I Love You.
Three simple words that can render so much affection, tenderness and a sense of deep caring. Perhaps that’s what makes it so difficult for traditional Asian parents to say these three, seemingly simple, words. Verbally expressing feelings is not their strong suit. To be even more precise: Verbally expressing affectionate feelings is not their strong suit. This is not for a lack of love for their children. Rather, it’s the belief in most Asian cultures that words can often be empty and love should be expressed through action.
Growing up, I often witnessed the parents of my westernized friends effortlessly saying “I love you” to them.
I would hear “I love you” thrown around on television shows and in movies. But within my household, these words were non-existent. Instead, my parents would show their love through my stomach. “Are you hungry? Eat!” I’d be told as my favorite dishes were shoved in front of me along with a bowl of rice, filled to the brim.
Despite living in significant scarcity, there was always an abundance of food on our table. My parents would make personal sacrifices to ensure their three daughters had plenty to eat. At the time, I didn’t recognize any of this. I just wanted badly to hear “I love you!” I would often daydream about my parents saying it to me as they showered me with kisses (which also never happened). I could envision what it must feel like; the equivalent of floating on soft clouds in the sky. But in my reality, there were no soft clouds. Only a sense of befuddlement. “Why is it so hard to just say three words?” I’d often wonder.
At the ripe age of 14, for no particular reason other than curiosity and a desire to bridge the gap between my Asianness and my Americanness, I decided to be courageous.
To dip my toe in the water of this ‘I love you’-ness. To solve this mysterious puzzle of getting my parents to finally express their love for me through words. “I love you”, I told my mom when she handed me a plate of diced watermelon. “Love what? No love. This watermelon is to help you maintain energy to study harder,” she said to me in Chinese as she placed the plate down and walked away. Wow. Tough love.
As an extremely stubborn and persistent teenager, I refused to give up. For the next four years, I made it my mission to get my parents to say those three little words to me. I would try almost every day, with no luck from either parent. At most, I’d hear the three words, but with a ‘don’t’ stuck in the middle: “I don’t love you.”
Rejection got tiring and I almost gave up. But my stubbornness finally paid off.
“I love you mom.”
“I don’t love you.”
“I love you mom.”
“You’re going to be late for school.”
“Who’s fault will that be? I’m not leaving until you tell me that you love me. I love you.”
She paused, looked at me and sighed. “Okokok. I love you. Now get to school.”
Success! I felt such immense joy rushing through my body. For I had finally discovered how to hack the “I love you” puzzle with my parents. And it was so easy! The key to it was to hold hostage the thing they wanted most for me: to work and get a good education that would lead to a successful career. Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?
Over the next two decades I continued to uncover new ways to nudge an “I love you” out of my parents.
The key to this puzzle, I’ve realized, is to find leverage through the things they want most for me. Everything from refusing to leave for the airport until they say it (the thought of me losing money from a missed flight is painful for them) to turning down my dinner until they tell me “I love you.”
After years of continued persistence, I’ve been able to break them down bit by bit. “I love you” came at an increasing frequency and with less effort on my part. And now, they will voluntarily tell me “I love you” even without me having to say it first. It’s been a journey that started with plenty of rejection, but it’s been 100% worth it.
While it might feel uncomfortable to say “I love you” to your Asian parents, I encourage you to just do it.
Chances are, you’ll be greeted with an awkward silence or an “ai-ya” in response. I promise you that deep down, they love hearing it, no matter what their outward response is. After all, they are human too. Just keep trying. Find ways to get leverage. And be annoyingly persistent.
As a Chinese Proverb says, “Persistence can grind an iron beam down into a needle.”