Meet the parents

There comes a time when every expat must take the plunge and meet their partner’s parents for the very first time.

By HASHAM WALI on May 16,2017 10:57 AM

Meet  the parents

Illustrations: KAN TRANT

While living in Vietnam comes with its own unique set of problems, surprises and delights, it also presents certain challenges that are found in all countries, no matter which one you may choose to call home. It’s a universally accepted fact that house hunting is a pain in the neck, completing taxes is needlessly complicated, and meeting your partner’s parents for the first time is a daunting experience. This can be difficult enough when dating someone from your home country, in your home country, but throwing the whole cross-cultural aspect into the mix adds yet another level of complexity to the meeting.

When seeing someone whose family shares similar cultural norms to yours, the focus when meeting their parents is solely on making a good first impression and coming off as someone who is worthy of their son or daughter’s affections. Now, this is no easy task in and of itself and there are many faux pas that can turn this into something of a minor disaster. There is, after all, a reason why so many comedies have been written about this exact situation. But as long as you play it safe by dressing suitably, avoiding controversial topics and showing genuine interest in them, everything should, in theory, go off without a hitch. Having said that, knowledge of this fact doesn’t make ringing the doorbell for the first time any less nerve-wracking.

Things start to get a little trickier when two different cultures are involved and the possibly of making an unintentional blunder increases. This is why I was something of a bundle of nerves prior to meeting my significant other’s dear, old mum. It was during the Tet holding this year, two weeks before we were due to celebrate our first anniversary, that my girlfriend and I decided it was about time I met her mother.

Despite living only a few streets over from her house, we hadn’t yet met in person and the only thing I really knew about her was that she was a mad football fan. The kind of person that brings their own drum to the stadium, turns up at the airport to welcome the national team home, and swears like a sailor at the opposition players. So the only mental image I had prior to our meeting was of this intensely zealous middle-aged woman. It’s no wonder I had butterflies in my stomach.

There were several things running through my mind at the time and I was dreading the worst. What if I inadvertently did something to offend her? I had read up online and asked my girlfriend about the main points of etiquette but there’s no way we had covered everything. I’m a pretty adventurous eater but if something like sheep eyeball hotpot or grilled rat, both actual dishes in this country, was plonked in front of me, I don’t think I would have had the stomach to keep it down.

Then came clothing. I’m generally a shorts and flip-flops kind of guy when I’m not at work but would she be aghast at the sight of my disgusting, bare Western feet? I had heard rumours that I might also be subjected to the third degree, with a barrage of intrusive questions ranging from the exact amount of money I make every month to the exact month I planned to marry my girlfriend. The more I thought about the coming trial, the more gruesome it began to look.

To try and allay my fears, in the weeks leading up to the lunch, I had been asking friends who had gone through this routine with Vietnamese parents before for their advice. To my surprise, I was inundated with tips about what I should and shouldn’t do. They ranged from the obvious, such as bring a gift, to the downright bizarre, like make sure you wear warm, bright colours for the occasion.

Two particular nuggets of wisdom that I took to heart were that the gift I bring should be fruit and that I shouldn’t finish all the food that is offered to me. The main reason these two things stood out were that they were in stark contrast to what is the norm in the West. When going over to eat at someone’s house, I would only ever consider wine, chocolates or flowers as options; fruit is what you give to the sick, not to someone who has invited you to their home. As for not cleaning my plate, back home it would be an insult to the host if I didn’t finish every morsel that had been painstakingly prepared for me. However, in this neck of the woods, the opposite is true and finishing everything off is often a suggestion that not enough food has been provided and that the guest is still hungry.

A friend once found this out the hard way when visiting the hometown of his now ex-girlfriend. Still stuck in Western mode, he duly finished plate after plate of food, way past the point of satiation. The parents were rapidly running out of both food and ideas until, as a last resort, they offered him a plate of trầu, or betel nut. For those who may be unaware, this is a mild stimulant, having a similar effect to caffeine or nicotine, that is now primarily eaten by old women in the Vietnamese countryside. However, in large enough doses it can produce effects similar to cocaine. My friend must have put away a fair amount as he began to feel high, couldn’t control his fidgeting, and started to become extremely chatty with his ex’s parents. I’m not sure if this went down well or not but she did have to explain to him after the fact that he wasn’t supposed to eat everything to completion; a life lesson he won’t soon forget.

Going back to the tale of my first encounter, armed with this sage advice and a basket of fruit, I approached the door with a new sense of confidence. After all, what was the worst thing that could happen …?

I needn’t have worried. Everything went as smoothly as it could have gone, I politely answered very normal questions about where I work, where I live, and what my family is like. I helped set the table and carry the food over from the kitchen. I ate more than enough to be full, while still ensuring that there was something left, of course. Although given the amount of food she had prepared I don’t think I could have finished everything even if I had tried. I then cleared everything away, drank some tea, talked about football for a while, thanked her for the meal and then left, having ensured the meeting was a resounding success; a fact later confirmed by my girlfriend on the walk home.

Did I just get lucky in finding a girlfriend who has a very relaxed and welcoming mother? Have the years of exposure to foreigners made this generation of parents more aware and sensitive of cultural differences? Or did I just do my homework and make sure that I couldn’t fail? Perhaps it’s a little bit of all three; it’s nearly impossible to tell. What I do know is that this time around, despite the language and cultural barriers, it was possibly even easier than meeting the parents of ex’s past. However, fingers crossed it will be last time I’ll ever have to go through the ordeal of first meetings the folks.

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