“I want to tell her ‘Get over it. And whatever you do, please don’t give us a third book about your relationship with your mother. Writing’s supposed to be cathartic, not fixating.’” – an American friend’s words after finishing Amy Tan’s second book, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)
Some years back, I was teaching a woman who had a master’s degree in counseling and who served as a counselor at a renowned Taiwanese university. Her lesbian daughter had finally come out of the closet to her. Frantic, the mother sought out studies that suggested non-genetic bases for homosexuality. And she began arranging blind dates with guys for her daughter, which the daughter complained to me about. When I asked the woman why she refused to accept the fact, she replied, “You don’t understand a mother’s love.”
By this time, Taiwan had prompted me to be on permanent high alert for self-serving dodges. “That’s not true,” I told her. “Anyone who knows what love is understands what it is in any type of relationship between any types of people anywhere in the world. If you want to say I don’t know the depth of a mother’s attachment, OK, but it’s not true that I don’t understand ‘a mother’s love.’”
Hearing this rocked her a bit. Quickly, though, she was back to shaking her head in disagreement, waving me off…
But I think I’d gotten to the heart of the matter.
A few years later, I asked a conversation class of twenty-somethings at a test-prep cram school if they had or formerly had boyfriends/girlfriends. All thirteen students said yes. “Is it love when a lover tries to control you, or when you try to control them?” I asked. Twelve said no. (Princess disease was less prevalent in the mid-noughties, and hardcore test-takers are the least likely PD carriers.) “So if your parents try to control you once you’re an adult, that’s not love either, right?“ Every hand dropped. What was the difference, I kept asking. But none could or would give an answer. “It’s just different,” they said.
Looking closer at the word
My parents won’t let me
- play basketball instead of piano
- go travelling without a boy present…
- choose the major I want…
- move out and live in my own apartment…
- stay single…
because they love me.
It’s the cause-and-effect element, which pivots on the “because,” that points to the falsehood here. Throw out the “because” and instead stick with the “be” verb; then the con of calling this stuff love becomes stark. In the sentence completion “Love is __________ , Taiwanese English learners give answers like sweet, kind, comfortable, difficult, impossible, respect, regard, sacrifice, playing tricks, chocolate, hell, and keeping the other in your heart. Of the many hundreds I’ve polled in this way during my twenty years of teaching English in Taiwan not one has said “Love is deciding for a daughter what she should study in school, whether she can move out of the house, and when she should marry.”
Taiwanese who were not overly controlled by their parents laugh when I argue some form of the above paragraph to them. Most, though, when pressed, say “I don’t agree. And the feistier defenders of orthodoxy say “That’s just your opinion.”
I’ve often asked: Don’t agree with what, exactly? And of course it’s my opinion, but why “just”? Evidence often doesn’t outright prove something, but it gives a strong basis for discussion; so where does my argument not hold up – and why? And how about giving your explanation of your opinion so that I, in turn, can examine it? In playing poker, would you expect to get away with saying “I didn’t lose and you didn’t win” while refusing to show your cards after I’ve shown mine? And, poker analogies aside, in the end who cares whose opinion an idea or an argument is – or who “wins”; isn’t the important thing simply that the idea or argument is clear and honest? Isn’t personalizing the disagreement with “just your opinion” yet another tactic for avoiding the issue? A tactic of avoidance akin to dismissing discussion by saying “different cultures”?
This approach is as threatening, of course, as my advice to my ex-teacher was. She knew the difference between attachment and love; she simply, and understandably, couldn’t move from one to the other with her own mother. But most Taiwanese women, unless they’re lucky enough to be from non-controlling or non-spoiling families, are unwilling to face that there’s a difference. Of course, most American women (and men; and most people everywhere) are not eager to fully embrace this understanding, either; but sooner or later, most get hit with it by other Americans (or foreigners) at least once or more in their life. Thus, at the very least, they have to deal with the idea now and then.
No one in Taiwan appears to be confronting anyone else with this idea, though – at least not out in plain view or in broadcast media where the discussion could have a wider effect. Instead, broadcast media and common conversation continue to palm off attachment as love, ignoring both logic and neuroscience. I’ll save the neuroscience for Part VII, though, as it fits better there and because, actually, logic alone shows the difference: If attachment were synonymous with love, we’d have to accept that serial child-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer’s keeping organs of his victims in his refrigerator was, as he said, done out of love. Or that Kathy Bates was correct in terming her sadistic kidnapping/caretaking in Misery “love.”
It’s really that simple: because no one in Taiwan publicly points out the similarities between a stalker’s obsession with his or her “beloved” and parental efforts to usurp a child’s autonomy, efforts to control are still construed as love – this old meme persists even into an age where neuroscience proves it wrong. Even those open to seeing that attachment is not itself love get gulled in an environment that continually erases he difference. Thus, princess disease makes sense to princesses. And even Taiwanese women (and men) who abhor princess disease and thus reject the erasure regarding romance still accept it regarding family.
“Different cultures, different love,” insisted a Taiwanese woman to me recently. And when I began giving this explanation to the contrary, she snapped “That’s just your definition.” And didn’t want to give hers.
It’s not just my definition. Widely disparate cultures converge in their understandings when they strive to uncover unadulterated meanings of the word love.
Leibniz: “Love is to be delighted by the happiness of another.”
Bertrand Russell: “Love is an absolute value, not a relative one.”
The Koran: “Truly thou canst not guide the steps of whom thou lovest.”
And the Buddha:
“Maitri is the love that has the capacity to bring happiness to another. Karuna is the love which has the capacity to remove another’s suffering. Maitri and karuna do not demand anything in return”
As the great Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello put it to his audiences when speaking,
“You are never in love with anyone. You’re only in love with your prejudiced and hopeful idea of that person.”
Few anywhere are ready, of course, for the stringent demands on self implicit in such bluntness. (The Catholic Church for instance wasn’t; the current pope lobbied in the 1990s to have de Mello posthumously excommunicated for Buddhism-inflected apostasy.) In the West, though, as I said above, this aural castor oil does occasionally get poured in people’s ears. In the Confucian/Neo-Confucian East, in contrast, no doctor is administering this medicine. Thus the big dodge is still fully on.
Again and again, Taiwanese have told me “Taiwanese show love through action, not words.” Undoubtedly, love is action; no argument there. And one of the most personally enlightening cross-cultural statements I’ve received during my many years in Taiwan was this from a thirtyish woman: “You Westerners use the word “love” like chocolate sauce on ice cream. It’s not necessary; the ice cream’s already sweet enough. And sometimes it’s bullshit; it’s trying to cover up that there’s no ice cream.”
Also true – mostly. Since hearing those words, I’ve trimmed back greatly on telling people I love them. Actions speak. (Non-coerced actions, that is; sorry, princesses.) The eyes do, too. Voice tone does, as well. And patience speaks most of all. And all of these, including patience, are more palpable than a word.
But the word still matters. People need to hear it said sincerely, without guile or an agenda, without expectation or hidden demand. They need to hear it once and only once. But, definitely, they need to hear it once. My ex-teacher felt that she needed this more than anything else in her life. Nothing a parent does for a child is likely to matter more for the child’s happiness and confidence during her life than unconditionally saying “I love you.”
An inability to say it once with real feeling is the hallmark of instrumental love. “We show love with action, not words” is an attempt to obscure this fact. It’s a coward’s attempt to establish a false dichotomy. It’s an effort – and a longstanding cultural meme – that is founded in fear. The dimensions of the fear and of the meme’s denial of psychological and emotional reality are apparent in an oft-cited phenomenon: many Taiwanese girls feel able to say “I love you” in English to a Western boyfriend; but they feel “strange” or worse if they say the words in Chinese.
A culture ridden with this meme will necessarily be emotionally impoverished. And Mozi, a contemporary of Confucius, understood this. Perhaps foremost, he knew it because his parents had little regard for him. Mozi, not Confucius, was China’s most influential intellectual 2400 years ago. A man who taught universal love was dominant in a time of war and famine.
Over the next two centuries, though, the Chinese empire was consolidated, ultimately in brutal fashion by the Han Dynasty. Mo-ism was extinguished. And with the overthrow of the Han, the great cynic Shunzi was relegated to the fringe of orthodoxy, because dull Confucius and erratic Mencius had the ideas that could more easily be used to consolidate bureaucracy and imperial control.
With the idealist and the cynic both gone, the loom was geared for endlessly weaving the “harmony” value and all its sub-meme strands of control. Over the next two millennia, one fish after another, billions in all, swam, lived asleep, and died in the net of instrumental love.
Fast forward to the present: the memes never dreamed of global markets, the Internet, or social networking sites. Though princesses are many in Taiwan and the streets are full of young couples who relate to each other in shallow and codependent ways, I see another type of young couple on the street, too – a type I rarely saw five years ago: lovers really talking to each other, sharing a genuine laugh, and physically comfortable with each other and showing it in casual, unaffected ways. She may be a group, not an individual, but Lysistrata will appear in Taiwan and elsewhere in the Chinese world; and soon, not in twenty or fifty years.
Like Mo-ism, her influence may burgeon, then vanish; no one knows how peak oil, global warming, water scarcity, and food imbalances will shape our world in the next few decades. But for a time anyway, and I hope forever, she will be the face that ends the grip of the memes of the Net and of instrumental love in Taiwan.