We Don't Say Love

Exploring Unspoken Affection in Asian Communities
May 23, 2020 | Updated May 28, 2020

Welcome to my first (official) blog post! Below is a piece in iambic pentameter blank verse I was working on a while back:

In Chinese, we don’t say love.
instead my mother asks, “()(chī)(le)(ma) ”                                 (“have you eaten”)
repeatedly as if I never ate
when I was far from home. She says it like
I’d only miss the warmth of homemade soups
and not the warmth of sitting next to her
on weekend evenings as we watched TV.
In Mandarin, we don’t admit our love.
Instead my mother brought a plate of fruit
up to my room in silence while I slept
before departing home for work each day.
We don’t say love. Instead we might say “(téng) ”                  (“to hurt/love fondly”)
as if to note that love inherently
implies self-sacrifice. We might say this,
but never love. For love is too simple
a word. Just two small letters in a row;
a single syllable that manifests
with barely any effort from within.
And love is way too large a word to be
encompassed utterly in a small one.
So in my family, we don’t say love.
Instead, as I depart my room each day
I call my mom to ask, “()(chī)(le)(ma)

I originally wrote this poem for a class I took to develop my poetry-writing and practice writing in form. Some technical details about this poem: it’s written in iambic pentameter blank verse. I chose this topic to address how love is expressed and perceived in Asian communities. Specifically, I wanted to address the phenomenon that Asian-American families rarely say that they love each other and, more often than not, choose to express themselves through selfless action instead of words.

Growing up, I often struggled to reconcile the two, often opposing sides of my identity. Chinese and American culture disagree fundamentally on issues regarding an individual’s identity and purpose. While one favors creative expression and individualism, the other prioritizes one’s connection and duty to family. Growing up in America and being immersed in American media and education has helped me develop an understanding of my nation and myself. It’s part the experience that drove many of our parents to immigrate to the U.S. in the first place one that has provided many of us with opportunities and freedoms that were unavailable to our parents. Yet this same experience has the power to unequivocally estrange us from our Asian culture and heritage.

And while I’ve come to better understand my identity as a Chinese-American, I sometimes still have trouble internalizing some of the nuances of Chinese culture. This poem is my personal attempt to comment on and appreciate the nuance of love in Chinese culture. While we don’t express it directly through our words, we demonstrate the immensity of our love for one another through the subtle actions and comments that often go unnoticed by each other. As a result, expressing love and appreciation for others has become synonymous with “show don’t tell” in my daily life.

I want to briefly discuss the role of using Chinese phrases and words in this poem as well. Just as words cannot express the depth of the love we feel for our family and friends, I didn’t feel that English was sufficient to communicate just how loudly our actions speak for us. Instead, Chinese characters and phrases, especially ones commonly used to convey love and affection, were better suited for this role. The phrases I chose to use can be translated into English, yet (as Chinese speakers would agree) the connotation of these words are woefully lost in translation. These words in their original form were so much more accurate to my experience than anything I could come up with in English, and I hope they help underscore the uniqueness of the Asian-American experience.

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