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Love Through Actions

Wo Ai Ni

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.

  • keius

    True enough. I’ve never actually heard anyone say “i love you” in Chinese. When me or the wife say it, it’s always in English, never Chinese.

  • TLB

    It may not *need* to be spoken, but I’ve never met anybody anywhere who didn’t enjoy hearing it expressed verbally as well as through other actions.

    I guess I’m lucky, my Chinese wife says it to me all the time (though I don’t think it means the same to her to say it — or hear it — as it would were she American). Maybe because she’s a Northerner and they’re supposed to be more verbally direct?

    Perhaps I’m just selfish — I love to love and be loved in as many ways as possible! :cool:

    Actually, her saying “I love you” (she does this both in Chinese and English) is, in my mind, a kind of double love action on her part, because she knows Westerners do this and she wants to make me happy. So she is expressing her love feelings (one kind of action) through words and also doing something she knows I like (another kind of action).

    In this way, also, we meet in *between* our cultures (and I have learned, as has Travis, to pay close attention and show caring in those little ways my wife likes).

    And such meeting is, for both of us, an act of love.

  • Sarah

    my boyfriend often says i love you in English and rarely in Chinese however that’s because i don’t speak Chinese so it would be just odd to switch to speaking in Chinese, I am sure if he was speaking in Chinese he would say the same things.Anyway I think actions speak louder than words sometimes. so its good to show that you love someone through acts of kindness and saying it

  • Kevin


    You wrote:

    “…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.”

    But a dichotomy is exactly what you’ve set up here, no, by discussing “saying it” vs. actions? I fail to see such a “one vs. the other” as anything but cultural relativism that attempts to undermine psychological universalism.

    I agree with your wife’s not often saying the words. As a Taiwanese woman once said to me, “Westerners throw these words on top of things like putting fudge sauce on a sundae.” But that’s an aesthetic argument, meaning there’s a world of difference between being sparing in saying the words and being afraid to say the words.

    Instrumental love is afraid to say the words other than as a license for control. Unconditional love is not afraid of the words – and the actions that back them up.

    Does unconditional love ever demand anything at all? Does it ever complain about what it’s not getting? I don’t mean it would never criticize behavior; rather, I mean would it ever do this in an effort to get something for the critic?

    The acid test, I would say, is whether the parents were afraid to say more than “wan an.” I’d say they were – or else they are very sub-par aesthetes. Because “wan an” at the end of the evening is a default statement extraordinaire. It’s so un-special, and no number of actions can make it special, the same as no number of expressions of love mean much when there’s a failure to show love through actions.

    How does culture enter in at all? At bottom, aren’t these only questions of fear vs. courage?

  • TLB

    I think culture enters in as the enabler (and limiter) of ways of expressing one’s humanity, including affection. If I can be allowed to replace “fear” with “discomfort” it seems to fit better: the parents said “wan an” but were uncomfortable saying more because it rubbed up against the edges of what is common behavior in China. An American parent might say quite a bit more without the slightest discomfort, but that doesn’t mean s/he would be more courageous.

    Culture is a set of practices propagated horizontally and vertically through time, with constant — but usually small — modifications. I wonder what Travis’s wife’s parents would do and/or feel if Travis’s wife went up to them and proclaimed her love for them? Besides probably discomfort, I have a hard time believing they would not be terribly moved. This speaks to the psychological universal Kevin mentions, if I read him right: we all want to love and be loved. Culture shows us how to do it, but also how *not* to do it. Sometimes culture can be a vice.

    When I was in Beijing in the 1980s I stayed with a friend’s mother; the mother spoke no English and had never been outside of China, rarely outside of Beijing. Her husband was in the US for months at a time on business; I never heard her say “wo ai ni” on the phone with him, nor with her teen-aged daughter who also lived with us. After staying with her and being taken good care of for several months, as I was leaving to get in the taxi to the airport, I turned to the mother and, in a moment of pure and deep gratitude, said “wo ai ni.” She got tears in her eyes, hugged me (that had never happened before either) and also said “wo ai ni.”

    Culture aside, fear and discomfort aside, “actions not words” aside, I remain convinced that everyone wants to hear “I love you” and that those words are a great gift to give.

    That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

    • Travis

      Interesting comment. It reminds me of the day I left Wuhan. My wife’s parents accompanied us to the train station. Right before we went inside, with tears in my tears I hugged each of them, thanking them for being so good to me. They were very happy, and both told me they’d miss me.

      When it came time for my wife to say goodbye, all three of them were very quiet. I could tell her parents were sad–her mother was holding back tears. My wife said (in Chinese, of course) “I’m leaving.” They said “zaijian”.

      And that was it.

      Since coming here, my wife calls them once a week. She has told me that she misses them, but I don’t think they’ve ever said it to each other.

  • Tim

    I am European, living in China, dating a Chinese woman. There is a book called “The Five Love Languages” that anyone dating cross-culturally should read, and discuss with your partner. The point is that we express our love in 5 ways, BUT we *perceive* love in 5 ways too. So in this story he wants to hear the WORDS, but she gives ACTIONS. This mismatch is a problem.

    Once I discussed the book with my girlfriend, she started to see better what I want, what I don’t notice, and what I’ve been doing that she didn’t even notice. Things got much better after that.

    Read the book, for sure.

    • Michael

      Awesome book. I recommend it for anyone, but of course, we who are in cross-cultural marriages need it even more.

  • Patrick

    Hello, just returned from holiday in Thailand with my Chinese (Shanghai) girlfriend. We are new in our relation, and yes, she pinches me frequently in the arm :-) I did figure out that this is their way of noting their affection to you …. and indeed, the words ‘I love you (too)’ is not in the Chinese vocabulary (not used to showing affection). Also, Chinese women – at least mine – do not like to be cuddled in public. Prefer to keep this for behind the walls, and then really !! So much passion !! :-) Yep, in love …

  • Rw86347

    Although it is true they say it less they appreciate it more. After getting married I would always say thank you when my wife would do something nice. At first she thought you don’t say that to family, but then she realized she liked it and didn’t want me to stop.

    Now we both 我爱你 everyday.

  • Europe

    That is so true. My girlfriend doesn’t say she loves me too often. I say that to her more often She is Taiwanese and I am European. There was times when i wasn’t so sure does she really love me or not. I remember only, maybe 2-3 times in past year when she said that. We have been together one year. I remember one situation, I said to her “I love you”. She replied quite low voice “me too”. But after I read this, I am more confident. It is the actions. It’s just been difficult for me to understand. Now I understand better, love doesn’t always need words. She has always been very helpful and done many things for me. I remember, it was one Sunday, I was drinking very hard on previous night with my friends. On sunday, I had really serious hangover. She asked me on that day is there any way to make me feel better. She came over, made good food for me. That was something I really appreciate. I love her so much. ”
    I just hope my actions say the same thing.” I will try harder.

  • Josie Weatherford

    i also have a boyfriend who is chinese and recently have been wondering if he will ever tells me he loves me. I am used to hearing it from boyfriends by the time 6 months or less comes, but with him he is very affectionate and his actions shows me he does love me, and he is very attentive to details and very sweet, however, he never tells me anything sentimental. Now, after having read this post, I can see it is cultural phenomenon, and having studied cultural anthropology (my major) I have decided I won’t push for him to say this to me, or even bring it up for the time being. It’s good to know there are a community of people who are experiencing the same thing. When you are used to hearing those words all your life and the person you love the most doesn’t say them, it can be confusing and even hurtful. However, it’s important to understand where they are coming from and to see that they do express their love, and for them actions are more important than words.

    • Michael

      This is also one of the reasons some Chinese girls prefer western guys. Chinese guys, so the Chinese girls tell me, are too shy and to unwilling to take the first step in things like saying “I love you.”