Dear Billfold: How Can I Convince My WASPy Parents to Allow My Cantonese In-Laws to Pay for Dinner?

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Dear Billfold,

I recently married into a wonderful Cantonese family who lives in the same city as my husband and me. My WASPy parents live two hours away and are very eager to get to know my in-laws and consider them part of their larger extended family.

This will be the second Christmas that we’ve tried to do some sort of celebration with both sides of our families. In theory, everyone is thrilled with this. However, the “main event” will once again involve going out to dim sum, where my father-in-law will insist on paying for everyone. I’ve presented to my parents that they can either slip away early and pay for the whole meal, or give in after half-hearted insistence and let my father-in-law pay. They would very much like to split the bill, western-style, and don’t understand why this isn’t culturally acceptable.

My husband is taking a “holier than thou” approach, insisting that it’s not too much to ask my parents to get out of their culturally homogenous bubble once a year and come into his family as “learners.” All well and good, but my parents just aren’t there. While they are by nature warm and affectionate people, they aren’t accustomed to translating love through a cultural lens. All this would be easier if they could reciprocate hosting on their home turf, but because there are a number of children involved in our home city and because all of my husband’s family suffers from allergies that would be exasperated by being in my parents’ home, we will likely continue to have these get-togethers in our city, where dim sum rules will continue to bewilder and discomfort my parents.

Any suggestions for helping my parents bridge the gap, or out-of-the-box solutions to help them feel less like mooches?

— C.

This sounds as if it could be a holiday episode on a show like “Master of None”!

As an Asian American, I totally understand this culture gap and how it can produce these kinds of awkward situations—like how some of my high school friends viewed my parents as mean and abusive and I had to try to explain to them what “tiger parents” were years before Amy Chua did in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. I also had to explain to them why giving my parents cash I earned at my part-time job at the mall for their birthdays and Christmases wasn’t weird or tacky. I digress.

Your husband has probably explained this, but in many Asian cultures, it is an honor to pay for dinner—particularly for the person who has extended the dinner invitation. Preventing someone from paying if they’ve already made this offer is viewed as insulting, so I would not encourage your parents to do the ol’ “slip away early and pay for the meal” move. Your in-laws would likely find that to be upsetting and embarrassing, and I’m sure your parents don’t want them to feel that way!

But I also think your husband should be a little sympathetic to how your parents are feeling about all of this as well, and the easiest thing for him to do would be to help your parents figure out some kind of gift to send your in-laws as a thank you for paying for dinner so that they don’t feel like freeloaders. I recall my father being baffled by the large holiday basket full of jams and meat and cheeses that the auto factory he worked at would give him every year, but also really loving it. There must be something along those lines that your parents could put together for your in-laws as a symbolic gesture of their affection and gratitude. Or: Why not do the dim sum tradition twice a year, once in winter and once in spring? Your parents can extend the spring invitation, and your in-laws should be happy to let them pay.

Anyone else have experience with this? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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