My Chinese wife rarely says “wo ai ni” (“I love you”).
One day at dinner I remarked offhand that I had worn holes in a pair of socks. It was just one pair; God knew I had plenty more at home.
She showed up the next day with a new pair. Like I said, she rarely says “wo ai ni“.
Perhaps she doesn’t have to.
I once took a semester of Chinese classes. Paid the 8500 RMB tuition fee, this before I realized you could just find a classroom full of laowai, sit down and no one would care. I miss Wuhan.
But I took the class, and in the first lesson learned that ni hao = hello, complete with a conversation between two friends to demonstrate. In this same class, my teacher went on a mini-rant about how Chinese people really don’t say “ni hao” to each other. Maybe for strangers, but not to people they know. Certainly not friends or family. As for us foreigners, we get ni haos because, well, we’re foreigners. There’s no bigger mark of a stranger than being an outside-the-country person.
I’ve gotten plenty of ni haos in my time, along with “hello”, “how are you”, “where are you come from”, and from one freethinking guy, “I love you“. I guess he wanted to be different. Or maybe here it’s like ni hao: you can say it to strangers, not friends or family.
My wife has never said it to her parents. They’ve never said it to her. Growing up, I heard “I love you” plenty. My wife? When we were in her hometown, leaving her parents’ store one night, she remarked simply that we were going back. They responded with short hums. Then they turned to me, and offered a loud “wan an” each.
So I guess these things really are reserved for strangers.
Of course, they only said it because I said it to them first, and the only reason I said it to them was because I was used to saying it.
My wife isn’t used to saying it. Which raises the question: if she’s never heard her parents say “I love you”, then how does she know it?
From their actions.
Does it seem that simple? Let’s take a closer look: she knows they love her from the way they raised her, took care of her, give advice on what she should wear when it’s too hot or too cold, advice on what she should be doing, and miscellaneous advice on other matters. Their actions show that they love her. Perhaps you could say that’s how parents express love in China.
How about a husband?
When I was in China, she helped me out a lot. She did this not out of a sense of pity, or just to be polite, but rather, because I was her boyfriend. Her future husband.
She brought me medicine and food when I was sick, took care of me after a brutal rice wine hangover (if there’s another kind, I’ve like to know), and many, so many things to show her love that I’ve lost track. It’d be pointless anyways. I know she loves me. She’s shown it so much it’s a given.
When we were dating, she told me she thought I didn’t love her enough. At the time I wasn’t sure where she was coming from. Only later did I understand. Since that time I pay more attention to what I do.
It does not require jumping through hoops, or submission. This isn’t some sort of contest, nor is it about so-called Chinese love being somehow truer (i.e. better) than so-called Western love. It is not a dichotomy, no matter how good it may feel to believe that.
It’s simply about two people who love each other, in such a way that it needs not be spoken.
You know it through your actions.
My wife rarely says “wo ai ni”. She doesn’t have to. Her actions say it.
I just hope my actions say the same thing.