I felt hurt about the way I was treated, but I refused to let my feelings show so as not to cause a scene.
On his part, my boyfriend would just ignore them and carried on seeing me as if nothing was wrong. In private, he told me that he couldn’t relate to his parents because of their mindsets, which was different from his.
What it feels like to be excluded every Chinese New Year
You know, the feeling of being excluded from Chinese New Year as someone whose partner is Chinese — it’s different from someone who’s only exposed to it every now and then.
Every Chinese New Year, I would watch my fiance and my other Chinese friends showing off their hong bao, eating lots of Chinese snacks, playing card games and I’d feel sad that I couldn’t take part.
When his parents realised they could not convince their son to break up with me, they hoped our relationship would eventually fizzle out and we would break up. So it must have come as a surprise to them when my husband popped the question in 2016, and we got engaged.
I thought to myself, ‘Maybe now I would be invited for Chinese New Year’ but when that time of year came around, once again I had to say goodbye as my fiance left for Penang, alone.
That year, when my fiance went alone to Penang, some of his relatives actually asked about me, saying, “I prepared your fiancée her ang pows. How come she isn’t here?”
My husband awkwardly replied, “She was not invited.” He couldn’t bring himself to explain the fraught dynamic between me and his parents.
Over the years, I learnt to brush it off, but there was a small part of me that kept holding on to the hope that one day I will be invited.
When I finally got invited, it was two years after we got engaged
In 2018, a few months before we got married, his parents finally gave up their hopes of us breaking up and decided to invite me for Chinese New Year.
When I heard this, I was so nervous yet excited as I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time meeting this part of the family, and I was worried if I was going to get the same judgement from his extended relatives.
Despite the worries, I was still so ecstatic that I was finally invited!
My first impressions of Chinese New Year
I found out that my fiance’s family celebrates Chinese New Year differently than the typical way. He says this is because he is Hainanese, whereas most Chinese Malaysians are either Cantonese, Teochew, or Hakka.
Unlike their Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew brethren, the Hainanese do not form a majority in the Chinese communities in Malaysia. Perhaps that would explain why they are very closed off and “clannish”.
I was told that the Hakka people practice Chinese New Year very casually. So that meant no decoration, no lion dances and no yee sang.
Instead, they have a steamboat on the eve of Chinese New Year. In the following days, they would give ang pows, mingle and have a barbecue at night, followed by Chinese firecrackers at 12 AM. And instead of being decked out in full red regalia like some Chinese New Year ads, everyone would usually wear very casual clothes.
I was a little bit disappointed they didn’t have a yee sang, because it would have been fun. But aside from that, I was blown away by the food and I loved watching the fireworks.
There was a language barrier between me and the family
When I first arrived at the family gathering, they all looked at me as if I was a foreign object in the museum. It wasn’t really malicious stares, it was more a feeling of being intrigued by me.
They seemed confused by me, like they didn’t know how to act around me. There weren’t any interracial relationships in the family before me and my fiance, so they were not used to the idea.
There was a language barrier too. Most of them only spoke Hokkien so I couldn’t find a way to communicate with them aside from “hello” and “the food is delicious”.
My husband, being a ‘banana’, couldn’t connect with them either, so we just sat there in the circle of relatives, killing time, while not being able to join in on any conversations.
After a while, one or two warmed up.
One of his uncles had cooked the food for the reunion dinner, and it was delicious. When I praised his food and started a conversation with him, he became friendlier and more comfortable towards me.
His grandmother from his dad’s side was also very welcoming. Even before I was invited for CNY, I remember how she had always treated me nicely, giving me Christmas presents and ang pows over the years.
I remember her teaching me that I should be bringing mandarin oranges when I go to someone’s house as a gift, which applies even to family.
Other than them, the rest didn’t really try to get to know me. Maybe they found it awkward or maybe they felt like since I am the odd one out, I have to put all the effort and adjust to their ways.
To be honest, I found mingling with my fiance’s side really hard to do because it’s not something I’m used to.
I come from a warm and friendly family, who treated my husband like a son the moment I introduced him to them.
Celebrations in my house are always so welcoming and fun and everyone gets along, no matter who you are. You will never be alone, because there will always be someone approaching you.
My experience with his side of the family was very different. At first, I thought maybe I just have to talk to them more to get them to open up and like me, but sadly, that didn’t work.
Until today, I still find it hard to connect to them.
When we got married, my husband’s parents insisted on two separate receptions.
This sense of being distant didn’t improve much on our wedding day. When we wanted to get married, they made us have two different receptions: One for his side and one for mine.
When we tried to put our foot down, they said it was part of the culture and that we have to follow it.
Eventually, after our attempts of changing their mind did not work, we decided to bite our tongue and gave in to having 2 different ceremonies.
I found it incredulous that they preferred to spend more money than incorporate both sides of the family into one event.
For the Chinese reception, I felt excluded from the planning process. They did everything without asking or telling me what the plan was, to the extent that I didn’t even get the see invitation until it was printed out and ready to give to our guests.
When I got pregnant, my mother in law’s attitude changed
Despite the lack of enthusiasm on my husband’s side for me, we got on with married life. We moved in together, and eventually I got pregnant.
My mother-in-law’s judgement did an 180 about-turn the moment she found out we were expecting a baby. It was like a switch had turned on. She became so ecstatic and supportive of our marriage.
She tried to become part of my life as much as she could. It seemed that she wanted to be present for the pregnancy and birth. Since we were treated quite badly before this, we were quite hesitant to welcome her back into our lives.
But eventually, we realised she was genuine about it and we let her come over. She would make herbal soups for me and started warming up to me. Even till today, she puts in effort to take care of my son and pampers him.
Thankfully, now we have a better relationship, I might even say she is closer to me now than her own son.
Over the years, I have fallen in love with Chinese culture and try to teach my son about it as much as I can
Ever since I went to the Chinese New Year Celebration in Penang in 2018, I have fallen in love with the culture. I try to educate myself in it as much as I can.
I think the culture is very interesting and I always find myself fascinated by it. I don’t think my husband finds it interesting because he grew up with it, whereas he finds the Indian culture interesting since he was not familiar with it.
Now, I like Chinese food even more than my husband so my mother always sends ginger herb soups for me.
I try to cook Chinese food and I think my husband is often quite impressed with the effort I try to put into learning the culture.
For this Chinese New Year since we are in lockdown, I ordered pre-made Chinese food such as yee sang. I wanted to cook dinner for just the 3 of us, my husband, myself, and our son.
I think it’s important to celebrate it, especially for my son. I want him to realize that he is neither just one race nor another, he is both. We want him to grow up with both cultural backgrounds.
He is only 2 so he doesn’t really know the difference yet, but we do want him to understand the importance of having two cultural heritages to draw from when he is older.
We make sure that he spends an equal amount of time with both families to learn about their respective cultures. For example, my mother would feed him Indian food while my mother-in-law cooks Chinese food for him.
We are prepared to have an open conversation with him about his mixed parentage when he is older and hope that he embraces both cultures equally.
Looking back, there is nothing I could have done differently to be liked
I realised now that no matter how much I talked to them and tried to make them open up, their reason for treating me that way is not something I could change about myself.
One cannot change their race nor their skin colour.
His parents were not familiar with interracial relationships, but they were not open to it either. I do think if I were a different race I would have gotten better treatment.
My husband’s brother is currently dating a Caucasian woman and she gets treated the opposite to how I was when I was dating my husband. My mother-in-law is very chatty towards her and invites her to come over all the time, even though they’re not married yet.
I could hold a grudge against her, but I am just happy that she has come around and has accepted me, and is a good grandmother to my son.
For more stories like this, read: 8 Things Your Relatives Always Ask During Chinese New Year Reunion
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