I started thinking about the way Chinese people express affection. I have never heard a Chinese person say “I love you” before! It was my dad’s birthday a few days ago and I wanted to tell him that I love him and appreciate him. But it was actually kind of hard to say “I love you”. It ended up coming out in a “hey dad… you know … you’re a pretty good dad” kinda way. It wasn’t because I don’t love my dad – I LOVE my parents. But actually saying it out loud and in person is harder. I’ve noticed that I’ve started to say it more lately, as I grow older, because I genuinely want to tell them I love them. But growing up, I never said it, and they never told me they love me either (one way my dad expressed it was to pat me on the head and tell me to “be good”). I know they did, very much, but that elusive “I love you” is always implicit. This seems to be the case universally for Chinese people.
It’s implied in the actions they do. They give me the best piece of chicken, or the very last shrimp on the plate. They serve me first, putting food in my bowl before they serve themselves (so I’ve always associated serving others as a sign of caring). They would pack my lunch, cut up my fruit into bite-sized bits, make sure I take vitamins, make the most nutritious soup for me (ones that have to be boiled for hours on end and which contain the most expensive and obscure ingredients, such as snow fungus, essence of chicken, ginseng… I actually don’t know what else my mom uses)…
Hmm… all these ways appear food-related.
But, as you know, food is an extremely important part of the Chinese culture. Out of curiosity, I asked our research associate Nova in Shanghai to post questions on a Shanghai chat forum about how Chinese youth view this topic.
We received replies within an hour or two of posting and, surprise surprise, the majority of them involved … you guessed it – food!
They talked about how it is a very common saying in Western cultures and how they always see people saying it to each other in Western TV shows and movies, but they have not been able to say it themselves. Here are a couple examples in answer to the question: what do you say to your mom or dad to tell them you love them?
Nova explained it to me like this:
Nelson in our Hong Kong office said that he has never once told his parents he loves them (and probably never will!) because by nature of being family, there is love. Showing them respect is love. He also admits to being too embarrassed/shy to say it! He also said that he rarely tells his wife that also, as once again, it is implied in what he does for her.
“For parents, we have a word called “敬爱” which combines respect and love. ”I love you” may be a spoken language in English but it’s a written language in China, so I think most of Chinese people didn’t say it to their parents. Chinese people express their love to their parents in an understated way. More activities than words. They will buy things for their parents or take a trip with their parents. Verbal expression is not important in China; activity is most important.”