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Dealing with the grilling

Publication Date : 11-02-2013


It's the new year, time for gatherings again. When people ask all those awkward questions, how do you deal with them gracefully?


Every Chinese New Year, along with the mandarin oranges, ang pow, good food and junk food, is the barrage of questions and remarks that Adrian Ong knows will surely come his way.

“A few years ago, it was ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ ‘How come we haven’t met her?’ After that it was ‘When are you getting married? You’re not getting any younger, you know.’

“Now that I am married, it’s ‘When are you going to have a baby? Don’t you want a baby? You need to work harder’. It never stops,” says Ong, 35, a communications manager.

That’s not to say that Ong does not enjoy his Chinese New Year.

“I do enjoy most of it. The food, the catching up...that’s all good. Just not the interrogation,” he laughs.

Accountant Michelle Lim agrees.

Lim, 29, is based in London and she hasn’t been back for Chinese New Year for 10 years.

“I am looking forward to spending time with my family and I’m sure there will be the usual questioning. This year, I’m not too bothered though, since my wedding is coming up in May.

“But it’s not just during Chinese New Year that you get these questions. It’s all year round!” she laughs.

In Lim’s case, questions she usually gets from her relatives include “How long are you planning to stay in the UK (United Kingdom)?” and “Don’t you want to come back?”

But what is it about these questions that get on their nerves?

“Well…when you’re asked the same question 30 times in two days, I think it’s fair to say anyone would be annoyed. If you want to know how I’m doing, then ask ‘How are you?’. Asking me when I’m getting married is not going to tell you how I’m doing.

“I even have some relatives who ask me how much bonus I get. Others wonder out loud whether I have ‘problems’ having a child. Questions like that border on being intrusive. It’s just plain rude and, frankly, none of their business,” says a frustrated Ong.

For Lim, it’s not so much what her relatives ask her but how it’s asked.

“Sometimes, they come up, have a chat, and they ask me what my plans are, or when I’m getting married. If the question is genuine, it’s fine. I don’t mind talking about it.

“But sometimes it’s right in your face the minute you walk through the door. Before you get the chance to say ‘Hello’, you already get the ‘You still don’t want to get married ah?’”

Lim adds that it’s also frustrating when the questions touch an issue that she is grappling with.

“There are times where things are uncertain for me there, and I myself don’t know how long more I’ll be in the UK. When I get asked the same question repeatedly, it’s frustrating because I really don’t have an answer,” she says.

And the baby questions do not stop even after a baby arrives, says Joanna Oo, who has three children – Kristen, 11, Kevin, four, and Kaitlyn, two.

“Oh, yes, I still get questions about when baby number four is coming. In fact, they start asking right after I give birth. My reply is usually ‘Hello, I just gave birth. Let me recover first, then we’ll think about the next baby.’

“There’s a big age gap between my first and second child, and during that period it got a bit annoying. It added a lot of pressure on me because we were trying for a baby but we couldn’t conceive,” says Oo, who is in her late 30s.

Oo adds that it’s usually distant relatives or acquaintances who will ask such questions.

“Close friends or relatives are not so insensitive to ask these questions,” she says.

So why do people ask these grilling questions?

Retiree Maggie Ng, 57, says it’s out of genuine concern.

“I admit I have asked my nephews and nieces these questions before. Chinese New Year is the time when you get to see them after a while and I just want to know what’s new in their lives.

“I ask out of concern, and I would be really happy for them if they say they’re getting married or they’re having a child,” she explains, adding that it had seemed like a good way of getting a conversation going with her younger relatives.

Ng says she was not aware that her questions could be deemed offensive until her niece pointed it out to her one Chinese New Year.

“My niece said ‘Ah yi (aunty), can you please not ask? I’m feeling stressed out from everyone asking, as if I need to meet a deadline to get married.’ I felt so bad after that. I didn’t mean to stress her out. These days, I don’t ask such questions any more,” she says.

Ng remembers getting such questions too, when she was younger.

“I got questions like that too but I don’t remember feeling upset. Maybe times have changed and the younger generation today have a stronger sense of privacy and personal space.

“But I remember when I was in my 40s, I had friends who were still not married then, and they were so sick of people prying that they stopped attending family functions altogether. I guess sometimes it can be too much,” she says.

According to Dr Johnben Loy, founder and clinical director of Rekindle International Marriage and Family Therapy Centre such questions (which he terms "life-course status questions") are very normal, particularly in Asian society.

Apparently so.

It was reported that a recent post on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) listed a string of questions that young people in China were likely to encounter when they head back to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year, including questions on salaries and marital status.

Nearly 200,000 people commented on the post, revealing their own frustrating experiences.

“I think it’s very natural for people who do not meet you often to want to know details pertaining to your development milestones – what college you are attending, what job you are holding, are you in a relationship, whethere you are getting married etc.

“This happens everywhere, but I think people in the West tend to be a little more politically correct, and they will likely phrase such questions more sensitively. There’s almost a sense of ‘if I don’t ask you these questions, it will seem like I don’t care about you’,” Loy explains.

However, he notes that such questions could strain relationships within the extended family.

“For example, a woman who is not able to conceive may not wish to join a gathering with her husband’s extended family because she does not look forward to being bombarded with questions and advice about how she ought to get pregnant.

“That can create a lot of tension for the couple.”

Loy believes that the younger generation today could have a problem with such questions due to a heightened sense of what they deem to be private, and what is suitable for public discussion.

“It’s the influence of Western individualism, where the young have this feeling that they’re now more entitled to privacy and personal space, but the older generation still have a collectivist mindset.

“They don’t deem rite of passage questions as a matter of individual concern but of communal concern, hence the ‘What do you mean you’re not getting married yet? You’re 30! I have to help you find somebody to marry,’” he says, laughing.

He offers a few suggestions in dealing with such circumstances.

To those who believe others shouldn’t get offended with their questioning, Loy advises against invalidating the feeling of others.

“Whenever someone says ‘You shouldn’t feel this way’, my eyebrow goes up. Feelings are feelings, and you should never invalidate someone else’s feeling.

“You cannot tell someone else to feel or not feel what she is feeling. It makes that relationship unsafe,” he says.

Like the many young Malaysians who have gone through such ‘interrogations’ countless times, Ong says it’ll likely be no different this Chinese New Year.

“I smile and play along. But if it gets too much, I just excuse myself to get a drink, and then I talk to someone else,” he says with a grin.


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