Do you remember the first time you met your significant other’s family? Come on, I’m sure you do. Everybody does. It’s often awkward, sometime funny, sometime horrifically weird.
I remember when I first met Feng’s parents—they came to Ottawa from the small Canadian town where they worked in without warning us (I later discovered that they always do that). I was sitting on the couch, in the living room, waiting for Feng who had gone out. I heard someone at the door. I thought it was Feng. It wasn’t.
The first time my in-laws saw me, I was thus eating chips on the couch watching trashy reality TV, wearing the crappy clothes I use to lounge around. Awesome. Oh, and I had to make conversation with them until Feng finally arrived.
I have known Feng’s parents for 13 years now, and we mostly get along, although we do not understand each other. It’s not a language issue. It could be cultural, but frankly, I think it’s mostly a personality issue. I don’t necessarily agree with my mother-in-law but we choose to disagree and move on. With my father-in-law, it’s another matter. He is a smart man, he always thinks he knows best and that we should always listen to his not-so-helpful suggestions. And oh, boy, he suggests… and I invariably disagree with him because most of the time, his advice isn’t practical nor helpful. He doesn’t listen to me. It drives me crazy. If I tell him to stop feeding Mark chocolate and candies, he still does it. If I tell him to leave Mark in his stroller, he picks him up. If I tell him I want to go shopping, he tells me I don’t need to, there is food in the fridge (yeah, well, not the stuff I want or need!). Well, you get the picture. It’s only one side of the story, though, I’m sure I get on his nerves too.
All that to say that I was a bit scared to meet my father-in-law’s family. I mean, what do I do if they are all like him?
I didn’t have time to think much about it. They jumped on us as soon as we step out of the train in Wuhan. They hadn’t seen Feng in years, but I guess a Westerner, a toddler and two Chinese men are easy to spot.
And so I was introduced to Feng’s aunt, uncle and cousin. We got into a taxi and they led us to our hotel—a guesthouse in Wuhan University, as the entire family teaches or used to teach there.
Going from Beijing to Wuhan was like taking a great leap backward. Beijing is already fairly exotic to Westerners but Wuhan is rougher, hotter and 100% Chinese. There are few sights, few Western brands (even Coke is hard to find!) and local speak a dialect that is closer to Cantonese than to Mandarin.
The difference between Wuhan and Beijing is a bit like Mexico and Honduras—sure, the core culture is very similar, yet you are a bit lost at first.
And I felt lost in Wuhan. Fortunately, I didn’t have the chance to think about it much—we started off the evening with a diner with the family (the first of many, many lunches, dinners and breakfasts together… Chinese spend their time eating!). It wasn’t as weird as I had feared it would be, and Mark was the focus of attention anyway. He received his first ever 红包, the little red envelops stuffed with money that Chinese traditionally give children. We had traditional Hubei food (hint: it’s greasy, spicy and there is meat in every dish). We chatted about nothing and everything and overall, we all had a good time.
Then we explored Wuhan, or rather Wuchang, where we were staying—Wuhan once consisted of three separate cities, Hanyang, Hankou, and Wuchang, that were amalgamated. The entire city is under construction, there are cranes, trucks, mountains of dirt and concrete everywhere. It makes getting around a bit tricky, most of the time you have to walk on the road, and there are traffic jams everywhere.
And it’s hot. Like, super hot. We are consistently sweating. Wuhan is said to be the “furnace” of China and I can very well believe it. The funny part is, to locals, it’s fall weather!