As I was growing up, my family and I almost never directly articulated our love to one another. Instead, our love was established in a variety of other ways — through my mother bringing me delicately cut-up fruit as I studied, through my father staying up late and waiting until I got home safe, through my little brother penning me as his hero during his star-of-the-week and my grandmother lulling me to sleep with the sparrow song.
And I reciprocated love much in the same way, through a series of actions, rather than words. Those three little words made me feel awkward and uncomfortable, and I attributed my inability to be vulnerable to my upbringing. Back then, I often resented my family and our cultural background for preventing us from loudly and directly expressing love in the way many of my white friends’ families seemed to.
But as I’ve transitioned away from home into college for the first time this year, I find myself often missing those subtle actions — the trademarks of home — far more than three little words could ever encapsulate. I’ve found myself gaining a bittersweet appreciation for my family and my culture only now that I don’t have regular access.
Now, more than ever, I’ve reflected on how different my family and I show love compared to other loved ones in my life.
Over the summer, the love language test, an online quiz to help people discover the ways in which they prefer to give and receive love, circulated the internet. The test reveals which of the five love languages a person likes best: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service or physical touch.
It didn’t come as a surprise to me at all when most of my friends, my boyfriend and I all found ourselves to favor some combination of words of affirmation and physical touch. Those love languages seem to be the norm here in the United States, so that’s what I assumed we’d all get.
Out of curiosity, I recently had my parents take the test as well, and, while they both preferred showing love through acts of service, as I’d expected, they also wished to receive words of affirmation in return.
Those results hit me with a pang of guilt.
Throughout my entire life, I cannot remember many times when I’ve told my parents how wonderful they are. I cannot recall many times when I’ve outrightly voiced my appreciation for everything they’ve done for me growing up. I can perhaps count on my fingers the number of times I’ve said “I love you” to them.
I’ve always assumed that avoiding those words was an implicit agreement between us, something that none of us minded. It’s not the way people typically show love in Asian cultures — it’s not the way any of us show love, at least — so I figured it’s not the way we’d care to receive it, either.
But it makes sense, now, that my mother read one of my columns and seemed a little saddened by it. My unfamiliarity with using words of affirmation, coupled with the specific topics I’ve written about here at The Daily Californian, has prevented me from telling the stories that have solidified my love for my culture. I’ve juxtaposed decades of Chinese tradition and experiences with the progressive American ones, and, because it’s usually the easy thing to do, I pick apart the Chinese side.
I’ve found that writing for others, for the entire internet population to see, can quickly become performative. I often resort to hunting and pecking through my memories, searching for anecdotes that can be quickly dissected and analyzed.
What I didn’t get to tell are stories of riding on the back of my grandfather’s moped through chaotic, bustling farmers markets and basking in the temporary fame of everyone recognizing us. I never wrote of standing tiptoed between my grandmother’s arms as she rolled out hundreds of perfectly round dumpling skins in preparation for Lunar New Year. Or fighting my cousins for the karaoke mic, or listening to aunts gossiping in the kitchen and uncles roaring with laughter playing mahjong.
I’m clearly still learning the right way to show love, but since I’ve been at college, the increased physical distance that separates my family and me has instantly made words of affirmation our most convenient way to express love. And as a result, I see our relationship growing and improving.
Perhaps it hasn’t always been my main focus, but explicitly reflecting on my experiences this semester as a person of color here has strengthened my relationship with my culture as well.
Like my grandmother always sang to me in the lullaby: smooth as honey, light as silk, the sparrows glide, their feathers bold and strong, soft and delicate.
The road since the start of this year has been long, but as a Chinese American student here at UC Berkeley, I think I’ve finally come to love my honey and silk.
Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]