Why Chinese parents don't say I love you

The awkward father and daughter bond... from <i>Eat Drink Man Woman</i>.

The awkward father and daughter bond... from Eat Drink Man Woman.

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.

A scene from the film <i>Eat Drink Man Woman</i>.

A scene from the film Eat Drink Man Woman.

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.”

 

59 comments

  • Interesting article, especially about 'I love you' implying a commitment (and hence not to be uttered too lightly).

    As per the 'Five Languages of Love' theory, Chinese parents obviously have other ways of showing their love - in some ways, they seem quite indulgent to their adult children, for example.

    Commenter
    mike88
    Date and time
    March 05, 2014, 9:01AM
    • "Chinese parents obviously have other ways of showing their love - in some ways, they seem quite indulgent to their adult children, for example."

      Like buying them properties outright and financing their university studies.
      It all DOES come with strings attached, of course....

      Commenter
      Ellie
      Location
      Syd
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 12:01PM
  • Actions speak louder than words! All talk..... no action.
    I think you get my drift?

    Commenter
    Actionman
    Date and time
    March 05, 2014, 9:16AM
    • My thoughts exactly. Who cares how often someone says 'I love you' if there actions don't back it up.

      Commenter
      darkstar
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 1:30PM
    • The problem is that in all cultures parents will show love through action. By neglecting love through words, that love is rather cold and materialistic.

      Commenter
      world traveller
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 2:16PM
    • Totally agree actions speak louder than words. I come from a traditional Asian family. The L word is never uttered between my parents and siblings. However, my bro was happy to give me 40k so I could afford to go to uni, the other put his house on mortgage so I could start a business. My parents cook and clean for me at a whim. I sound spoilt. But conversely, I would do anything for my brothers and their kids, and for my parents other than paying for their stuff, I pick mum up on weekends to take her grocery shopping and to church. I have never said the L word to my parents, it also feels so weird even thinking about it... I dunno why... it makes me shudder thinking about it.

      Commenter
      the watcher
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 3:00PM
  • I recognise and accept all this, but sadly ended up leaving my decade long marriage with a Chinese background person because I felt negelcted emotionally and physically. Fierce loyalty and eating are wonderful things, but without some emotion there you really have to cage up that heart to go on.

    Commenter
    J
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 05, 2014, 9:27AM
    • Me too. This represents a HUGE cultural divide...and you often learn this way too late. Emotions are processed in a completely different way...

      As for the dramatics around (for example) paying a bill, this, I believe, is really about saving face or not inheriting an obligation - also "feelings" they wish to avoid. Portraying it as an act of love is not IMHO accurate...

      But perhaps we in the West can learn something from this - one of the cornerstones of Asian culture is fierce self-sufficiency...why do we in the West need to feel loved (at every opportunity)?

      Commenter
      SayIt
      Location
      EastWest
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 12:15PM
    • @J it takes 2 hands to clap in a relationship, what you said is probably just half of the story. And waiting a decade? That's a massive time waster in my opinion.

      Commenter
      logictek
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 12:41PM
  • I guess that explains why most of the Chinese I grew up with haven't spoken to their parents since they left home. Come to think of it most of them have left Aus and gone to London or New York. i.e. As far as possible from their family.

    In their parent eyes they were failures anyway because they did not turn out to be doctors or accountants.

    My parents were tough on me but at least there were good times too. These kids just seemed to get beating after beating because 85% wasn't good enough.

    Sad.

    Commenter
    Cranky
    Location
    Pants
    Date and time
    March 05, 2014, 9:47AM

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