How to break the news to the conservative parents?
June 25, 2008 5:52 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend and I have been living together for about a year, and her conservative Asian parents don't know. How do we break the news to them?

We moved in together last year, and she didn't want to tell her parents then because she was afraid that they would freak out and disown her. I'm not so sure; her father is the stern silent type but her mother seems like a sweetheart and they both seem like realists. She's the only daughter of four children, and it seems like she's kind of the favorite. Serious old-world shunning seems a little unlikely. Then again, they're her parents, and she'd know better than I would. Therefore, I've generally deferred to my girlfriend's judgement about when and how to deal with them. Since they live in another city, it hasn't yet been an issue.

She's in her first year of graduate school in a lucrative field and I'm just finishing my undergrad this semester. After that I'll be graduating and getting a day job while pursuing my career as an actor. Somewhat understandably, this doesn't endear me to her parents, as they envision her meeting a doctor, or at least a lawyer. So I worry about being seen as a leech. I'm not; I pay my own way and intend to continue doing so, but I can see where their reservations come from. They also seem to have this "actors are professional LIARS" prejudice that I thought had died out a hundred years ago.

Obviously we can't keep this hidden forever, but a simple "call them up and tell them" may not be the best thing. My girlfriend is terribly nervous and says she has no idea how they'll react. I'd like to salvage whatever scraps of good impression I can by seeming responsible about it. We have been considering waiting until I have graduated and am gainfully employed before telling them, but whether we do that or not we are at a loss as to what strategy to take.

Do we tell them that we JUST moved in together, i.e. that I moved in to the apartment that they think she's been living alone in? (We moved in simultaneously.) Do we tell them we moved in together nearly a year ago, and that we've been hiding it? (Sorry Dad!) Should we wait till I graduate or get a job and then look for a new place and "move in together" then? Should we keep up the subterfuge until I "make an honest woman out of her?" Wait until the first surprise visit? (I thought for sure it would have happened by now, but so far no "just passing through" moment has yet to occur.) Is there another option I'm not seeing here?

I'm particularly looking for people with experience with conservative immigrant parents of significant others. They really are a different creature than other parents, or so it seems. It's like they're from Mars.

Any advice is helpful.

Sorry this is anonymous, but her father is a notorious snoop and a known google-whiz.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My SO is from Taiwan, and we were in very much the same situation- with her living in Australia and studying. The concept of "me" was slowly introduced, i.e.

I've met an incredibly amazing, handsome boy...

Month or two later... incredibly amazing, handsome boy has a room in his house...

They put two and two together and worked it out. We started visiting Taiwan together and it was pretty obvious that we were a solid item.

They are pretty conservative, but realise that things are different in the west. I also think their love for their daughter exceeds any issues they may have over such issues.

The big deal was when she became pregnant (10 years later) and we weren't married. She just told them, that was an issue for her, but she just told them and they were happy.

We've just had our second baby, still not married, but our kids have two proud doting grandparents.
posted by mattoxic at 6:10 PM on June 25, 2008

Honestly, don't do it. Hide it. Are you interested in someday marrying this girl? Don't do it. I have several friends with conservative asian parents that have hid it for YEARS, if they can do it, so can you! You'll be the guy that corrupted her and they are already suspicious of you. I'm also guessing you aren't asia. Yet another strike against you. Unemployed? An actor? Living in sin? No, no, no. Let them save face, let them save her and the family's reputation (yes I know it's ridiculous, but this still matters to a lot of people), they don't need to know, they don't want to know.

If they "stop by" at 11 at night, you are there fixing a leaky sink and all your stuff is there because you have no storage room at your place, so you leave it at hers. She just happens to own 2 toothbrushes and has started cross-dressing, whatever be creative! They will believe whatever lie you tell them, you will be amazed and astounded at what they will take at face value to keep the lie alive!

On some level they do probably know, but let them live in denial. They probably don't want to know, that's why they don't just "stop by" and why they don't ask and why they don't anything that would enable them to find out if you are having sex or god forbid living together. This is the game that conservative parents play with their children, by on some level playing by their rules (or at least not shoving it in their face) you are respecting their values and allowing them to live in the fantasy world of their choosing. Trust me they will not appreciate you thrusting them into the modern world.
posted by whoaali at 6:19 PM on June 25, 2008 [5 favorites]

(I'm a liberal immigrant parent)

Have you thought of a formal engagement (with a way off in the distance wedding) to test the waters? Their reactions might give the both of you a clue on what to do, and it might make your living together more palatable to them.

My gut feeling answer is for you to try your best to keep the subterfuge, to the point of inventing some temporary problem in your appartment if you get caught.

Good luck to you two: the culture gap combined with the generation gap makes things complicated.
posted by francesca too at 6:27 PM on June 25, 2008

I have a friend who underwent a similar experience a few years ago. This was in Japan, and the girl's parents had no idea she'd gotten together with a foreigner. The general feeling between the two was that her parents, especially her mother, would freak out if they were to find out that they were together. They started sharing an apartment fairly soon after they became a couple and, as if they didn't have enough to deal with already, the girl ended up dropping out of university and working part-time jobs. Her parents didn't know about this either, so it was two massive coverups at once.

They lived together in this state for 3 or 4 years, during which time her siblings knew what was going on, and I assume they aided in the coverup. I sort of fell out of touch with them during the real conflict, but I'd heard that they'd had a difficult confrontation with the parents, including the much feared freak-out by the mother. But today, they're happily married and seem to get along well with the parents.

I have a very recent personal experience that might be another good point of comparison for you. My parents are Japanese living in North America, and I was born in and grew up here. While I was in Japan, I met my wife, who is a Caucasian New Zealander. My wife lived in Japan for 8 years, and knows the culture and speaks the language fairly well. My parents have lived in Canada for several decades. Therefore, we assumed that any cultural conflicts would be minimal..

We could not have been more wrong.

My wife and I were married in May. The period leading up to and immediately after the wedding were extremely tense and stressful (the wedding itself was great...), and the mother - me - wife relationship was severely damaged. I hesitate to go into details on a public site like this one, but I'll say that all parties involved had their own ideas about what was 'right' and 'normal'. This, coupled with what turned out to be huge barriers to communication made for an extremely difficult few months. It's only been a few weeks since the ceremony, but I expect to be dealing with the aftermath for years to come. I guess it's hard to speak about the causes as 'cultural' because they never are just 'cultural', but all involved did recognize at least part of the character of the conflict to be because of a three-way Japan-New Zealand-Canada gap.

I don't mean to terrify you. The reason I tell that story is that my sense of such situations is that, if there is potential for conflict, then it will be unavoidable, and it will probably be ugly. It may not appear right away, but if the personalities, cultures, and circumstances don't blend in just the right way, then the mixture is likely to be explosive.

I guess my advice then is to hide it until you can do something to reduce the likely magnitude of the conflict. Don't give them anything else to complain to you or blame you about. In my friends' case, by the time they broke the news, he was almost graduated from a top university, and today he's an engineer at a major corporation. These things probably went a long way in softening the blow. In my case, our situation was much less certain and stable, and to my parents, certainty and stability were pre-requisites for marriage. This was not the only factor at play, but I think if we'd gotten married in 5 years instead of now, the battle would have been fought with knives instead of nukes.
posted by mariokrat at 6:43 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know this isn't the answer you're asking for, and I don't have the perspective of dating someone with immigrant parents, but my gut feeling is -- this is a sad situation!

Even though her parents are immigrants, she is a modern woman who lives in a world where women can make their own decisions, and shouldn't live in fear of what they think and have to hide important information about their life than living with the one they love!

Maybe this comment isn't welcome, but I would really encourage you (or rather, her) to think about this. I had relatively strick parents growing up, and we bashed heads about a number of tough issues, but eventually realize that there are things I like about my parents and things I don't. I agree with their opinions and advice on some things, but not others. I see them more as people now, rather than my conscience or disciplinarians.

One of the benefits of living in this country is that women are individuals and not property. Although still, many women in the new world also move through the phases of being someone's daughter to someone's wife to someone's wife without being a somebody.

I think it's your daughter's responsibility to tell her parents. It's sort of like the other question today where one girl wouldn't acknowledge her girl friend as her girlfriend. Listen to your gut. What is the right thing to do?
posted by Flying Squirrel at 6:45 PM on June 25, 2008

From an asian dude from a conservative Korean Family and his whitey girlfriend, who went through similar crap about 2 years ago:

You will be judged primarily on two criteria: your occupation, and your breeding stock, aka family.
1) You need to beef up your presentation of your acting career. Focus on how you are a small businessman sellling a service rather than some punk artist actor. Punk artists never prosper, and they get shunned by the family. Don't talk about loving your work, focus on loving the realistic sums you plan to bring in reliably as a working actor. Be pragmatic, and sound like you have a plan. We had it easy, as the girlfriend was going to a good law school, and thus had a realistic plan to make good money. Talk about making TOO much money in the future, and they know you're pandering.

2)Family. Is your family wealthy? Good! You are a winner! Otherwise, hard work, and other confucian virtues in your father and mother are good to highlight. This of course, should culminate in how important family is to you. I know at least for my crazy-ass dad, that not being respectful of elders is his pet peeve, and his first way to determine if someone is trash. Knock your figurative forehead, man. You are his biatch.
Ask your girlfriend if there are any professions your father has particular vitriol for. For instance, my dad hates lawyers with a passion, but we prefaced my girlfriend's future legal career with the fact that she was going to a "top 20" law school, ambitious as fuck, and it was all gravy. This also applies to the family. The 'rents were duly impressed by them both being teachers, (noble profession) but we left out the fact that they taught gym and 2nd grade. (less prestigious in their eyes)

Lastly, education always helps. Did you go to a brand name school? (something Ivy, Stanford, Georgetown, etc) If not, play up your good program if you can. For instance, if you went to University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, you went to a less prestigious joint that MIT, but you still went to a top 5 engineering program. It's all about ranks, man. Don't ask, it just is. The traditional disclaimer for all of these suggestions is that your results may vary- aggressive patriarchal asian fathers may vary, make sure these ideas apply to your particular asian with your girlfriend.

Meet with them in person, for dinner, endear yourself to them in these ways, and hopefully it will be ok. The gf suggests to announce the whole living together thing after you win acceptance- cuz It is all about earning the dad's acceptance.

You must be scared, and the girlfriend was too. They just want to make sure that you have traditional values (from your family) and that you have good earning potiential (from your education and job choice). Play up how good a choice you are, and godspeed!
posted by wuzandfuzz at 6:57 PM on June 25, 2008 [6 favorites]

If the parents are in the US, they are at least likely to be a bit more worldly than if they were in the home country. [There seems to be an Asian slant in the answers but your post doesn't hint what the national origin is.]

The key in your case seems to be the mom. Maybe your girlfriend can confide in her and see if she can help you engineer breaking it to dad.

I was the son of conservative immigrants, and a generation ago my now-wife and I worried about this, mistakenly as it turned out. From things my mother said after we got married, she would have been cool with us living together. And after we got married and my mother died, my father came to visit us with his new lady friend, taking it for granted that if was OK with us they that they shared a room. Eventually, my wife's mother also visited with her boyfriend, and her father (they were divorced) showed up with his girlfriend. So, the shoe could be on the other foot at some point.
posted by beagle at 7:25 PM on June 25, 2008

I've been in a similar situation to your girlfriend, though my sister would have had a closer experience. Bangladeshi parentage + moving to ultraliberal country + dating whiteys = OI TROUBLE.

I told my parents straight out about my boyfriend. Honestly, I was so smitten, I didn't even think of hiding it! My parents keep telling me "don't move in with a guy!", which caused SO MANY issues because I had to find a new place to live and there weren't any good girls-only houses! I told my dad that finding a house only with girls is next to impossible, and he eventually relented.

I don't live with my boyfriend (his house isn't big enough) but I'm at his place most of the time. I don't tell my parents that. When I came back from the summer hols, I lived at his place for a month - my parents were told that I was living "with a friend".

My sister moved in with her now-fiance long before any thoughts of marriage, and he was one of the very few boyfriends she'd declared to my parents. My parents liked him as a person, but they were disappointed with her choice of living with a man alone before marriage. (It didn't help that her man's main hobby is juggling!) Now they're engaged, which makes them "legal", but it's the main impetus for my parents suddenly being MORE conservative towards me (which is odd, because I've NEVER been the goody goody).

Do her parents know you exist and that you're her partner? They'd likely already put two and two together. I don't know if hiding it is necessarily a good strategy - they'd get upset that you're hiding things from them! (As you said, they are an odd species. There is no logic with them honestly.) I'd say don't force it, but if it happens, be honest.

Good luck!
posted by divabat at 7:28 PM on June 25, 2008

follow-up from someone who would prefer to remain anonymous.
Substitute "Latin American" for "Asian" and "unemployed graduate student" for "wannabe actor" and what you describe was basically my situation.

What worked pretty well:

* I stayed in the background, and let my girlfriend handle all communications with her family. She knows them, she has to deal with the fallout; you should trust her on this.

* She told her mother who was sympathetic and more liberal about such things first, and followed her mother's advice about when and how to tell the father. In fact, I think her mother broke the news to him, but I'm not sure about that.

* Being able to show how welcoming my family was of her. Any immigrant parent will know at least second hand of a case where someone's kid was terribly rejected by the mainstream family of a boyfriend/girlfriend. She comes as a package unit with her family; you need to be able to show that your family is either totally supportive, or is completely not in the picture.

What didn't work so well:

* I should have had a "man to man" chat with her father right away once he heard the news to discuss my intentions and so on. I avoided this, and he still feels that protocol was violated. The father's concern for his daughter is coming out of love, and for him to be happy he needs to feel that his daughter will be loved and cared for as intensely by you as he does. We eventually worked through this, but it took a long time, and there was nothing really gained by not doing things the right way.

* If you are sure you are going to get married, the engagement is the right time to tell them. If you aren't going to get married, she might not want to tell them (or at least not the most conservative parent) about living with you. We told them early; had we waited until after we were engaged it would have been a much easier conversation. Living together as boyfriend/girlfriend is a big deal to some people; living together as fiancees is a much more minor sin in many people's eyes. I'm not suggesting that you get married because of this, but rather that if you are going to do so anyway that this becomes part of the discussion.

Lastly, be prepared to be able to make a serious argument for your plan for the future, career- and family-wise. There are lots of wannabe actors out there -- why should their daughter's precious future be entrusted to you? What is your actual plan? Just carrying your own weight isn't the point -- what's the plan for having kids? what if she gets sick? Basically, how are you planning to go from where you are now to where you want to be, and can you explain that in terms that will resonate with her parents?

Things worked out well for us, and I'm now very close to her parents. But it was definitely tricky at times, and could have been easier if we had done things a little bit different.
posted by jessamyn at 7:38 PM on June 25, 2008

I'm in very much a similar situation with Indian parents and an American boyfriend. We aren't technically living together but I tend to stay at his place most of the time. My parents aren't terribly conservative in many ways and I told them immediately about my boyfriend but they are very concerned that I don't live with him to the point where every conversation ends with and don't tell me that you've moved in with him after the fact, it's absolutely not ok etc etc. Since I'm serious about this boy and he is serious about me, we're trying our best to be discreet about things and not prejudice my family against him. @Flying Squirrel: It's true that it's in many ways a sad situation, but you pretty much have to pick your battles. I can consider myself a modern, independent woman and in no way anyone's property and still think that discretion is the better part of valor. I think that my parents probably know that I'm more or less living with my boyfriend -- but it still suits them to believe that I don't and to be able to tell people that I don't.
posted by peacheater at 7:52 PM on June 25, 2008

I fit the "people with experience with conservative immigrant parents" description, and my boy is pure Gringo stock.

Is there really a compelling reason to tell them at all? I can't understand why you would want to upset the waters in this way when everything seems to work fine right now. If it ain't broke... ya know?

In my experience, the parents don't want to know. Your girlfriend's fear and reluctance are probably on-target with this, and since she'll have to deal with the aftershocks, I think she should get to decide.

I had thought that my beloved father was super-liberal, but he found out we were living together and just FLIPPED THE HELL OUT. I saw a side of his personality that I had never seen before: I was suddenly confronted with a misogynist stereotype of an 1800s Latin patriarch. After the blow-out when he had calmed down a bit, he told me not to tell him about living together - implicitly asking me to lie to him.

So if I were you? Why not just wait till after you're at least engaged, if you have to tell them at all? They're probably happy in their self-delusion.
posted by GardenGal at 8:31 PM on June 25, 2008

Watching this thread with interest because I'm in the same situation and I'm meeting her parents for the first time in August...

And I'll point out that, at least in China, actors have traditionally been considered at the same level or lower than prostitutes. That's changed somewhat in recent years, but beware :P
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:33 PM on June 25, 2008

Invite them over for dinner or whatever. Show them around. When they see the one bed(room) and ask where she or you sleeps, tell them, "On the left."
posted by Su at 9:38 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's the real question: what is your gf (and by extension, you) really afraid of? Losing the parents' love? Losing financial help from them? Losing other, material and logistic concerns (place to stay, other conveniences)? What's the problem?

Here's the thing--you are an adult. Your gf is an adult. If you two want to live in the adult world, and therefore live together, cowboy up and do it. You can live in fear and furtiveness, avoiding the subject and hiding your living arrangements, I suppose, but how un-fun is that? If her parents disapprove, your gf is in a pickle, because she has to choose. The wise choice will be to stand her ground, and if her parents are assholes about it, refuse to talk about it, change the subject. If they persist, leave their company. Easier for you, but your gf will need to do the same thing. The silver lining of all that is that they might very well come to accept the relationship and you all will have a big laugh about it in the near future. But bottom line, you're adults and you should embrace the freedom of that but also accept the burdensome responsibility of that.
posted by zardoz at 12:27 AM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I too once went through this same situation. Sometimes it ii important to remember one thing: a lot of things can be accepted in Asian cultures if they are not verbalized. I have one friend who has lived with his GF for 25 years now unmarried, They just never bring it up. If they did, everyone would lose face.
But i would suggest your GF will be the best judge of her parents sense of things. My wife surely was. I can tell you thought that hte night i went out with her father and asked to marry his daughter 7 years ago and he said " i am not sure. I must think about that" was one hard evening. He thought long and hard: 6 months later said yes, in large measure due to a heartfelt letter to him from my wife.
posted by dougiedd at 12:37 AM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Shame you didn't mention the countries and cultures involved. As you can see from the above posts, the specific mix of cultures can really make a difference in the outcome.

But... I think she should tell them ASAP. In person (if possible) with you just around the corner in case all goes well and they want to meet you. or in case it goes to hell so you'll be there for support. The pressure this puts on a relationship is no good.

I lived with my GF in Taiwan. Her parents lived nearby and had keys to the house so the fear of the random drop-in was very real and wore on both of us. She traveled secretly to see me (secretly to her parents that is, not from most of the rest of her family) and she hated lying to them and asking her brother and aunt to lie for her. It was creating a ton of stress and there was a feeling that she was having to choose between me and the fear of her father.

She told him calmly and with respect. He was freaked out for about an hour, but after that he was curious. He wanted to know that she was happy and wanted to meet me. We got along well despite the huge language problem, and he ended up being very generous to me, we shared nice gifts and invited me to the house for dinner. Afterward my relationship with my GF was able to grow stronger and healthier without all the fear.

Your mileage will vary, but for every extra day it is hidden from her parents, they will respect her less for lying to them, which will make the possibility of a bad reaction more likely.

(And when you do meet the parents you better have a really good answer for how you're going to provide a full, stable life for their daughter on an actor's income, depending on the culture. I'd say China you're in trouble, but Japan can be more forgiving to creative people.)
posted by Ookseer at 1:00 AM on June 26, 2008

Another vote for don't tell: if you guys end up getting married, then the living together part won't have mattered, and you wouldn't have unnecessarily upset her parents. If you end up breaking up, same thing. It only seems to matter right now, in this in-between state of "we are serious about each other, but not in a way that you or your culture could understand, since we don't have plans yet to be married." I say to keep that state to yourselves.

If your girlfriend starts to want to tell her parents, she can feel them out by telling them about her friend from the same culture who moved in with a boyfriend, to see how they react.
posted by xo at 1:05 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Asian girl here, with moderate-conservative parents, dating a non-Asian boy.

I don't understand why you are so eager to break the news to her parents. If she's not comfortable with it, then don't. You might do more damage than good.

I lived with my boyfriend for 2 years before breaking the news to my parents. It wasn't because I was scared of my parents or ashamed of my boyfriend but because the timing wasn't right. We were in college, making little to no money, wasn't sure about our future, nothing was stable, etc, etc. I know for a fact that if I told my parents that I was living with my boyfriend, they would FREAK out. To the point where I would dread talking to them on the phone for the rest of my college years.

However, once we graduated, got jobs, and moved to a better place, I took them to our new apartment and told them there that we're living together. Their reaction? "Nice place."

I would take wuzandfuzz's advice and to make it easier, would wait until you guys are stable. The biggest thing with Asian parents is that they want to know you would be able to not only pay for your half but be able to take care of their daughter too. Wait until you have a steady, reliable income and be able to show that you're a responsible, smart adult. Then they'll only care if you'll make her happy or not! =)
posted by vocpanda at 9:17 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm also Asian and female, and I also think you shouldn't tell. One of my exes is Asian. Sometimes I stayed with him at his parents' house. We never talked about it to his parents or grandparents, who also lived there. The six of us had dinner, watched TV, played mahjong... it was OK. We didn't hold hands or kiss in front of them. His grandparents liked me. His best friend visited once with his girlfriend; she sat on his lap. My ex's grandmother told me later that she thought the girlfriend was a bad girl.

Meanwhile, my parents never asked how it could be that I was "not at my apartment" every Friday night, and yet also not at their house.

All the parents in this story are naturalized citizens, and had lived in the U.S. 25 years or more when it happened... what can you do?
posted by halonine at 6:33 PM on June 28, 2008

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