D...d...dowryfilter? Maybe? I'm getting married to a Chinese woman, very soon, and her rather wealthy parents are asking (hinting, in this face-sensitive culture, so I think that's what it is, but it could mean something else?) where my divorced, broke parents' contribution to the marriage is, or, in lieu of theirs, mine. They've tossed a $140,000 duplex our way, a prime rental property, and a ton of financial support for their daughter. I have about $400 in the bank and an okay freelance career. Barring 10 years to save up and match that...what, exactly, can I do to prevent this from getting really, really, really awkward? A long, rambling explanation follows.
posted by saysthis to society & culture (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
We've been together for a little under 1.5 years. Let me tell you what I like about us: we hang. Oh, sure, we have certain demands and little squabbles about where the dirty socks go (I often forget they don't belong on the coffee table), and I think her glittery high heels are ugly (and how many pairs of those do you need?). But aside from that, we're both freelance creative 20-somethings living and working from home, and we've spent the majority of the last 1.5 years snuggling on this here couch while we watch 3 movies a day and argue over whose choice of junk food is better. The short of it is that one of the reasons we work so well because our Slack (the SubGenius kind) is so strong.
Now, this is important because we've decided, partly because taxes and visas are just easier this way, partly because we've successfully worked our way through some pretty substantial Couple Milestones (injury? debt? support through starting a business? language learning? to name a few) and survived, and partly because we just wanna, to get hitched. We've been kicking around the idea for a few months, and we're both ready. And we decided that we're just gonna do it. We're not ceremonial people. Forget the ceremonies, forget the weird dopey dresses and rings and engagements, let's just get the damn paper and get on with our lives. We got places to do and things to go.
Even though she's pure Beijing and I'm all-American, family isn't too much of a problem. Hers isn't a problem because they are...well...not to stereotype, but, they're a close Asian family without the micromanagement or expectations. To hear the parents tell it, with a daughter like that you fear for your life if you try to tell her what's best for her (actual quote!). The parents live a mile up the road, like me, and say that for their incredibly independent daughter, an American husband is hardly the weirdest thing she's brought home. They cook me dinner and stop in to say hello. My family broke up early and we all realized early on that the only way we'd ever get along was getting out of each others' hair. We get along independently and help out where we can, but on a one-to-one basis. Plus, they're far away, right where they should be. Their attitude: "Any man, woman, or beast that can put up with you is welcome in the family." Somehow it works.
Great, right? Until you realize that she has never been "financially independent" and never will be. Their family is an interdependent unit that functions like a lot of Chinese families, wherein everyone is everyone else's social safety net and helps everybody else out when they can.
Here's how this works in practice: her parents have taken most of their money and put it into real estate. Four apartments scattered around Beijing, one of which she & I occupy, one of which they occupy, one of which is rented out, and another which was just finished and is to be our new home. They still have substantial savings and still make a hefty income every month, so they're not in need. They've never stopped taking care of their daughter, and as I've become part of the family, they've extended that to me.
But I am a rogue who don't need nobody's help. See? I proved that to my parents when I paid all my bills and moved out and never asked for help at all, and even helped them pay some bills from time to time, and when I helped my brother move to China and get himself set up with a job and an apartment. And I live within my means and don't have anything I don't need. My means are modest, and what I got I pay for, right? Free and clear, unlike my mom and dad, who are still struggling under massive divorce debt, and can barely afford healthcare, let alone to pay $15,000 for the interior decoration of a new, 170sqm. duplex.
I can't afford that either. I get by, but I don't have $15,000 laying around! But the new apartment that we're moving into...well...I'm the man of the house, it's purchased and the decorators are in there, and today, I heard that her parents hinted, ever so gently, that maybe my family should help with some of that, because that's what families do when their kids get married, and he is almost your husband and part of the family now...right? Right?
Well, in my family, you don't bring up the bills unless you want a fight. "Not happy? Get a job! Why don't you help out a little? Do you know the furnace broke again? Am I the Treasury? Can I print the money it'll cost to get that fixed? Huh? You know I fed you for 16 years? And why doesn't your mother/father help you?Have you seen gas prices lately? Is somebody gonna bail ME out?" And with my girlfriend, we've both maintained fairly independent finances throughout this relationship. Okay, we'll pool our cash for essentials, fine, but I'm not paying for your $100 moisturizer ("what? you look fine, just use the supermarket stuff!") and you're not paying for my RAM upgrades ("look honey, the shading in Oblivion just isn't what it could be, and no I'm not playing Morrowind again"). We like it that way.
And for the new place, we're buying a minimum of new furniture. Maybe $1000 worth. Just so we have chairs in some rooms. And we two are happy with this arrangement, the same way we're happy with adopting or not having kids, and not doing a wedding ceremony, and letting the parents have the Volvo because we're sick of paying for the gas. If we splurge, it's on the little stuff. And we value time much more highly than money. Maybe a little too much, as we...um...don't really have any savings. We did, but the injury cleaned us out.
This is all coming to the head that basically, down to now, we haven't really brooked the question of my financial solvency with her parents. They know what I make, I know what they make, and I've been scrupulous about not asking them for anything other than small favors, as they have been of me (biggest thing I asked them to do - keep my brother's furniture for the summer while he goes home to sort out visa stuff). But I'm about to join the family For Real, and though my abstention from the family economy up to now has been acceptable, I've been seeing more and more hints that that's about to change.
These are not crazy rich people. Her parents are minimalists far beyond what their daughter is. Dad's vice? He collects lighters. Mom's? She cuts out the joke pages from the newspaper and files them. They just don't skimp on the important stuff. Money goes to places where it will matter. Furniture and interior decorating are spartan, but quality. Hardwood, stuff lasts for years, y'know? I'd do the same if I was buying and decorating a new place.
I didn't know I was doing that until earlier today. In China, when two people get married, both families pitch in for the wedding and the spanking new apartment and furniture. We've gutted most of that, and made clear we're doing this our way to most parties involved, and her parents have been amenable to most of it. Money, both I and her parents have hesitated to talk about, they because they don't know what to expect of another culture and are afraid of offending me, and I because the only way I know how to handle money with friends and relatives is to stand on my own damn feet and not ask for financial help I don't need. With her parents, I thought the unspoken assumption was that they were doing this for their daughter anyway - I just happened to be the guy she was marrying. The house was purchased before I met her, and I have no idea what they're thinking. Was this apartment originally bought as marriage prep? Has it undergone a paradigm shift in their minds, from another real estate investment to The Wedding Gift? Am I overthinking this? Underthinking it? I need perspective!
There's more than enough love to go around, don't get me wrong there. We're all fond of each other, and I have the utmost respect for my in-laws-to-be. But with the day nearing and things getting real, I think they're just as nervous as we are. I'm really, really scared of this becoming an issue in our relationship with the parents later on.
The worst is, I don't know how to bring it up! Neither she, nor her parents, speak English. While she's comfortable around Westerners and actually does speak a lot more than she has the guts to use, her parents have ZERO exposure to US/Minnesotan ways other than yours truly. And in between my Minnesota nice, their face, my girlfriend's grating Beijing bluntness (her parents have it too, but they tread delicately with her; she does not with them), the differences in class background, the generational differences in regard for tradition, lifestyle differences, and the sheer dollar volume attached if we DO start counting, I think this is the perfect storm of awkwardness and misunderstanding about to break. She gets me, but...will they? And what do I say to MY parents?????
I guess my personal stance on all this is, sure, I'm happy to pay, I am living in this apartment, that's fine...I just don't know who to compromise with and how. The parents tell HER this stuff, not me, and in a very convoluted way. Direct conversations about her relationships are verboten, because she gets snarly when they intervene. Then she comes to me and asks what they really meant.
I would really, really appreciate any advice or anecdotes from people who've gone through something similar. 'Cause I'm wigging out here. What should I do??????