My husband tells me “I love you” all the time. When I’m dashing out the door to the library. Just before we hang up our phone conversation. As we tell each other goodnight under the covers. There’s nothing really strange about it — except that he’s Chinese, and the Chinese don’t usually express love in words.
For the longest time, I figured he had learned to say “I love you” for me — just as he learned to love so many of my favorite things, from aromatic cups of peppermint herbal tea to vegetarian pizzas with soft, focaccia crust.
But sometimes, it’s not what you say, but the language in which you say it.
“Sweetie, it’s not right to suggest a phrase with ‘ài’ in it, right?” I conferred with him the other day while brainstorming an article about the Chinese language, and realizing that ‘ài’ — the word for love — seemed to pack more punch than necessary. “People don’t really say ‘ai’ in everyday life, as I can remember.”
John nodded. “Definitely not. It’s too strong.”
Suddenly, I thought about how often John said ài in English, to me. “But you tell me ‘I love you’ all the time,” I teased him, nudging his arm. I watched my husband’s face wrinkle into an embarrassed laugh, as he shrunk his his chair.
“I’ll bet it’s because you’re saying ‘I love you’ in English, isn’t it?” I continued, pulling playfully at his shoulder.
John kept giggling until he finally gave me one of those “you’ve got me” looks.
All these years, he had hidden his feelings behind English, a language where saying “I love you” just didn’t seem so forbidden. I still welcome “I love you” in my native tongue. But I have a feeling I’ll be waiting some time for a Wǒ’àinǐ (我爱你) from my sweetheart.
Does your Chinese lover or spouse prefer saying “I love you” in English? Or, if you’re Chinese, do you prefer using a foreign language to express your love?