One of my parents’ favourite ice-breakers is, “So, have you eaten?” It doesn’t matter what time of day it is or which meal, specifically. Rather than asking each other how we are, we’d end up spending most of the time describing our dinners over the phone.
Like many Asian families, we’d become incredibly proficient at reading cryptic emotional signs. There may not be big hugs and open praise, but once in a while, mum would put an unexpected fried egg in our noodles or dad would try and make conversation by asking us to pronounce, then spell every street name he’s ever had trouble remembering. Those, as we’d try to explain to our friends, are their ‘affectionate’ sides.
From time to time, my sister and I would wonder whether it’s time we started challenging the awkward PDE (public display of emotion) policy at home. But the sheer difficulty of trying to make our parents break character after years of polite reticence would end up holding us back.
Plus, there’s always the possibility that too much affection could backfire. Earlier this year, Global Times reported that young people telling their parents ‘I love you’ over the phone have left many parents ‘bewildered’ and in shock.
One viral video from Anhui TV station showed what happened after a group of Chinese university students told their parents ‘I love you’ for the first time in their lives. Instead of a montage of hugs and teary faces set to a score of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’, the declaration of love were mostly met with comments like, “What’s going on?” “Are you drunk?” or as one father put it, “I’m going to a meeting, so cut the crap.”
Peking University sociologist Xia Xueluan explained that the parents’ responses reveal Chinese parents “are not good at expressing positive emotions” and “are used to educating children with negative language”. Meanwhile, writers at Business Insiders were quick to attribute the fear of the L word to “Confucian teaching, or the remnants of 20th Century Communism. ”
From a sociological perspective, studies have also found that the phrase ‘I love you’ tends to be used less in a high context culture where “expectations are high and well documented”. While in the West (low context society), relationships are often managed with ‘I love you reminders’ to reassure someone of their importance, in high context culture, “intensely personal and intimate declarations can seem out of place and overly forceful.”
But surely those theories alone can’t account for why so many Chinese parents – my own included – don’t find the phrase to be an adequate expression of familial love? An alternative (and more practical) reason could be the formal nature of ‘I love you’ in the Chinese language. For one thing, in English, we can bookend a conversation with a casual ‘love ya’. But the Chinese phrase ‘Wo ai ni’ is more of a blunt and powerful signifier of commitment, rather than affection.
In this sense, the nuance of parental love is often better expressed through action. In a markedly more uplifting video titled ‘Asian Parents and the Awkward ‘I Love You’”, interviewees reveal the various ways their parents attempt to show their love: from the way a father tirelessly provides to the fact that one parent gives her the “good cuts of meat when they go out and eat”.
In all their awkwardness, Chinese parents have a knack of showing their affection with irony. They will scream at you for spending too much money on them. And will fight to their deaths in the middle of a restaurant for the right to get the bill.
As blogger Cindy writes, “Chinese families know how to love fiercely. They do it through immense generosity, unwavering loyalty, and a lot of food. We love differently, not better, not worse, but definitely different.”
By Candice Chung