Why "I love you" is so elusive for Asian immigrant families like mine

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When I was growing up, my dad would retell an anecdote about a time he and my youngest sister saw a little boy calling to his mother in Barnes and Noble. “Mom! Mom!” he yelled.

His mother, who was standing several feet away, turned to face him. “What?” she hissed.

“I love you!”

My dad never ceased to find this hilarious. “Can you imagine if you girls did that?” he’d ask my two sisters and me, his shoulders shaking with laughter.

“Ew,” we’d say with a shudder. “Weird.”

The phrase my friends slip so effortlessly into conversations with their American-raised parents feels awkward with my Asian immigrant parents. At times, though, I’ve wished my parents would show the vulnerability "I love you" conveys. The last time they said it was two months ago, when they were in the emergency room, both sick with COVID. “We love you girls,” my mom said before hanging up on a call with my sisters and me. “We love you, too,” we responded. The words tumbled clumsily from my throat. When I reach further into my memory for the next most recent time my parents and I exchanged “I love you’s,” I come up empty.

If you grew up in an Asian immigrant family, you can probably relate. The consensus is that this hesitation to utter “I love you” can stem from intergenerational trauma, as well as our parents’ upbringings, which might’ve discouraged emotional expression. The rift between our lived experiences can translate into conflicting expectations of what love “should” look like. The good news is, our parents can learn to say the “I love you” some of us may need to hear. And meanwhile, we can learn to recognize the other, less direct ways they show their love

In some Asian immigrant families, the language for expressing love in the familial sense simply doesn’t exist. Sravani Hotha, 30, who emigrated from India when she was a child and now lives in Pennsylvania, tells me that translated into Telugu, which she speaks with her parents, “I love you” is “usually something said in movies between a romantic couple. It can have a flimsy, vapid meaning,” akin to attraction, a crush, or lust.

The Telugu phrase that comes closest to communicating familial love is amma, or అమ్మ, which Hotha’s parents call her as a term of endearment. Amma means “mother” but when used with children, it means “sweetheart.” The layered meaning conveys something more profound — essentially, “that person is as close to you and as dear to you as your own mother.”

More broadly, in Asian culture, there’s often “a repression of feelings and emotions that created this environment where people don’t really talk about them,” says Angelica Sun, a therapist in southern California who works with youth from diverse backgrounds, including Asian Americans, and identifies as a first generation Chinese immigrant.

In my family, language only complicated this reticence around emotions. My mom came from the Philippines, my dad from Indonesia, so they don’t speak each other’s native languages. Worries about excluding the other parent, as well impairing my English fluency and my sisters', led them to teach us only English. The drawback is that even surface-level conversations with my parents are sometimes a struggle — forget the nuance and complexity of emotions.

Our Asian immigrant parents might’ve also been shamed for their emotions growing up. “You either get scolded, or you’re embarrassed, or there’s something wrong with you when you express any emotion, positive or negative,” says Felicia Nibungco, a therapist in San Jose, California with a largely Asian American clientele, who describes herself as a second generation Filipinx American. Specifically, our parents might’ve been raised to consider displays of emotion, especially tears, as signs of weakness. Mine would urge me to stop crying so much and “be strong.”

Before settling in the U.S., many Asian immigrant parents also lived in smaller communities based largely on family relationships, Sun says. Language was created to communicate with those who are far from us, though. In an environment where everyone constantly sees each other, there’s less of a need to express love verbally, which may be why our parents tend to convey their love through gifts or acts of service. Our generation is more far-flung, many of us gravitating to big cities and travel, so we have a stronger need to communicate love through language. This could be why Sun’s parents are so happy when she visits them. Physical proximity is “the way they are used to feeling love, to feeling community, to connecting.”

Maz Do, a 23-year-old in New York City who identifies as Indonesian Vietnamese American, traces the rarity of “I love you” in her family to a possible reluctance to show vulnerability, at least based on the little she knows about her parents' pasts. Her father, a refugee from Vietnam, almost never told her he loved her until a brain aneurysm late last year left him much more expressive. Now, he says “I love you” more frequently, tacking it onto the end of phone calls with her. Although Do often says “I love you” to her partner, it feels “super weird” to say it to her parents. Her mom, an immigrant from Indonesia, still uses the phrase only sparingly.

“I think there’s this idea that Asian parents want to appear as gods almost in your eyes,” Do says. “They are forever the parent, and you are the child and there is not really any opportunity for equal footing there.” Indeed, Asian immigrant parents might worry that expressing an emotion as vulnerable as love could compromise their authority over their children, Sun says.

Because many of our families lack the language to talk about emotions, when we do say “I love you,” it can hang awkwardly in the air, creating palpable discomfort — our parents might simply not know what to do with it, Sun adds. She and Do both recall saying it to their parents, only for them to respond with silence. “We’re not trained or taught to deal with that situation. Nobody knows what to do next,” Sun says. “Are we going to confront our own family trauma now?”

The thing is, saying “I love you,” might trigger a flood of not only love, but the complicated emotions underlying it that’ve also long gone unspoken, Sun explains. Their release can spiral into tearful breakdowns. While the West tends to portray love as mostly warm and fuzzy, love in Asian culture can be more fraught. “There’s a lot of sacrificing in love," Sun says. "There’s a lot of hurtful feelings in love.” There’s the sense that, “even if we hurt each other, we’re still going to stick together as a family.

Other than hastily muttering it at the end of a phone call, I doubt I could say “I love you” to my parents without sobbing. How can I not, when it would contain so much? Gratitude that they lived day-to-day so I wouldn’t have to. Bitterness that they passed on the burden of their trauma to me. Forgiveness, because I knew they did the best they could with the little they had.

As Do understands it, in Eastern culture, love “is so much tied to respect.” Children are expected to obey their parents without question. Parents are expected to endure pain and sacrifice for their children, something that seemed awful to Do as a kid. “To be honest, I don’t know if it’s something I’ll ever fully be able to understand…. I appreciate it and I’m in awe of it.”

Western perceptions of love feel more familiar to Do, as someone who grew up speaking only English, raised more by society than by her parents. In her view, Western parents tend to show an unconditional love and support for their children that she wishes she’d experienced more, although she thinks sometimes it can go too far and lead to poor boundaries. When she was younger, love felt like a “carrot and stick operation.” She believed her parents would love her only if she did well in school or got into an Ivy League university. Now, she sees these less as conditions of her parents’ love and more of an attempt to instill independence and other values.

That sort of rationale can be really hard to parse out when we’re growing up, though. As kids, “we don’t have enough emotional infrastructure or enough emotional intelligence to not take it personal,” Nibungco says. As a result, we might seek approval through our academics, career, or romantic relationships. “They’re going to get the 4.0 GPA or be that chief medical resident so that then maybe their parents will say ‘I love you,” or some version of that.”

Because in the end, that’s what we ultimately want from our parents, Nibungco says — not just “I love you,” but the affirmation and validation those three words communicate.

“Why wouldn’t I want to hear, ‘I love you?’” Do says. “Even if you know it, it is so nice to know that you know that they know that we’re all on the same page.”

As an adolescent, I fell into the same pattern Nibungco describes to gain my dad’s approval. I reached a breaking point in my mid-twenties when he teased me about not getting into any Ivy League schools. “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you,” I seethed.

He brought up our altercation on a car ride a few months later. “That’s not true,” he said quietly, gazing at the road above the steering wheel. “I’m always proud of you.”

It wasn’t “I love you,” but it was what I needed to hear.

Because “I love you” as it’s used in families doesn’t have an equivalent in the language she speaks with her parents, Hotha doesn’t feel a sense of loss from not saying or hearing it. But in some families, its absence can create friction. After benefiting from vulnerability in her romantic relationships, Do freely sends cards and gifts to her parents. While they appreciate these gestures, “sometimes I don’t think they know what to do with me,” she says. She recalls having multiple arguments with her mom, demanding why she doesn't say “I love you.”

These misaligned expectations for giving and receiving love can arise from Asian immigrant parents' tendency not to verbalize their emotions. “The love is being expressed more in context than in content,” Sun explains. This might look like them cooking and buying things for their children, who they expect to do chores or other acts of service in return, “kind of as saying, ‘I love you’ back.” For their kids, though, chores are likely just chores. Blowing them off might seem like NBD to them — but their parents might interpret this as their children not caring about them. “There’s this block in communication where you’re not really talking about the same thing.”

As an adult, I’ve learned to recognize my parents’ love in the acts I so often overlooked when I was younger, even shrugged off as annoying. I comb through my memories and catalogue the evidence: My mom constantly reminding me to wear tsinelas so my feet don’t get cold and leaving my laundry folded in neat squares on my bed. My dad checking my math homework after he came home from work, the only one of us still awake, writing the solution to each problem, step-by-step.

Do sees her mother’s love in how she “just took care of everything…. She was essentially a single mom.” (Her parents divorced years ago.) Her mom still ensures she’s financially stable, checking that she files her taxes and scores the best possible iPhone deal.

“Especially for immigrant parents, first generation parents, they provide for us in every way possible, financially, or providing those snacks even when we don’t ask for them, saving every penny so that we have enough to go the best college possible,” Hotha says.

Her parents’ love is also apparent in the stories they tell her about their lives in the region where they’re from in India. Since they immigrated shortly after she was born, she didn’t get to see their house or grow up with her extended family. She and her parents also moved almost every year. “I don’t have a place that I can necessarily call home, but because of how many stories they told me and the love that’s infused each of those stories, I consider that region to be my home.”

Ever since she reached her late twenties, Hotha has found herself showing her love to them by assuming more of a parenting role. “For me, it’s providing them with the same comforts they provided me and making sure they’re comfortable in their old age.” She encourages her parents to take more breaks and vacations. Lately, she’s been desperately trying to convince her mom to buy a new car to replace her current vehicle, which breaks down every few months. Her mom balks at the prices. “I’m like, ‘It’s not too much for you. You’ve earned this.’”

Some of these dynamics have shifted during the pandemic. Since COVID forced many Asian American young adults to move back in with their families, “all of a sudden they’re just back to the environment where they can be easily triggered to feel the unprocessed feelings from the past,” Sun says. More of her clients have mentioned wanting to communicate with their parents about resolving unprocessed conflict, and expressing love and care. Whether the pandemic has made any of this easier depends on them and their families.

Do’s relationships with her family improved in the beginning of the pandemic but became challenging to maintain from a distance: “I think if saying ‘I love you’ is already awkward, then saying it over Zoom is even worse.” Partly because of what she describes as her mom’s inability, or perhaps refusal, to express how she cares about her, they’ve stopped speaking to each other. Not being able to communicate in person made their contentious relationship all the more so.

Hotha, who moved out of her parents’ house a few months before the pandemic, continues to look after them. Since her mother has frequent contact with the COVID wards in the hospital where she works, she makes a point of asking both her parents specific questions about whether they're experiencing symptoms, even if they reassure her they feel fine.

My parents’ bouts with COVID have reversed our roles, too. I’ve learned that I share their love language of neurotic protectiveness. While they were sick, my sisters and I called them every night to ask about their symptoms, which we recorded in a Google sheet. We scared my dad into going to the ER when we thought his extreme fatigue indicated dangerously low oxygen saturation. We pestered him and my mom about not forgetting their follow-up appointments.

These days, worried about the lingering cardiovascular effects of COVID-19, I’ve been reminding my dad to listen to his body and take it slow. “Dad, remember, your heart,” I tell him periodically, the way he’d remind me about a jury duty summons I had yet to respond to. Maybe my nagging will take and make him think twice before muscling through a heart palpitation.

If you crave an “I love you” from your parents, Sun and Nibungco suggest recognizing the other ways they give and receive love. The five love languages can be a helpful guide, Sun says. Since Asian immigrant parents tend not to say, “I’m sorry,” either, consider how they make amends, since chances are, they also include some display of love. Do they cook for you? Buy you stuff?

If you still insist on hearing them say the three magic words, Sun says it’s worth exploring why this means so much to you. A request for an “I love you” might be a socially acceptable way of asking for something more. Ask yourself if you might be trying to subvert the power dynamic between you and your parents by pushing them to show vulnerability — and to truly see you.

On the other hand, if your desire for your parents to say “I love you” is really nothing more than that, Sun suggests negotiating with them. Say something like “I really need to hear this. It would mean a lot to me.” Note that they might feel shame around confronting how they might’ve “went wrong” with you, especially since Asian immigrant parents often set high standards for themselves when it comes to providing for their children. Reassure them that you’re not attacking them, but that you need them to do this so you can heal. While it may be a difficult process, they can learn to say “I love you” if they feel safe and know their authority won’t be challenged if they do.

You could also try saying “I love you” to your parents first, if you haven’t already, and essentially model the behavior for them, Nibungco says. Everyone seems to be holding on to each other a little tighter during the pandemic, “so that’s why I think there’s more potential…. There’s more opportunities to say it and hear it back.”

And if your parents can’t verbalize their love, Sun says, ask how they can show it. Can they write a letter or identify their own ways of showing they care? Nibungco also suggests thiking of ways you can fill that void yourself. Can you turn to a close friend for those words? “It’s a way of saying, ‘I might never get it from my mom, but there are ways I can still find it and take care of myself and grow so that in the future, I will be ready and willing and hopefully able to say it to my own kids.'”

Personally, I care more about the validation that underlies “I love you” than the phrase itself, something I’m fortunate my parents have given me, even if it took a few tearful outbursts on my part. And thanks to therapy, I’ve learned to validate myself where they fell short. I know that if my love for them holds multitudes, so, too, must their love for me, no matter how quiet and unassuming.