Possibly the longest post on askmefi ever
September 29, 2008 4:35 PM   Subscribe

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.

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??????
posted by saysthis to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh my god. If you could get someone to pay you a nickle for every word you write, you'd be on easy street. Succinctify, man!

You're all over the place here... your wigging out has spilled over onto my computer screen! Stop it!

Look, you're never going to live up to her parent's expectations. You just can't - unless you get your shit together, out grow your Slacktivism, say goodbye to Bob Dobbs, and get a job as an investment banker. We both know that's not going to happen... so you're screwed, and you're going to have to figure out how to live with your screwed status.

Your fiance, girlfriend, whatever she is (sorry, couldn't really tell from your magnum opus there) is the middle man here - she is the one person who understands both your financial status and her parents' spending. She is the one who needs be your advocate, explaining your merits, and assuring the parents that you're not a freeloader. (I'm not convinced you're not a freeloader, but you're not shacking with my daughter...)

You need to start by talking to her about the whole issue and getting her to bring her parents into the conversation...
posted by wfrgms at 4:54 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am from an Asian family. If you and your fiance are living in one of their units and are not paying rent, you should pay rent. If they don't want rent from her, pay half of what the rent would be. Your half. That is what my parents would expect.
posted by gt2 at 5:17 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Do you have any trusted friends who speak the family's language well enough, and know and like you well enough, to help you with this?
posted by amtho at 5:19 PM on September 29, 2008


You need to do two things. First, communicate very clearly (either directly to them, or via your fiance, whatever is more comfortable) that you and your family are financially divorced. There is no support coming from them, and you do not support them, either.

Second, you need to immediately and visibly get with the program. What program, you ask? This one:

Her parents are minimalists far beyond what their daughter is. ... 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.

There is a really, really clear model for you to follow here, that will make or break their feelings about you. They know you have no cash in the bank, and they will learn (as soon as you tell them) that there is no Daddy Warbucks waiting in the wings to bail you out. They will be ok with that, because they love their daughter and she loves you.

But they will not be ok with a slacker who blows his money on RAM for video games, rather than taking what little he has and working like a dog to help support their daughter, and eventually, his in-laws.

Basically, they will want to see if the boy their daughter loves, and whom they have welcomed into their family, is going to decide to be a man and take on the responsibilities that come with being a man, or if he will stay as a freeloading boy.

You can fill in all the cliches: "grow a pair"; "grab bootstraps and lift"; etc. You are facing a really classic conundrum of adulthood, and the realization that what you thought were private decisions (say, spending Tuesday morning watching TV reruns) are actually totally public, and you are going to be judged purely by your actions.

Kind of sucks, doesn't it? Being a delayed adolescent is more fun, no? And it's not like they will kick you out, whatever you do — they will be polite and welcoming, pretty much no matter how much of a bum you are, because they love their daughter. But if you value their opinion, your choices are going to need to change from what you have done up to know.
posted by Forktine at 5:22 PM on September 29, 2008 [23 favorites]


if they already know how little you make and how little you've got socked away and that you're a white guy and not a doctor or lawyer or engineer and that your parents are divorced and they're not actively throwing hissyfits that their daughter marrying you despite all these things...

well, shit. congratulations! they are really fucking laidback as far as asian parents go—even asian parents that have lived in the us for decades are not necessarily as accepting as your fiancee's parents are being. tell your fiancee what you told us (but, you know, succinctly) and make the decision with her. you're marrying her, which makes this a decision to make together.
posted by lia at 5:23 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Eeeeeesh.

Okay, I've been laid up with a busted leg for the past few months. And helping my brother pay for school, as well as funding my girlfriend's (we just. don't. say. fiance in this house, because it's so so co-dependent, and we BOTH think so) living expenses while she gets her new business off the ground. No savings because of these present factors. I am definitely, definitely not that much of a slacker, and I work my ass off when I must. I've always freelanced, but now that she's crazy busy and I can walk again, we decided to have me at home to take care of housework for awhile rather than at work full-time. I say we're Slack because we're informal and won't be doing the marriage or consumer pomp.

Sorry I didn't explain that better.
posted by saysthis at 5:35 PM on September 29, 2008


isn't freedom of speech and freedom from oppression for her and her children worth more than a bunch of condos?

Why don't you tel that to her parents.
posted by spacefire at 5:55 PM on September 29, 2008


@wfrgms - You're right that this is a conversation I need to have with her parents. She's been playing advocate for me, but this is because I don't know how to start this conversation. Really. I can talk with them for hours about the state of the world, food, movies, stories about our pets...but like Forktine says, they are always polite and welcoming, because I love their daughter. This is not a conversation I can have with them directly because they just won't say anything about their expectations to me point-blank, and I really think it would be rude of me to be so blunt with them. Any reference I make to this is essentially implying that they're cheap and money-grubbing in this culture. I tried asking directly (but politely) if they had any financial hopes for me once, and after brushing me off with reassurances that they think of me as a son and understand young people need to struggle they avoided me for a week and bought me things. My girlfriend relayed that they were deathly afraid they'd somehow made me think they were penny counters and would scare me off.

@gt2 - really? We never even thought of that. I'll ask the girlfriend when she wakes up.

@amtho - I'm fluent in Mandarin. A common syntax is not our problem.

@Forktine - You know, you may be on to something, but what I really worry about is how to manage that perception. I wonder if some overt gestures of responsibility (i.e., buy them some gifts, take a more active role in helping them manage their finances (there's a LOT to do there, and it's mostly the mom who gets stuck running all the errands)) wouldn't help show them I'm visibly with the program. The thing about ME being financially divorced from the parents is good, but they do help with my brother's finances from time to time, so it might sound disingenuous.

@lia - They're very cool. :) And I'll be having that conversation with her today.
posted by saysthis at 6:00 PM on September 29, 2008


@spacefire - As a skilled Beijing resident with property and money, she could get a green card if she wanted one.
posted by saysthis at 6:10 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm just having a hard time seeing what the problem is here... you're worried you're perceived as a freeloader, but you're too polite to be blunt with them... you want to pay your share, but their spending on the both of you is making that economically unfeasible... you love their daughter, but you're too cool to get married...

Dude, they aren't spending money on both of you - they are spending money on her. There is nothing you can do to control that.

Enjoy the ride while it lasts...
posted by wfrgms at 6:21 PM on September 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wonder if some overt gestures of responsibility (i.e., buy them some gifts, take a more active role in helping them manage their finances (there's a LOT to do there, and it's mostly the mom who gets stuck running all the errands)) wouldn't help show them I'm visibly with the program.

I think we have different understandings here of what the "program" is.

My reading of it, in what you wrote and in my own experience, is that the program means you bust ass and manage your finances as if the care of their daughter mattered to you. Starting with nothing is not a strike against you; visibly freeloading is.

This isn't to say you have to do any of this — it's a big world, and you can do something totally different.

But the way you will impress them is not with gifts, it is by visibly becoming someone who can afford to give gifts. Do you see the distinction there?

They said it pretty directly:

reassurances that they think of me as a son and understand young people need to struggle

They are hoping to see evidence of that struggle. Trying and failing is cool; not trying isn't cool. Staying at home to do housework isn't with the program; staying home and bringing in freelance contracts definitely is.
posted by Forktine at 6:45 PM on September 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


Admittedly I'm ignorant of the culture, but if all you have at the moment is a 10 year plan - show them that. They care for their daughter so they need to know that you can also care for their daughter. They sound like smart simple people. It's obvious you regard them very highly. Do what they do and you'll be sweet. You guys sound as cute as two kitties :) You just need to at least show that you're about to bounce back. With the goal of being in a position to care for her, just as they do.
Money is nothing, until you need it... and then it's everything.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:11 PM on September 29, 2008


Being a second generation Chinese that's married into a Minnesotan family, I can somewhat relate. What you need to realize that this is not about how much money you or your family have now. They are taking you in as family and you need to start acting like family, and to most Chinese parents that means doing something they can be proud of. Not just, we're really impressed with saysthis, but proud as in they can brag to friends over tea about this or that. Maybe sometimes it will be the great things you can afford to buy their daughter. Maybe it's an ad campaign that shows up all over Beijing. Maybe it's grandchildren. You have to have a story.
posted by advicepig at 8:37 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


forktine has the best advice in this thread so far, twice over.

also i want to say that while it might weird her parents out a bit that your parents aren't as financially involved in your life as they are in their daughter's, trust me when i say that you are (or at least should be) scoring points for helping both your brother and your girlfriend go to school. doing that says that you understand the importance of education, and that family is important to you. more than any bling you could buy them, that kind of thing shows that you're serious about making a good life with their daughter and any grandchildren that might turn up somewhere along the way. don't worry about not having savings right now—you have to spend money to make money, and to asian parents spending money on education makes all the sense in the world.

while you're not making money (and as forktine said, you need to get on this) the most valuable thing you have is your time, so use it. go the extra mile and help her parents with things. run errands, learn what they like, anticipate what they might need; show them that you are committed to being part of the family.
posted by lia at 8:53 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, your post is too long. It's also very defensive. So much DRAMA!

Just start Googling "attitudes towards money" and you'll find some stuff.

Don't mean to be rude, but you really have to swim through your post to find what your issues really are. I got the impression that you don't feel comfortable talking about money, that you are set in your attitudes towards money and while you hope money won't be an issue with her parents when it already is.

I take it you've lived in China for some time? You'll need to read some book or article about money and attitudes towards it. Maybe you have a Chinese friend you can ask discretely?

Like - how would you handle the situation if you were both Americans? No two American families handle money the same way. You tried asking them what they expected from a son and they wouldn't give you an answer. The daughter doesn't like the parents meddling.

They want you to be their SON-IN-LAW and they want you to make their daughter happy and to a lesser extent they want you to project an image of whatever Chinese society defines as success.

If you work a decent job and your finances are ok (other than this unsaid pressure you feel to live a large life), then what you need to do is "settle down" and have a kid.

As for your family - are you not on good terms? Your family has it's own issues towards money, so maybe you need your family to contribute in a non-monetary fashion. If your parents are retired, have them babysit or come over and visit.

1. Your family needs to get involved in some way if it's not financial. If you're living in Beijing, maybe it means your family buys American furniture and ships it. Not very practical, but it's a symbolic gesture.
2. Or you buy their daughter a car. It's a big deal in China, or so I heard.


I'm throwing around some thoughts here and not all of them stick, but if I had a bottom line thing to say is - tell them when you two want to raise a family. I mean, if they understand your financial situation and your parents, then what they really want from you is your ability to be a father and create a family with their daughter.

Really? Be a Dad? Yeah, it's not very hip and slack but it's worth exploring. Maybe that's what they want. I know it's what lots of parents want from their kids, but not all parents, so verify this. But most importantly, make sure you want kids. And make sure you want this relationship. Money is an important part of relationships, not the fact you have it, but that your attitudes towards it can be accommodated.
posted by abdulf at 9:18 PM on September 29, 2008


This post is rambling, and it is very difficult to tell where the actual question is, but my first reaction is that your apprehension may be justified but misplaced.

Just one example: you say you've been in urban China for more than four years as a freelancer with a healthy workload but don't have more than 400$ in savings (!) even though you live a very modest lifestyle.

I would suggest that this, more than any vague cultural differences, is fairly serious if you want to maintain financial independence from your collective parents but enter into a traditional-style marriage. It is my general understanding that a long-term, durable, monogamous relationship involves the assumption of a good deal of responsibility over the welfare of your partner, and I think financial stability is a necessary component of this, and if you have barely a month's salary in savings after four years of working, I would suggest that her parents have good reason to be apprehensive.

Furthermore, (I'm probably wrong, but) I suspect that you also lack any kind of life or disability insurance. You've already been in one serious automobile accident - if something more serious happens in the future, are you just betting on her ability to go back home and rely on her family to take care of her?

I would suspect that if I were traditional middle class mainland Chinese parents, it would be these more universal and more practical concerns that would trouble me - not any of the stereotypical culture clash stuff.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:21 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Her parents aren't looking for a dowry; they are trying to figure out if you're just a mooch.

No one wants to see their child married to someone who's simply there for a free ride on the gravy train. They are asking when you plan to step up to the responsibility of providing for yourself, your fiancée and your (eventual) children. It may not be your intention to mooch off them in any way; they need to know that.

Right now, you are living off their largess. Ask your fiancée to discuss how family finances are handled. Eventually, a payment will come due for your "free" housing probably in the form of acting as a safety net for the family. You noted that they tell her stuff and not you. She's their daughter; you're something of an unknown at this time. Ask your fiancée to help clarify.
posted by 26.2 at 11:32 PM on September 29, 2008


Well, first off, congratulations on your engagement.

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 ... 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.

Forktine has some pretty good advice for you there. It's not really about the money, or any sort of 'dowry', it's more like you're about to join a very close knit family, and they kind of want to know if you're going to make it stronger or weaker. This is especially important if she's an only child who is going to be taking care of them when they're old. If you come from a family where the relationships are kind of different (I mean, you help your brother, which is good, but if there's not really a closely knit network), it may be kind of difficult to understand, but ... 'everyone is everyone else's social safety net and helps everybody else when they can' is kind of an understatement. In the families I'm familiar with, you need a very very good reason to not help out another family member. (A very good reason could be abuse of the family network -- my grandfather told someone once that he would give him this money, but after that he was never to talk to him again -- basically, he was out of the family. The guy chose money over family, which was even more shameful.)

In a way, if you accept these 'gifts' and marry their daughter (again, especially if she's an only daughter), you are saying that you are entering into their family, which, on one hand, cool, you get a house and stuff -- but on the other hand, don't ever let the family down. If you are attached to being an independent 'rogue' ... just remember that the gifts carry obligations with them.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:34 AM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Speaking as a Chinese person -

'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?'

If your girlfriend is a single child, then the apartment purchase was definitely both - there's no clear separation between what's her parents' and what is hers, since the parents are sure to leave everything to her anyway.

'They've never stopped taking care of their daughter, and as I've become part of the family, they've extended that to me.'

Actually I'm somewhat surprised to read this. You becoming part of the family doesn't mean that you will share the same protected status as your girlfriend. More likely or not, you will be expected to become one of the weight-lifters of the family, in the sense that the parents are releasing (partially) their daughter into your care.

Assuming that the apartment is entirely paid off, I'd suggest that you offer to shoulder the cost of the interior decoration. Not in one shot, but in several loan payments back to your parents-in-law. Given that they probably won't allow you to pay rent to them (the apartment is a gift after all,) it would seem to be the fair thing to do anyway.

'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.'

Maybe without your girlfriend in between, (who's in awkward spot and who might be too emotionally attached to both sides to be a good go-between), you might actually communicate with your in-laws-to-be better. Explain to them directly about your family dynamics, ask them what they expect from you, etc.
posted by of strange foe at 12:14 PM on September 30, 2008


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