Saying “I love you” with a toilet: of indirect displays of love in Chinese families

Nobody really asked why that toilet was built before Chinese New Year 2003 — at what would later become my in-laws home. They had always lived without indoor plumbing, instead using a feitong (a large urnlike container) or, for the room, a matong (a small bucket with a top). The feitong and matong made it easy to recycle human waste on their fields, and the whole system had worked just fine.

But then again, they had never hosted a foreign girl (me!) until that Chinese New Year.

That toilet is like many things in Chinese culture, where “I love you” is an unspoken phrase that finds its voice in the sumptuous feasts that fill the dinner table, the hongbao stuffed with crisp, red RMB bills, the boxes of green tea and smoked tofu that friends and relatives forcibly stuff into every last empty corner of your luggage.

My in-laws do not hug or kiss me, or any of their children. But they, like many Chinese, find extraordinary, indirect ways of saying they care.

The most common means is food. I joke with my friends that, when I visit my in-laws in the summer, I spend the entire day eating. But in many ways, it’s not an exaggeration.

For breakfast, we’ll get steamed dumplings or jiaozi, or steamed buns, or fried flatbread, or rice porridge — and more than anyone could humanly devour in one sitting. A couple of hours later, my mother-in-law might come upstairs and then ply me with some corn or watermelon (to, of course, “tide me over” before lunch).

Every dinner at my in-laws house, even on an average day, is like a banquet
Every dinner at my in-laws house, even on an average day, is like a banquet

Then there’s lunch, a banquet of eight or nine fresh, local dishes — such as bamboo shoots, tofu and hot peppers, stir-fried greens, braised eggplant, garlic cabbage, red-braised fish, and chicken feet. It never gets finished, naturally — by the time I even start lunch, I’m already half-full from breakfast and the mid-morning snack.

After lunch and the noon nap, again my mother-in-law’s voice echos up the stairwell for the next event in this gustatory marathon — the mid-afternoon snack. Usually a nutritional porridge made of mung beans or barley, meant to take the edge off the heat or “boost blood” (it’s a Chinese traditional medicine thing). Sometimes it’s even chased with a helping of fruit.

When dinner rolls around — finally the finish line — I’m even less inclined to eat. But faced with the beguiling aroma of my mother-in-law’s cooking, I give in — to the bamboo, the tofu, the pickled radish, ah, the edamame, the hot-and-sour potato slivers, the vegetarian jiaozi…I get hungry just thinking about it. Again, we never finish what’s there, and just when we could never eat another bite, out comes the fresh watermelon or yangmei, and somehow we find the will to eat again.

It’s one thing to say “I love you” with food, and another to do it with — an entire new wing of the house??

Yes, you’ve got that right. My in-laws built my husband and I our very own, new wing to their house for this summer. Just like the toilet, no one suggested it was built for us. My father-in-law simply described it as a new addition to the home. I groaned when I heard the news. “Why doesn’t your father just redecorate the the current house?” I asked John, thinking it was such a waste of money and effort, when there were plenty of servicable rooms that just needed to be de-cluttered, floored and cleaned.

But when I arrived home, I realized I’d been wrong the entire time. When

I never imagined my father-in-law would build a new bathroom with a sit-down flush toilet and solar-powered hot shower
I never imagined my father-in-law would build a new bathroom with a sit-down flush toilet and solar-powered hot shower

my mother-in-law told us to take our luggage upstairs, there was the new doorway where a pile of old knick knacks had once accumulated a thick patina of dust. We stepped through the door and discovered two bedrooms with parquet floors, a wall of storage cabinets, a small hello kitty desk in the corner, a color TV, and a bed covered with a mosquito net and fluffy bamboo-print comforter. And then there was the bathroom, with a sit-down flush toilet, solar-powered shower, two new toothbrushes and huangqin toothpaste sitting in the corner.

While my husband’s maternal grandmother — “Waipo” — could never build us a home addition, her way of showing love would prove to keep me warm all the way through the winter. Literally.

Waipo is what you’d call a “freelance knitter” for factories — factories bring her bundles of hats and scarfs to finish. Last time I came, she gave me a knit black winter hat with a white snowflake pattern, ear flaps and fleece lining — it was the most luxurious little hat I’d ever owned, and I told my in-laws so later on.

I guess when the granddaughter-in-law loves one hat, she’ll really love an entire suitcase full of them. Yes, that’s right. My Waipo set aside what ended up being, in total, around 100 hats and scarves — all for John and I take home. All I have to say is…my Christmas shopping (possibly for the next four years, or more) is done. 😉

In the end, though, the most memorable indirect display of affection came

When I asked my mother-in-law for cooking advice, little did I know my hands would be thick in the radishes... ;-)
When I asked my mother-in-law for cooking advice, little did I know my hands would be thick in the radishes… 😉

from my mother-in-law. I voiced a casual interest in learning her cooking — especially her signature pickled radish recipe. Before I knew it, I was rolling out dumpling skins, slicing potato slivers, hand-mixing salted radish medallions (bought from the market just to teach me) for pickling, and learning how to add just the right dash of Shaoxing wine to the chicken’s feet.

Meanwhile, even I am discovering how to reciprocate that love, in a language my in-laws can understand. I bought my mother-in-law, who has high blood pressure, Coenzyme Q10 vitamins from Watsons, and often handed her the capsule with a glass of water after lunch. She would usually just turn around and acknowledge me with an “ah,” taking the vitamin in her hand, and, after swallowing, quietly chasing it with well water from the mountain. It wasn’t a hug, but it was close enough.

How about you? Have you had the pleasant surprise of discovering someone said “I love you” in China — without every uttering a word? Tell me your stories.

20 Replies to “Saying “I love you” with a toilet: of indirect displays of love in Chinese families”

  1. When my wife & I visited her family, I thought I was making sure to partake pretty much equally from each of the shared dishes on the dinner table, but without having noticeably stared at me, my 丈母娘 noticed which ones I ate more of, and would be sure to cook the same stuff for me the next time.

    1. @hanmeng,

      Thanks so much for sharing. My in-laws pretty much do the same — I have to believe that one of the reasons why smoked tofu and bamboo were on the menu almost every day was because my husband and I desperately loved the dishes.

      Sometimes, I even think this “second sense” of silenting noticing food choices is wearing off on me, as I seem to do it with my husband. He always laughs about it, as if it’s another sign of how I’m becoming more Chinese. Ha! 😉

  2. Wow, awesome stories, thanks for giving us such wonderful insight! I wonder though, how do you distinguish between ordinary gestures of warmth and kindness and true acts of love, if the act goes unspoken?

    Toilet= love. That much is obvious. I refer to the rest. 🙂

    ~~ ~~

    1. @spicy milk cat

      Thanks for the comment! Good question…I thought of that issue myself, in retrospect to a post on China Law Blog about this story. Dan asked if the idea of actions speaking louder than words couldn’t apply in business. It certainly could, but then you get into the thorny issue of whether what’s being done is for “face” purposes, or because the person genuinely cares. That’s hard to tell in a lot of instances, especially if you don’t have a close relationship.

      I expect the line between love and ordinary warmth and kindness might be blurred in China too (let’s face it, a lot of things in China, and in Chinese especially, are just vague). But, given that I do have a really close relationship with my inlaws and related family, I have a good intuition about when it’s just concern, and when it’s love.

      Could I be wrong sometimes? Sure. But I guess that’s all part of the learning process of understanding a foreign culture. 😉

  3. Hi Jocelyn,

    Thank you SO much for writing this piece. I found your site through a friend’s Facebook posting, and I am so moved by your material!

    I am Chinese American, born and raised in Los Angeles, and growing up I never understood why my parents and family weren’t as openly affectionate as my “Americanized” peers. This piece was a PERFECT explanation.

    Thank you. 🙂

    Warm regards,

  4. He buscado un blog similar al tuyo desde hace un mes y por fin lo encuentro. Quiero que me saques de una duda, he leido muchos de tus entradas desde las ultimas cuatro horas pero, aun tengo dudas. Estoy desde hace dos semanas en una relacion amorosa con una persona relativamente mayor que yo, yo vivo en latinoamerica ambos estamos aqui pero el es natal de china. Gracias a tus entradas pude darme cuenta que los pda no son bien vistos, es por ello que cabe vez que hago una demostracion de afecto sale volando… puedes darme unos tips mas por favor? no quiero malograr la relacion con mi comportamiento.

  5. Among girls in Taiwan, it seems that bringing food/drinks is a common way to express some interest in a guy. I.e. I have heard of girls preparing home-made breakfast for the co-worker they have had a secret crush on, or stopping by a guy’s student residence to drop off a cup of coffee.

    Perhaps that’s all in a different category. More to the point of your post, as a potential future son in law I found the best way to please the woman of the house is to exhibit excessive appetite for her food at all times. The point here is to go well beyond what I would consider good manners (i.e. appropriate restraint) in a Western household.

  6. I know this was posted awhile ago but seems to still get a lot of reads, so it’s worth it to comment here.

    First, haha, reading that comment above about bringing food, drink, homemade breakfast etc. – oh noes! I live in Taiwan once gave some homemade cookies to a Taiwanese guy I consider a good friend. Old Armenian family recipe walnut-stuffed cookies. I was going to serve them at a party I was throwing that he couldn’t attend. I certainly hope he didn’t take that as a sign of interest (in anything more than friendship anyway)! Seeing as I’m married and he’s engaged and all.

    But speaking of that showing of indirect love – whether it be romantic, or family, or even friendly warmth and caring: the day after I found out my mom’s cancer was probably terminal (but with a good several-year prognosis at least), I thought I’d be OK so I didn’t ask my husband to stay home from work. I wasn’t OK, and several local friends came through for me. One cut out of work for a few hours to hang out with me, and another came out and had dinner with me when the first one had to go to her evening class. The friend who came out for dinner is a guy (same guy I gave the cookies to) and while we’re clearly friends, he’s never said anything along the lines of “we’re good friends”, “I care about you”, “your friendship is important” or “I’m there for you” – never hugged or anything like that. I know guys can be like that typically, but my Western guy friends are generally more open (as in, they’d actually verbalize the idea that we are good friends).

    So when this friend, who is not known for being talkative, touchy-feely or even particularly thoughtful (kind of a grump, actually), not good at all at offering comfort or sympathy, came out after work to have dinner and coffee when I needed some company when my husband and all my more “comforting” friends were busy, I knew that despite the total lack of verbalization, that he does care, does value our friendship and is there for me.

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