How Do Some Asians Say ‘I Love You’ To Each Other?

‘I love you’. Just three words. But three words some typical Asians like those of Chinese heritage find hard to say out loud when it comes to dating and romantic relationships.

There’s this common stereotype: Asians are reserved about expressing romantic sentiments towards each other. In a progressive world where traditional and modern perspectives collide, sometimes this is still true, and sometimes not.

Love is colourful as much as it is complex | Weekly Photo Challenge: Dense.

Love is colourful as much as it is complex | Weekly Photo Challenge: Dense.

There are different degrees of love, physical and emotional. Different ways of expressing romantic love during different moments – depending on our personality, the ways we are actually comfortable expressing it and what we believe in. Personally, I’m reserved about my love life and won’t be sharing my serious relationships here; it isn’t the whole world’s business.

Providing by way of giving and protecting is commonly how stereotypical Asians show love. Love involves practicality, and a touch of materiality to impress: building up comfortable surrounds by providing food on the table, a roof over heads and clothes on the back. While the One Child Policy in China has been phased out, it has resulted in many more males than females in the country. Many Chinese men are inclined to save and own flashy cars and prime accommodation to catch the eye of potential, highly sought after female companions and settle down, in a time where hierarchical Asian family values still exist.

One hot and humid afternoon during high school in Singapore, a Chinese Singaporean classmate came up to me and asked, “D-d-do you want to go s-shopping?” I was flattered but I’m not a girly girl who likes shopping – and going shopping was what my Singaporean male classmates liked to do with their girlfriends. Notably, with each Asian guy I’ve been on a date with, either that or eating is always first on the agenda.

For stereotypical Asians, saying I love you entails being physically apart, geographically distant. A lack of physical presence doesn’t mean a lack of presence in a relationship. Research from the University of New York shows Chinese couples frequently ‘live apart together’ in long distance relationships: frequently a parent works outstation where the dough is to raise a parachute family and younger couples willingly live apart to give each other space.

Arguably then in Chinese culture, actions speak louder than words when it comes to expressing emotions deep from the heart. In Chinese culture, telling someone ‘I love you’ face-to-face often comes across as too harsh, too confronting, too full on. Saying ‘wǒ ài nǐ (我爱你) / I love you’ in Mandarin or ‘ngo ngoi nei / I want you’ in Cantonese sounds awkward and feels embarrassing. According to this study by Michigan State University, historically and even today, many Chinese were raised and disciplined with negative language by stern parents; not wholly conditioned to warm towards affection but more reticent to verbalising it than Western Americans. When you can’t speak love, what’s left to do is to show it.

Love is ....

Love is ….

Though I’ve never heard my Chinese-Malaysian parents say ‘I love you’ to each other, I’ve never had a problem with anyone saying the phrase to each other. I’m not that liberal with the phrase out loud myself. Probably nothing to do with how I was brought up. As a shy person with social anxiety, making the first move on anyone is a no-no for me. Also, countless times a doll-faced girl like me gets a random guy stumbling close and saying, ‘From when I saw you over there, I knew I loved you. Let’s go….’. Those three words can mean nothing.

And so love is a feeling for many typical Asians, and the essence of ‘I love you’ starts off with an emotional connection, less so physical affection. During the Mao era in the mid 20th century, sex was seen as a tool for procreation, sexless military dress-sense advocated and adultery punished in the midst of women becoming victims of sexual violence. Today discipline is still common in conservative (Confucian) Chinese families: conventional order of family is highly valued while sex education is swept under the rug, and passionate physical intimacy and public display of affection are seen as immoral.

However, more and more younger generation Asians are engaging in sex and one night stands for enjoyment. There are more sex shops in Beijing than in New York. It might not be talked about in the open, but love is physical as much as it’s emotional for the more open-minded among us today.

I love physical intimacy. To an extent. Once I had a three-hour sushi dinner with an Asian guy; we’d hung out with a couple of times previously. After the meal, he walked me home. I said I was freezing that winter night. He grabbed my hand. I gripped back. He pulled me close, our bodies pressed together. When we reached my place, we stood face-to-face. Our noses almost touched. But ever the slightest bit, with certainty I backed away. Nope, no kiss.

With different degrees of love comes different definitions of love, different kinds of relationships and different wants out of relationships. You can always experiment with physical affection to make that kind of love work. But when it comes to emotional attachment, you can’t help but feel how you really feel. And that is special as it is through this untamed emotional feeling that we truly connect with each other and take ‘I love you’ to a deeper level. That’s not to say an emotional connection or a friendship can’t develop over time whilst getting physical with each other. It’s possible, but maybe more of a gamble.

Love is...

Love is…

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone loves you as the person whom you are. It’s one thing to say to someone you love them, and another to show you’re not just lusting after them. Sometimes after a few dates with Western male expats, Chinese girls start talking about marriage and planning their futures with them. Unless you feel you’ve met the love of your life, it’s confronting to have intimate conversations with a stranger.

This begs the question: what is love? Love is complex. Love is the big things together like lavish candle-lit dinners, holiday getaways, jewellery gifts. Love is the small things together like taking out the garbage, sitting together after a long day. Love is the unspoken routines between each other, and the petty disagreements too. Love is what it is when we agree, and more so when we disagree with each other and move along together. Each relationship is different; saying I love you is different in each relationship.

In this modern multicultural world, there are heterosexual couples, mixed race couples, varying age-gap couples, same-sex couples, long distance couples, and so on. While there are up-and-coming LGBTIQ+ scenes in places like Taipei, same-sex love is still characterised by invisibility in most of Asia where traditional society norms dominate the status quo. For some Asians, saying ‘I love you’ is a private affair more than ever and consequently, love and ‘I love you’ knows no boundaries. As Oscar Wilde said on truly loving someone:

‘You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.’

More times than I can count, guys wink at me in the middle of conversations, in social circles and especially at the many corporate offices where I’ve worked. A wink is silent, an ever-guessing message. It could be a sexually suggestive sign, flirting, a greeting, an affirmation, a sign of sexism, a combination of it all, anything. Not that I mind being winked at. Not even coming from those who have some degree of yellow-fever. Doesn’t make me uncomfortable; some winks turned into meals together and good company.

In general, you can date multiple people at once before committing to a committed relationship with someone. For many younger generations Asians today, love and saying ‘I love you’ is a fluid game. Dating shows in China attract millions of viewers, shows where women make demands from potential male suitors and men taking their picks from bevies of girls to find their match. Dating apps such as Tinder, QQ, Momo and Tandan give one the possibility of finding their match or a ‘quickie’ literally right now in China.

But if it’s two people just dating each other at the same time, it arguably feels all the more special. Just the two of you. Just for each other.

The smallest moments between each other speak the loudest love.The smallest moments between each other speak the loudest love.

The smallest moments between each other speak the loudest love.

Of all the guys I have truly loved and love today, we’ve been friends for a while; it’s the subtle moments between us that matter and knowing true love is more than just a good fuck. Moments like that random hug whilst walking down a busy street. When we tell each other off because one of us is really being crazy or an idiot or a crazy idiot. When we pick up the phone anytime and text each other that ‘wtf’ moment going on our end. Just being ourselves with each other, speaking and acting our minds. Knowing we got each other’s back. As author E.A. Bucchianeri said on presenting each other our deepest sides:

‘Love is supposed to be based on trust, and trust on love, it’s something rare and beautiful when people can confide in each other without fearing what the other person will think.’

Love is a mystery, and love is intimidating as much as it’s amazing. The more you love and the more emotionally attached you are to someone, the harder you’ll fall but the easier it is to say ‘I love you’ in one way or another, no matter where you are from, who you’ve been and who you are right now.

Because you want to.

How do you say ‘I love you’ to that special someone?

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229 thoughts on “How Do Some Asians Say ‘I Love You’ To Each Other?

  1. I’m not one who easily says ‘I love you’ to anyone including my parents. It might be because of my Asian upbringing…or I find that actions speak louder than words. That’s not to say that I’m materialistic or anything like that; it’s easy to say it but difficult to prove that one loves the other. Most of my friends know that when I buy them birthday presents and souvenirs or extend a slice or two of my homemade cakes to them, it means that I love them as a friend. And hugs, too. Friends of the same gender are aware that if I give them a bear hug or squeeze them, it means I love them loads.

    “[I]t’s worth remembering Jesus’ words as recorded by John, that ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’” – this is one of the biblical quotes that I love the most. It doesn’t matter whether it’s platonic or relationship love, it illustrates that you love the person so much that you’re willing to fight for the person.

    Oh, the issue of sex and love. I won’t say much on this in public to avoid landing myself in unnecessary complications. As you’ve mentioned, there are many ways that one can express one’s love without doing the deed… it can even be a simple ‘it’s alright to vent on me. Don’t bottle your emotions.’ I find that when you can trust a person with your life and secrets, that in itself can be associated with love – be it in the platonic or relationship love.

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    • I only saw these two of your comments just now. I approved them a couple of weeks ago but forgot to respond. My sincere apologies :/

      ‘it’s easy to say it but difficult to prove that one loves the other. ‘ I so agree with this. Words are words but they can also be hearsay. Like you, I show my appreciation and love for others by making time for them, such as through gifts. For me, it really is about taking time to chat with each other and talking about any random thing under the sun – in other words, talk, and make time for each other.

      Yeah, I too won’t say too much about sex in public because sometimes that can be as touchy as a topic like politics or religion. Though I do wish one day we can all talk about it more openly without each other judging one another. I like the way you perceive true love in that it involves sharing secrets with each other, not fearing you’d be judged and really just being yourself 🙂

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      • Oh, don’t worry. I had that issue before – it took me six months before I found a comment sitting in the spam for my blog and I’m like, what the hell? I know right; it’s the action that counts – big time!

        Well, I believe that trust arises from love and to spill secrets require a different kind of trust (not the one where you can trust someone to do something for you, but more like keeping your secrets in a locked box until their permanent departure). =D

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        • Haha, glad you rescued that comment from the spam folder. Better late than never 😀

          There are different levels of trust. When you get to the level of trust where you share your deepest and darkest secrets, you’d hope for that relationship to last forever 🙂

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  2. I’ve tried to comment earlier in the day, but I guess it didn’t go through – not sure if it’s the server or my browser being a brat, lol. But yeah, I’m not one who easily says ‘I love you’ to anyone (including my parents). I don’t think I’ve heard them saying it to each other either. I personally feel that actions speak louder than words. Not that I’m materialistic or anything like that, but I find it hard to believe whenever someone throws an ‘I love you’ in my direction, as it can be interpreted in a friendly or romantic tone. Most of my friends know that I love them if and when I buy them presents, send handwritten notes, and/or bring souvenirs from my latest adventures to them (unless they’ve requested me not to) among others.

    “Love is the big things together like lavish candle-lit dinners, holiday getaways, jewellery gifts. Love is the
    small things together like taking out the garbage, sitting together after a long day.” I’ve to agree with what you said, Mabel. Love definitely can be expressed through other methods, and does not necessarily need to equate to sex.

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    • Haha, no it wasn’t your browser. Sometimes my Spam folder takes a liking to some comments more than others. It seems to like you and I do notice I have to either rescue your comments from the Spam folder, or approve them manually 😀

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  3. Another thought provoking piece Mabel – I love you 😉 My wife and I always tell each other we love one and the other. If we argue over small thing we try to start the next day with an ‘I love you’. For me, expressing my love for her is providing for her whenever I get the chance (she is a fairly independent woman). I think respect for each other is most important – we always take the time to talk to each other about what has troubled us during the day or what has made us smile. Sharing and caring equal love in this household, Oh and I love Lyne’s cooking 🙂 That is an awesome Oscar Wilde quote; I haven’t heard it before. Take care Mabel and stay warm.

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    • It is great that you and wife always find a positive way to start your day 🙂 I am sure she is happy to cook you a feed when she’s not to busy out and about doing her thing. Agree with you that respect is what we need to make things work between each other. You enjoy the warm weather up there.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting post, Mabel. Come to think of it, I have never heard my dad said he loved us, but he did show his love by taking care of us. I started saying “I love you” to my parents and later to my siblings many years after I came to US — I guess I was Americanized 😉 After hearing it many times, my mom started saying it to me too, but she always giggled while she did. I don’t have any problem saying it to my daughter though. In fact, I think I have said it too many times. 😉
    How did you take the first and last photo? I mean what aperture, shutter speed, ISO and where did you focus? They look great! I like to be able to take those photos!
    Have a wonderful day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is great that your family are comfortable showing that they care out in the open to each other, verbally. You can get used to it after awhile. Maybe you have said it too many times, but maybe that is how you prefer to express your feelings now 🙂

      The photos were all done on manual mode. I hate grain in my photos, so the ISO was set all the way to the lowest for all the shots. Aperture varied around the middle, with the in-built camera ND-filter turned on. Shutter speed was a few seconds, not that slow. And then comes post-processing 😀

      Liked by 2 people

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  6. As always little sis, a thought provoking and interesting post, you are a wonderful writer. 🙂
    I never heard my dad tell my mom he loved her, and only remember a couple of times him telling me and my brother, but Im not sure that it has too much of an affect on my saying it to people I love and care for.
    Hmmm… its been a very long while since I told that someone special I loved them, although… keeping it on the down low, I have been seeing a helicopter pilot this past 6 weeks and I am starting to feel the love vibes creep in. Haha.

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    • I am sure you make others feel loved whether be it saying ‘I love you’ or through what you do. Even your words on here makes this lil’ one feel loved 🙂

      That is so lovely, to have someone you have the hots for. Very exciting times for you on the personal front and am hoping it goes down well. Anything is possible ❤

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  7. Great story to read. I’ve experienced the way Japanese people get into relationship and now I understand why usually girls do the first steps in their culture. For some reason, boys are more shy and it’s not easy for both to express the feelings. Probably many of youth people will just let go that passion towards each other, while being scared to get a negative reply… But, what I really appreciate is that their relations have less words, but more actions. I found it more important, cos I’ve experienced so many of promising words and sweet songs but not any steps towards me… If I say “I love you” to dear people, I would rather do it with my heart and actions, cos usually words are just words.

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  8. Awesome writing and right on point. I am married to a filipina goddess for 4 years and the loved that has developed is a much deeper love than physical, because it includes respect and the urge to please on so many levels. It was not an overnight success, but I am very open and adaptable and willing to learn and adjust to find the perfect relationship. It’s better every day ! Thanks for the great post !

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  9. I am Chinese and I find it unnatural to say the words I Love You. I feel uneasy saying it. It is just not me. My children were born and bred here. I explained to them how I feel about those words. They understand. To me, the words, I Love You is a Western thing. Anyone can say these words and not mean it.

    I don’t think Chinese parents use these words. These words seem Sleazy. Maybe I watched too many bad movies.

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    • If it’s not in you to say the three words, then it’s not in you. Good on you for knowing that. True that anyone can say those words, any time, any day. Sleazy can be a good way to describe the three words – sometimes it can be hard to tell what someone means when they say these words.

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  10. I never tire of your Yarra River Photos. Far from it. Every one is different; stunningly beautiful in its own way. Second, I think that the great thing about aging is that one has many different experiences of love. Right now, I’d describe my ‘romantic’ love affair as one that flows from a mutual love for the sea and adventure. What I thought was love when I was younger was often ‘sexual attraction’ first. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of ‘sexual attraction’ with The Captain, but respect and realization of a shared dream are also key.

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    • Love will be love, and we can love anyone and anything. Thank you for your kind words about my images. I’ve long thought about sharing other images on IG, but you said it – each Yarra River shot is different. Never know what sunset I’ll get each time I head down. Been a bit out of luck of late for a good one, but could be anytime.

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  11. Not only do I say those three important words ‘I Love You’ but I also show love in many other ways like looking after, holding hands, buying gifts, even ironing his shirts. For me, I knew it was love and that feeling doesn’t happen very often. It develops into another kind of love which is just as important as those first feelings of love when passion also plays a major part. I believe love comes in different forms, Mabel, and that each is very important to say and show. Without love, our souls would be hollow, and so would we as people.

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    • You explained love very well, Hugh. I hope your man appreciates you ironing his shirt. To me, ironing is such a chore and it takes me ages 😀 It is nice that you remember those first feelings – though they develop, a part of the original will somehow stick with you. Hope he does some sweet things for you too 🙂

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  12. Our parents must be kindred spirits. The way you describe them here, when it comes to expressing love, is exactly the way I will if I were to do the same thing. Suddenly miss them.

    Anyway, I’m affirming that I’m a perfect Asian stereotype in this sense, Mabel. I was never the expressive type. I mean verbally. I’m one of those who show, through actions, rather than saying it. Call me old-fashioned; I find saying “I love you” as tantamount to vowing for marriage. That’s why, I never said on a whim in a romantic sense. Off course that doesn’t mean I didn’t say it to the girls I’d dated before Ms. Wonderwall. What’s clear to me is that prior to marrying her, I could only count the times I said I love you (to the ex’s). But to her, I already lost count a long time ago (i.e., after marriage).

    One thing I’m most proud of is my parents’ way of expressing their love to each other. I never ever heard them say “I love you.” to each other. But, I have always felt it’s there—the love. I never even saw them hugging each other yet I see love each time they fight, go to work, wake up, eat, cook, discuss life … the list goes on and on.

    I now believe that one of the most genuine ways to show love to a significant other is keeping the relationship as private as possible. This may raise questions to some but I the idea of exclusivity between couples to me nowadays is what love is. Many have twisted the idea of valuing that physical intimacy or the things a couple share as proofs of love by equating it to some sort of social media obligation. That such things should be shared to the world rather than treating them as testimonies which should only be/remain exclusive to the concerned (as much as possible). You have perfectly romanticize this when you said, “But if it’s two people just dating each other at the same time, it arguably feels all the more special. Just the two of you. Just for each other.”

    Thank you very much for this article, Mabel, and for the trivia that came with it. You always write to touch hearts and educate. Didn’t know about the phasing out of China’s one-child policy, available dating apps, Taipei’s being on the verge of becoming the next LGBT’s haven, etc. until today.

    PS

    That part where you talked about the guy whom you ate sushi with ticked my core. I was expecting a kiss though. 😆

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    • That makes the two of us, not so expressive verbally when it comes to love. Old fashioned or not, Ms. Wonderwall is very lucky to have you. And you are lucky to have her, and from the sounds of it to two of you share the same values when it comes to being together.

      Love that is there but can’t be seen is the strongest kind of love. Your parents must have really loved each other, and it is very level-headed of you to see love in both the good and bad times between them. Nothing is perfect, and no relationship is perfect.

      ‘one of the most genuine ways to show love to a significant other is keeping the relationship as private as possible’ I so agree with this and have always believed in it. If you love someone, you love someone and you don’t need words or showing off to describe it. However, I think sometimes people show off their love and private romantic life to the world because they want to share their happiness and show anything’s possible. Hard to argue with that. But often I strongly feel that there is no need to compare our lives with others.

      Of course no kiss with the guy. Hardly even know him and I didn’t even feel like it. When I love I mean it 😀

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  13. You are absolutely right that Asians are too shy to share those three words openly. It’s weird cos sometimes I think, what’s wrong. It’s not that they are open in private too. My Papa never said to Mum, I guess 😉 And my husband has never unless urged for months. That doesn’t count. The fact that they believe in showing via actions is the key to this in my opinion.
    Great post, Mabel and it surely made me reflect.
    How have you been? Would you believe, I was thinking about you yesterday? I am good and was busy in April with the A to Z Challenge. Now back to the usual blogging schedule. Are you on FB where we can connect? Would love to stay connected and you know I will be okay even if you say no. 🙂 Take care! Hugs!

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    • Actions always speak louder than words. Love is the strongest when you feel for each other and you don’t have to say anything to each other. Sounds like that’s the way between your parents, and you and your husband 🙂

      That was nice of you Parul to think of me. Such a great effort of you to do the challenge, so dedicated too for the whole month. Haha, I really don’t use Fb much and very seldom am on it. I prefer living in the real world 🙂 You take care too, Parul ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  14. i really like this post 🙂 flash back on my asian bf. for the entire time i was with him..he had never once said he love me.

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  15. you are asian, maybe you are understand, the words i love you is the treasure, we keep in mind and only say that with the right person who we really respect or really love. We dont want to say that like a social common thing.

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  16. This entry just left me wanting to read more of your works, good job! The content is very natural and non-biased, really hits the spot.

    I love every bit of it, maybe because I can somehow relate to it(I am in a relationship with a pure Chinese woman) and you are right, love is complex as it is beautiful.

    As for me, when I say “Gwa Ai Di” to my Girlfriend, I second it with a touch of her hand and finish it up with a soft kiss on her lips. Talk about saying it out loud and showing it louder.

    To Sha! keep it up!

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