There’s no denying that the most important element of the Chinese New Year is the reunion dinner. With the up-coming annual family get-together being just around the corner, celebrators must surely be busy preparing for the occasion although ─ if truth be told ─ not everyone is anticipating the moment with glee.
I remember back in the day when I was a 10-year-old enjoying the celebrations at our grandparents’ home in Negri Sembilan one Chinese New Year. It was just after the epic reunion dinner where a packed house of at least 30 of my relatives feasted on the spread of the best Hokkien cooking ever to emerge from my grandmother’s kitchen. While the adults lingered at the dinner table, catching up with each other over the year’s events, my cousins and I trooped out to the garden to play.
There was merriment all around, the Mahjong table was out but suddenly, my mother came out of the house, yanked me and my brothers aside and told us in no uncertain terms that we were not to speak with our cousins anymore. I was like ─ What? Why?
I later found out that there had been a spat at the dinner table. Somebody had said something and someone got offended. As a result, camps emerged. One family left in a huff and those that remained tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. The rest of Chinese New Year was awkward and uncomfortable to say the least.
Years later, when I talk to my friends and colleagues, I notice that the anxiety and dread of spending days in the company of those we do not want to see is still as prevalent as ever.
In fact, Chinese New Year is said to be a most stressful festival, what with the travelling involved, the mass Ang Pow give-out, the cooking-up-a-storm for the reunion dinner, not to mention the prying eyes and wagging tongues that one would have to endure in between.
The hardest hit are usually those who are still single as they would be pressured to no end to get married and start a family. Aptly so, the Global Times of China has named this fear of going home a “returning phobia”. In Singapore, the Straits Times has reported that “renting” a boyfriend to keep up appearances at festive occasions has become a booming business.
Be that as it may, and married or not, a skill is definitely required to deflect all these seasonal critiques and here to help Motherhood readers acquire that skill is Joyce Hue, Counselling Psychologist from Advance Dynamics Asia.
1. Respect Individual Differences
It is very important to be aware that you come from a different family upbringing and have different rules. Therefore, respect your in-laws for their individuality and accept that there may be things, questions and events happening that you may be uncomfortable with. Just smile, be polite and act with respect. If there are any doubts, communicate openly and never let bad feelings harbour in your heart. Most importantly, never put your spouse in a tough position.
2. Be Helpful and Courteous
You may be comfortable in their house or your own house but be mindful of the role that you play; a daughter in-law. You may or may not be used to doing housework or serving food but during this festive period, it is good to offer help. You may be used to playing with your phone during dinner but be courteous and be present. Talk to relatives and spend quality time together.
3. Bring Thoughtful Gifts
Don’t go empty handed. Bring along a gift. It doesn’t have to be expensive. For example, making red bean soup dessert ─ your mother-in-law’s favourite dish, will earn you brownie points as you know this is her preference. It also shows off your cooking skills and how you can take care of her son.
4. Be Honest and Don’t Share Too Much
Questions from nosy relatives may come. The biggest mistakes people make is that they tell lies to try to escape these “attacks”. But then, lies may backfire and you may need another lie to cover a lie. So be honest, be truthful and stop when you have answered the question; you do not need to elaborate further. Then find the opportunity to change the topic.
For example: “When are you having a baby?”
“We are planning for one but it depends on fate too. Talking about babies, how is big brother’s baby doing?”
5. Brief Your Children Beforehand
Grandparents will usually spoil their grandkids. It is only natural as they love them so much. You should be glad. But sometimes, it may clash with your own parenting style. Thus, tell yourself that it is only once a year and it is the grandparents’ good intentions. Therefore, before going over, prepare the children by briefing them that this is a special occasion, or negotiate with them that they can have sodas for one night but for the next week, they must drink more plain water. For older kids, make sure they behave themselves. Don’t let their behaviour be a reason for conflict between you and your in-laws.
6. Set Boundaries Gently
We all need our own space and will have our own rules. If necessary, set boundaries and expectations beforehand. For example, if you are unwell, tell your spouse to tell his family that you may be quiet or a little cranky. Or if something urgent happens, tell them it is an emergency and you need to be on the phone (rather than have them think that you would rather play with your phone than to talk to them).
7. Think Before Answering Back
If negative comments come up, take a deep breath; think about the effects of you answering back in a certain way, and whether it will have an impact on the relationship or whether it matters after a few weeks. At this time, ask yourself whether your ego or your relationship is more important. Do you really need to win or is peace in the family more important? I am not asking you to “swallow” all the negative comments, but take some time to think of a gentler response. For example: If a relative compares the cousins’ grades in school, take a deep breath, sing a tune in your head to delay time, then say “I am proud of my son no matter his grade, he is a happy and loving son and that is all that matters.” (Refer to point #4 ─ be honest and don’t share too much).