I spent 4th grade in a public elementary school in Aix-en-Provence, France, and my 11th grade in an Istanbul, Turkey, high school.  Since graduating from law school, not a single year has gone by where I haven’t spent at least some time in a foreign country.  Many times when someone of one nationality/culture/ethnicity complains about another nationality/culture/ethnicity, the complaint is based more on differences than objective quality.  But sometimes I (all of us?) need a reminder of this…

The Journey of Beginnings blog has a great reminder, entitled, I love you = Wo Ai Ni? (h/t to China. Hope. Live.) The post is about the radical (my word) difference between Americans and Chinese in their usage of the phrase “I love you.”

Take, for example, the usage of the phrase “I love you.” I have heard Americans say those three words to people they’ve barely met. I slowly learned not to squirm uncomfortably when I hear these words of affection thrown around like a greeting or more often a closing quip as companies depart. My American friend recently admitted to me sometimes she feels those words are cheapened by how freely and frequently they are tossed around in her family. Being Chinese I’ve had to learn this cultural phenomenon and I’ve observed the following three situations in the way Americans say “I love you”:

1. A semi-to total functional family who genuinely respect and support one another may express I love you frequently as a sign of authentic love for each other. They see the importance of leaving no room to doubt for their children or spouse to truly receive the heart behind the verbally spoken words.

2. I love you becomes an acquiescence to societal norms in an effort to cover up what’s really not-so-functional underneath. Imagine a parent who is never around and drops the L-bomb at the end of a phone conversation in order to soothe their guilt. Or a marriage whose passion has grown cold but continue the ritualistic “I love you-s” each morning as they go off to work in order to keep up the appearance of a healthy bond.

3. Sadly there are truly broken, perhaps even abusive, homes where family members have never been loved nor been told they are loved.

The problem arises when Americans encounter Chinese families who have never uttered those precious three words, “wo ai ni”. I’m afraid the American easily jumps to the conclusion the Chinese must therefore be a number 3 family. I’m even more afraid when Christian Americans make it their mission to demonstrate true love to Chinese families with the assumption they must not know how to love if they don’t say it. This is simply a false assumption! 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.

This is not to say I don’t think there’s value in verbal expressions of love. Some non-traditional Chinese families are starting to freely say I love you to each other and I believe that can be a healthy development. But I do believe the community should decide for themselves when or how they want to exhibit the love without being judged for being unloving unless they express themselves a certain way.

I agree.  What do you think?

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  • Therese

    The third point is odd. Isn’t it going against the poster’s comment? “People always say ‘I love you’, except when they don’t, and those places are, I the poster am sad to say, homes which lack love.” 

    Otherwise, this may be true for some Americans, but it is certainly not true of the part of America where I was raised; I can count on a single hand the number of times that “love” ever left my parents’ or grandparents’ lips. It feels like a stereotype of Hollywood, or of a generic America that doesn’t exist — to me, at least. 

  • Kai Ni Nai Nai

    Mind your Chinese. No-one says “Wo Ai Ni” in Shanghai for example. It’s “Wo Ai Nong”. Time for some investment in Berlitz I think.

  • Gilman Grundy

    We Brits would never utter those words if we could avoid it, I always wondered if the way you see Americans throwing it around on TV is somewhat fake.

  • Blixenpub

    While love can definitely be expressed in different ways, and the words “Wo Ai Ni” are not used in the same way as “I love you” is in English, the second-handedness that many in the Chinese culture have ingrained in their thinking often prevent sharing of deep values that would generate love.  The “love” within the typical Chinese family is a mixture of loyalty that is never questioned for fear of reprisal, and of real love that a parent and child have for each other due to shared values. Unfortunately, the latter often gets squelched by the former, as manifested by constant bickering amongst siblings, inlaws, parents and children. 

  • Lil’ Red

    Different cultures and different individuals are unique in
    their outward displays and communication of affection.  It is what it is. 

    A male friend of mine from Argentina
    kisses me on the mouth in greeting.  I
    kiss him on the mouth because that is his norm.  I don’t kiss my American male friends on the
    mouth because it’s not their norm, or mine.  My friend thinks Americans are “cold”. 

    When I was 10 my Puerto Rican friend brought me to New York to stay with her extended family.  They all hugged and kissed me in
    greeting.  This was new to me because my
    parents didn’t hug and kiss my friends, in greeting or at all.  

    When I was 11 my brothers and I were informally adopted by a single Vietnamese
    mother with five children of her own.  We
    would stay at her house, for a couple weeks at a time and play ping pong in the
    basement.  My parents never thought
    anything of it.  We kids never thought
    anything of it.  I think some other cultures
    “adopt” other people more readily and easily than many Americans.

    My car insurer is Greek and I’m treated like extended family.  I will never go to another insurer because I
    can’t beat it.  

    My car mechanic is Armenian, and from my understanding, a very diverse people,
    but it’s a family-run business and they are all very warm.  He says Americans are fearful.

    I was just fussing over him because he broke his finger and I think he has it
    splinted incorrectly.  It’s nice to be
    around people with whom I can express genuine warmth and concern.  They also came personally with a driver and
    picked me up from a nearby location when my car was being looked at.  I insist they are too busy working to do that,
    but my mechanic insists I call him and he sends a relative to come get me.  How can anyone not like this kind of personal
    treatment?

    “I love you” means different things to different people and not everyone is
    comfortable with saying “I love you”, or desires to express it in words.  

    I have Chinese friends in the U.S.,
    and most often they are a lot more personally attentive to me than most of my
    American friends.  I think it’s their
    expectation of “community”.  They also
    receive attention more “easily”.   I fuss over them and they fuss over me.

    When my Chinese friend was buying a car, he called me regarding every person he
    called, and had me call them to clarify the details.  When he looked at a car he was interested in
    purchasing, from any English speaking “non-Chinese”, I went with him to oversee
    the communications and stand guard over the details.  This is just what we do. 

    Love is truly expressed in action, anyhow, so whether or not someone says “I
    love you” doesn’t need to be considered too seriously.  

  • MHB

    On love: Indisputably, its essence is not verbal. Practices can differ. Erotic love is exclusionary – ‘you and no other’ – founds its own culture.

    On Chinese love: Apparently, there is no direct translation of ‘I love you’ in Hakka Chinese. Words get their meaning from their use – we all read about and heard about romantic love long before we experienced it. ‘我爱你’ might be the best translation of ‘I love you’, but it may not have the same meaning! Especially if it is used differently. 

    On the post: The blog gives three examples of ‘I love you’. There must be thousands. It can be a bargaining tool, an apology, submissive, dominant, a request, an exclamation of joy, of pain, of suffering, of longing, of lust, a trick, assurance, self-assurance, desperation, … so many! 

    So love must be felt, not simply heard. If it’s love, it never wavers, must be present every second – so what are you going to do, repeat the same three words indefinitely? If its love, you will act accordingly without pause. 

    On lessons learned: In China, trust your feelings – the Chinese do. The obverse holds too; pay attention to feelings. 

  • HI

    The bigger cultural mismatch with China is not so much within the family (the Chinese love their families just as much as anyone else), but outside the family, where the Chinese sense of loyalty or ethics is very different from the Western one.

    As for “I love you,” is this number 4? 🙂
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8zNsUTWsOc

  • stevelaudig

    I grew up in the white protestant rural midwest, a handshaking culture; have lived in the hugging part of society in Hawaii for a while and now reside, for the most part, in china which seem to do neither, usually a simple wave. I go back and forth between China and Hawaii. I sensed my Chinese friends in Hawaii [literally] cringing at hugs or even the thought of hugs. Not being oblivious to this awkwardness we came to an agreement. So now when I’m in Hawaii with my cultural Chinese friends we say “I’m Chinese, I don’t hug…… easily!” as a joke when the situation,in Hawaii, would call for a hug. When China, I explain [and almost apologize for] the different cultural practice of hugging upon arrival and departure that is part of Hawaii. One needs to keep one’s antennae up!

  • Wnash7658

    I live in China as a foreigner and from my understanding I see emotions being knocked out of the Chineese children.  It seems emotions like love as seen as a kind of weakness.

    • Lao Sichuan

      I don’t aggree.
      Like in most issues, individuality is more important that nationality.
      But in general …
      Taking Europe as a yardstick, Chinese are not as emotional like Italians, but definitly more emotional than Scandinavians.

  • Hmm, Growing up in Scandinavian America, I never heard my parents say I love you. I believe they said it privately to each other. They also never said I hate you which could fly around many Chinese houses every week. “Do your homework or I will not love you” would also be common. That may be the deeper point.   The Crisis in Chinese families and the educational system that is part of the problem will be hard to solve. Dating in China, the hot button is often “I like you” (wo xihuan ni)  rather than I love you.  Americans marry for a feeling and divorce when they lose it to the detriment of the whole country. China is learning this method and it bodes poorly for the next generation. I fully agree that we cannot say one culture is absolutely better than another.  China culturally is in the American 1910’s, and it is a stage that will pass like it did for the Americans which may or may not make the world better. 

  • Dan (another Dan)

    Yes, it’s true. Every community should and does decides on how to express themselves. 

    Regarding complaints on cultural differences, to complain on objective quality is really hard to do for almost everyone. In a way, it’s not natural and you almost often have to either be raised to see things that way since young or trained to do so either from work, school or other social activities. 

  • PaulR

    I grew up in the US Midwest and “I love you” was reserved for star-crossed lovers in the movies.  As such, I never used it, nor did my friends or relatives.  I’m not old, but I believe words meant more, and and words expressed truth better, in the past.   

    Don’t get me started about “hugging” anyone but ones children or wife/husband.  Its a dreadful habit…..

  • Shirin

    Yes. With exception of a few things, most differences between China and the US/west are not a “better” or “worse” but rather a matter of perspective. And change happen not through imposing, but through sustainable organic growth – for both countries. I get sooo tired of ppl criticizing…