• My in-laws only speak Bengali, while my parents only speak Mandarin. (Digital Vision)Source: Digital Vision
My in-laws only speak Bengali, while my parents only speak Mandarin. To make matters more confusing, my husband and I communicate only in English. At times, the realtime translation took its toll.
By
Angie Cui

13 Oct 2020 - 9:20 AM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2020 - 11:18 AM

My husband and I come from different cultures. I grew up in China, and my husband is from Bangladesh. After graduating from university, we got married in Australia.

Our parents were unable to attend our wedding due to visa and expense issues, so the two sides of our families never got to meet each other. But by the time our baby boy was born, we decided it was time we invited our parents to visit.

We thought it would be a good opportunity for them to get to know each other while spending time with their first grandchild. Something we assumed might be a win-win deal for their first meeting.

The reality, however, turned out to be more complicated.

My in-laws only speak Bengali, while my parents only speak Mandarin. To make matters more confusing, my husband and I communicate only in English. At times, the realtime translation took its toll.

Even social nicety can turn into an epic task.

Even social nicety can turn into an epic task. For instance, when my mum asked me how long it took my in-laws' flight to get to Australia, and how they felt about the weather in Mandarin, I needed to make sure I used the correct words and accurately translated the whole thing to my husband in English, then he would translate it from English to his parents in Bengali, so that everyone could get the same message without (much) misunderstanding.

Language acrobats aside, we were overwhelmed as first-time parents. In theory, the thought of having four extra pairs of hands-on deck seemed dreamy. But what made it unexpectedly tough was that our respective parents wanted to look after our baby in their own well-meaning, yet painfully specific way.

For example, both sets of our folks were determined that we use cloth nappies.

We voted against that suggestion for obvious reasons: time, water wastage, you name it. We tried to explain that to them in both Mandarin and Bengali, and they bargained by offering to wash the nappies for us in return. A move that only succeeded in triggering guilt.

According to Dr Karen Phillip, a family relationship expert and author of Communication Harmony, "Any difference in values can create problems." She added that setting boundaries were key to maintaining everyone's sanity. I wanted to know if there was a secret solution to preventing tense moments from escalating. To my surprise, there was. "Just say, Mum and Dad, you all have done a great job raising us, I am sure you appreciate the decision we are making for our child and family.” An advice I wish heeded at the time.

Food, as you can probably guess, was another issue. Both my husband's and my mum took over all the cooking - for which we were briefly (but truly) grateful. That was before we realised that my mother in law loved using turmeric and chilli, which was too much for my parents to handle. And when my mum made Mapo Tofu one day, my in-laws responded by politely asking, "Is that … cheese?”

Turned out it was difficult for them to adopt each other's food. But the good news was that they didn't like our cooking, either. So we ended up subsisting on take away food.

Turned out it was difficult for them to adopt each other's food. But the good news was that they didn't like our cooking, either. So we ended up subsisting on take away food. This situation would last for a month during their stay.

I don't mean to be a spoilsport. And, like most adult children of migrant, we know how lucky we were to be loved in a strangely specific way.

The good thing was that we soon noticed both my parents and in-laws were keen to learn one English word every day. Also, my mother-in-law soon started to pick up some Mandarin from my mum — which she claimed to enjoy.

In the end, despite the language and cultural barriers, communication progressed between our very limited Bengali, Mandarin and their basic English. My parents and in-laws even went shopping together. And even though it took them a little while, they were spending some quality time with each other at last. 

Looking back, we might have been too hard on our parents on that visit. But kindness and patience — mostly on their part - won the day. And we were glad that they were there for our baby boy.

So, would we do it all over again? Well, a family holiday is on the horizon after the pandemic. It would be nice to have our parents close by one day soon again - even if it might not be under the same roof. 

Angie Cui is a freelance writer.

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