Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On (Not Saying) “I Love You”

sushi-ise

One of the phrases people like to learn in a foreign language is, “I love you”. It’s a bit odd for Japanese because we almost always drop the subject and sometimes the object, so you are basically saying “(I’m) doing love”: 愛している (ai shite iru) is what I usually tell people, but with a caveat, that people usually don’t say that (unless it’s a poorly written romantic screen play).

My Western friends are further confused when I tell them that my parents have never uttered the phrase to me. Ever. I have to then quickly add that it’s not that I was a neglected child. It is typical for a Japanese kid to not be told “I love you”: Japanese parents just don’t use these words. This clarification doesn’t make my friends feel any better.

Kids in Japan grow up feeling loved despite the lack of this verbal reminder. My mother woke up way before I did so she can make me a freshly packed lunch that consisted of multiple compartments neatly arranged in a bento box: a piece of grilled fish, some stewed vegetables, rice balls, sometimes accompanied with a thermos of soup. Do an image search of “bento box ideas” and you’ll see the kind of artwork I got to treated to daily. I knew I was loved. There’s no miscommunication here.

(My mom, on the other hand, did not understand that other cultures choose to show their parental love beyond the confines of the lunch box, who thought the Danish kids who brought carrot sticks were neglected by their parents, but that’s another blog post.)

My Chinese and Korean friends agree that parental love was shown not spoken. But things get a bit more complex for Asian immigrants, where we hug and utter these words to others in the West. My friend whose parents emigrated from China, was brought up in the U.S. and married a Westerner with 2 hapa kids. When the family visits the grandparents, the kids hug them. It would look awkward to the kids if my friend didn’t hug her mother. I’ve heard similar multi-generational, multi-cultural issues surrounding expressions of love from other friends.

And it’s not just my friends. In an episode of The Moth, an Asian-American neuroscientist whose father suffered from memory loss told a story where she realized it was time to start saying “I love you”.  She felt she had to obtain approval to start doing so. Next time she phoned him, she realized she would have to remind her father of the prior discussion they had before she said “I love you” again. Despite his neurological challenges, he did remember their agreement. I’m convinced it wasn’t the words he remembered but the deep emotion imprinted by his daughter’s gesture of love to want to start saying these coveted three words.

Perhaps I haven’t completely integrated into the Western culture, as I am in no hurry to start saying “I love you” to my parents. But I’ll know something is amiss if lunch doesn’t taste good when I visit them.

Photo: Unfortunately, I have no photos of the beautiful bento my mother used to make, so here’s a sushi lunch my relatives treated me to. They love me very much. 

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2015 by in Culture, Family, Japan and tagged , .
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