June 4, 2015
January 29, 2024



Dr. Johnben Loy, Ph.D., LMFT


Chinese New Year is just around the corner and with it comes relatives with the well-meaning barrage of questions.

“Got boyfriend already, ah?”

“Aiyah, why no children yet?”

“You lost your job?”

For most, this flurry of questions is normal but what about those who have just suffered a relationship break-up, dropped out of school, or lost a job? Or those who are still, despite trying hard, unable to find a life-partner or have children of their own? What might family gatherings be like for them?

Potentially awkward.

This Chinese New Year, the average Malaysian — particularly those of an earlier generation — will likely not hesitate to ask those typical life course status questions especially if they have not seen you in a while.

So, exactly how can we handle these awkward questions?

After discussing experiences with some friends, I took some time to think about it and came up with a list of 5 ways in which Questioners and Responders can handle these potentially sensitive life course status questions… and still have a good time at festive family gatherings!

1) Questioners: Be considerate and sensitive of others. Be aware that what may be a regular non-invasive “life course status” question (e.g. course of study, intimate relationship, having children) for you may be a potentially shameful or difficult-to-answer question for the other person. It would not hurt you to exercise more consideration and sensitivity when asking such questions.

Responders: Try not to take it personally. Recognize that people ask questions not necessarily to make you feel uncomfortable, but that it is natural for people to ask “life course status” questions. The less you can feel targeted by others, the more comfortably you can be yourself with others.

2) Questioners: If merely curious, ask someone else. If you do not know about someone’s life course status and are merely curious, then ask someone else who might know, say, the person’s mother or sibling. This helps to avoid potential embarrassment for the other person.

Responders: Be confident. At the end of the day, we all have to be responsible for our own behaviors and life choices. If we choose to remain in a certain life course status (or if the situation cannot be any different) then it would be best to learn to be confident and comfortable with ourselves in our statuses.

3) Questioners: Learn to talk safely. Think of safe questions to ask when you meet extended family members you have not seen in a while. For example, “How do you spend your time these days?” “What are your hobbies?” “What do you like to eat?” And then listen attentively, follow the thread of their answers, and appropriately add comments about your own interests. Related topics may then arise and the conversations can flow naturally.

Responders: Answer politely but give a strong hint. If someone comes across as invasive in their questioning, you can answer politely yet directly to give them the hint that the questioning ought to stop. For example, “I am still single and happily so, thank you for asking.” Or “we are not ready to have children yet, and we are quite happy about it, thank you.” One of the favourites that a cousin of mine uses: “Why get married? I still want to receive angpows from you!”

4) Questioners: Change the topic and do not pry. When you sense that the other person is not comfortable with your question, change the topic (any one of the questions in #3 above might work). Do not pry. However, if you sense the other person wishes to go into a sensitive issue in more detail but feels constrained in doing so, ask if he or she might like to talk about these matters in a more private environment.

Responders: Change the topic or move away. Sometimes, you will face those who insist on prying and giving you advice – a hint will not make these people stop. Do not be shy about changing the topic. Ask about their family members or what they are up to these days. If they come back to prying about your life course status again, make an excuse to move away from them politely, and stay confident.

5) Questioners: Offer a caring and confidential listening ear. If you heard about someone’s life course status (say, a nephew who is struggling in his marriage) and want to help, then pull that person aside and have a private conversation. Show that you truly care and want to know how that person feels about their situation. Only give advice if the other person is open to it. Offering a confidential listening ear is, in and of itself, a loving gesture. Even if they do not take up your offer to listen at that time, they may approach you later because you cared enough to ask privately and with genuine concern.

Responders: Recognize those who can provide real caring support. People can change over the years. An auntie or a cousin may have matured well through life experiences that they can help you either as a confidante or someone who can give good and helpful advice. If you sense that they truly care and can be trusted, ask to speak with them privately about your situation. You may be pleasantly surprised to find a distant family member turning into a good friend.

In the meantime, Happy Chinese New Year (and more angpows, and less awkward questions)!

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