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Why I Can’t Say “I Love You” To My Parents

I don’t remember the last time I said “I love you” to my parents.

It feels wrong, admitting this. The words get physically stuck in my mouth, choking me off like honey on my tongue. I can’t push them out. Instead, I ask questions like, “Ni xi huan wo ma?” Do you like me? “Wo men hai hao ma?” Are we still good?

Yet, the words “I love you” come so easily with my friends. I say it almost daily without thinking twice about it. Perfect American families on the television say it all the time. They drop those three words because they’re a fixture in a routine. “I love you.” They are almost always the concluding line on any phone call, the reliable text message sent to end most conversations. But for some reason I just can’t myself say it to my own parents, no matter what language it is in. 

For some immigrant families, love can be a complicated thing. The immigrant experience and the struggles that come with it, from living in a diaspora to reconciling differing cultural values, often become entangled with family dynamics and relationships. Perhaps that uproots the ability of those words to take shape on the tongue. 

As I’ve grown up, I’ve said “I love you” less and less to my family. I rarely hear it back either. But the love is still there. It’s complex and sometimes messed up, where between cultural differences and generational gaps, there are moments where love can be cast into doubt. Moments where it feels more conditional, in which I feel that somehow, if I don’t perform or do well enough – in school or other activities – then I won’t earn my parents’ love. 

In the Chinese community, it is strange for a parent to tell a child they love them. Perhaps it’s because “I love you” – wo ai ni – in the Chinese language is such a formal, profound declaration that it just feels stilted and awkward to say on a daily basis. Or, perhaps on a more cultural level, actions have more value than regular words. Many Asians grow up without hearing these words, but rather feeling them – in the sacrifices their parents make for them, in the expectations their family has set for them. Our way of returning the love is to prosper and succeed, and to follow our parents’ wishes, thus honoring them. 

A bigger element at play here, however, is perhaps found in the immigrant experience itself. We take these cultural values across the journey away from our motherland. We keep the remnants of our homeland alive despite living in a different country – or at least, our parents do their best to. But it is different. 

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To live in a diaspora is to sacrifice. There is an element of loss, whether it’s a loss of one’s motherland, history, security, opportunities, or some other combination. Our parents give everything so that we can plant ourselves in a different soil and grow up, even if that means facing different kinds of prejudices or stereotypes on the way. Love becomes tied with sacrifice, with survival, with giving up many things so that one’s children can live better. Simple sayings like “I love you” become a privilege. As novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in his New York Times article, it is a phrase “that belonged to the wonderful world of white people we saw in the movies and television.” 

I think I can say it much more easily to my friends because we all collectively share similar experiences. We were brought up and together in an American environment, without many of the same struggles of our parents. Our love, though it is equally as strong as the one binding family, isn’t necessarily complicated by generational and cultural conflicts. 

Ultimately, there are moments where a parent-child relationship can become muddled by emotional fumbles, especially when comparing ourselves to how other families express love. But we just show our love differently – not any worse. 

For many in the Asian community, love isn’t something to be spoken about; love is a fight and love is something shown in our deeds and careers and gains. Love is loyalty and forever giving. Love is fierce. 

That is why something like saying “I love you” to my parents can become complicated – because how can you express something as unconventional and unique as their immigrant experience with such expected and conventional words? “I love you” may not be big enough or strong enough to fully encompass generational sacrifices and struggles. 

I know now that the way we show love is different, but it doesn’t mean it is any weaker than other families who might say it out loud. I don’t want to be from a picturesque American family on TV – I love the family I have now.

And my parents reciprocate that feeling, even in the simplest of gestures. It’s when my mom comes into my room announced with a bowl of freshly cut fruits. It’s when my dad gives me the last bites of our dinner dishes. It’s yelling at me to make sure I’m putting on enough layers so I don’t get sick. It’s working continuously so I can go to a school I love and study a subject I am passionate about.

I don’t remember the last time I said “I love you” to my parents, out loud. That doesn’t mean I would never say it to them, though, because even if it may not fit, it’s nice to hear. Whatever it ends up looking like, I would like to say it someday.

But right now, I remember the last time I apologized after a fight we had, despite my own pride; the last time I enjoyed a bowl of fruit while in awe of my mom’s fruit-selection-skills; the last time I learned another phrase in Mandarin that I didn’t know before. I remember all the times I worked hard to study so that their efforts would be worthwhile. I remember all the times my parents were the inspiration for my writing, the place where I am the most honest and personal. 

They remember those moments too. 

Featured image by Designecologist via Pexels

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