I Love You, Just Not in Chinese

A red kiss mark left on a piece of paper
All these years, my Chinese husband had told me “I love you” in English but could never bring himself to say the same in Mandarin Chinese. (photo by Jenny Rollo)

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?

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31 Replies to “I Love You, Just Not in Chinese”

  1. Every day a skype call, QQ, or virtual “I love you” is said. The days when the distance feels far, and the wait so long, 我爱你 better describes the feelings that we have been holding with almost a year of separation.

  2. Good post once again! My boyfriend knows five words of English and five words of Finnish (my language) and luckily “I love you” and “Mä rakastan sua” (the same in Finnish) are part of that vocabulary. He uses the English one rarely, but Finnish version quite a lot. But he doesn’t really save his words and is telling me 我爱你 all the time. He also teached me that in his own dialect, when I asked, but that’s little bit tricky to say. But I’ll learn it soon!

  3. It is true that generally it is quite hard for a Chinese guy to express his love in words, I guess Chinese children have been brought up in families where love is not easily expressed in words or physical gestures. So, for a Chinese guy to actually say “I love you” to his beloved may take some getting used to, especially in his own language. I think it is easier to say it in another language where there may not be that immmediacy that he is not accustomed to. Nevertheless to be able to say 我爱你 would be doubly meaningful for a Chinese guy to say to his partner.

  4. Yes I definitely agree Chinese guys are much more comfortable saying I love you in English than Chinese, I remember after the first month of dating my first Chinese boyfriend he text me “Good night, love you,” I was totally alarmed and thought oh my god this is way too fast. but i think he thought it was an obligatory thing that western people say. rather than actually really meaning it. But the funny thing was that when I first met him I wanted to impress him and show him I knew some Chinese words and what words did I say? Wo ai ni. and he laughed his head off lol.

  5. We are brought up to demostrate our love and affection in “action” such as being a good spouse, parent, sibling… althought telling our loved ones that we love them is also an action, we are just not comfortable in doing so. For one, we are the true believers of “action speaks louder than words”, and for one reason or another, we often view that if you can say it so easily, “it” doesn’t mean much. It is almost strange to think such simple affection manner in economic sense of that “supply-demand” theory. Truly, Chinese people are onions!!

  6. I have come to the resolution that I will never hear Wǒ’àinǐ (我爱你) from my dreamy Chinese lover. If I am gracious to ever meet him.

  7. This is true around the world, to an extent anyway… My boyfriend told me that he enjoys swearing in English but made sure I knew he never swears in Chinese! A favourite pastime of mine at school was learning swear words in other languages 😀 ‘forbidden’ phrases always have less meaning in a non-native language.

    Even though he treats himself to the odd swear word, I am still waiting for him to say I love you in English, Chinese or any other language for that matter… I’ll take anything hahaa

  8. That’s definitely true.
    And not only for love-words. Almost anything that might sound embarrassing in Chinese, I feel no problems to say in English.
    It just doesn’t have that strong emotional (both positive and negative) context.

  9. Westerners are constantly throwing around the love word all the time to the point where it’s really lost meaning and has become a bland statement for everything….”I love ice cream” “I love this dress”…”I love you”….a special ed teacher I know is constantly saying “I love you” to the kiddies every day all the time. Using the love word is a constant obligation and expectation in the US where I live. So I totally understand your Chinese husband thinking this way. If I ever meet a Chinese Mr. Right, I am not going to demand or expect he keep throwing around the love word in any language or dialect the way Westerners do.

  10. Nice post. I once wrote something similar to this and I challenged my readers to say “Do you love me” to their spouses and say what happens. Some of them did.

    I think we Chinese are generally bad with expressing our feelings. Chinese love songs in the past are filled with references to lotus, birds…anything but the word “love.”

  11. My husband has no problem saying he loves me in Mandarin. We say it often to each other but our actions speak louder than our words.

    This is a good read. =o)

  12. Hi,

    I live the same situation with my girlfriend, but in french… I never heard her say “wo ai ni”, but, sometimes, not every day, a little shy “Je t’aime”…

    Like she said rarely, I know that’s the truth and how it’s strong, but like you, I’m maybe waiting for the same in chinese…

  13. My Chinese husband says 我爱你 all the time. He never says it to his parents though. Like many commenters mentioned above, he and his parents express love through their actions and never ever through the words 我爱你. I guess I’m pretty lucky that he’s openly affectionate with me, both in words and actions.

  14. Same! My Chinese fiance always tells me ‘I love you’ in English all the time but I think he’s said “`我爱你“`once, and that was through a phonecall…maybe not even at all 🙁 LOL.
    Actually I can imagine it would be pretty awkward…我爱你 sounds very strong indeed. Plus, I still can’t quite master how to say it perfectly…hehe 🙂

    I guess it’s like they say: if you utter any phrase too often, it loses all of it’s meaning. But then again, if you don’t tell someone how much you love them, then how will they ever know? And if you plan to say it tomorrow…then what if tomorrow never comes?
    Think about it.

  15. I completely resonate with this post! I am used to expressing my love as culturally thats how I was raised. Also just due to my personality I said “I love you” much earlier in our relationship and he didnt. This bothered me for a bit till I realized that his culture had trained him to actually weigh in and THINK about saying wo ai ni before going ahead and doing so. So when he DID say it, it felt really good. Of course I stopped questioning him about his “love for me then. But my own habit of dropping I love you’s every second still remains and so even he does the same. Which surprised me in the beginning after all his deliberations before saying wo ai ni. Of course he doesnt say wo ai ni very often. Ironically, english is neither of our native language and so in a way I understand where he is coming from…

  16. So true and I never thought of this before! My Japanese boyfriend tells me he loves me in English literally all the time, but never in his language. He is def. more comfortable saying sweet things in English.

  17. Hi everybody,

    I’m doing research on bilinguals and language choice in expressing LOVE .. and I found you responses while searching.
    They are very helpful since I’m not married and never experienced love relationship even if I would, I don’t imagine my partner will be from different country..

    Thanks a lot and wish you all happiness

  18. My Chinese wife says, “I love you” all the time. Recently she also says “wo a ni” and has taught me to say it, worked hard to ensure that I say it correctly and now insists that I do. We now exchange bilingual versions with each of us using either language, sometimes in combination.

    However, while she acts innocent during the day, once she has gotten in the mood she will use some amazingly sexy language. She has admitted that my being American makes this easier because she would never say these things in Chinese.

    You just gotta love the Chinese. They are so cute.

  19. OHHHHHHHHH so that’s why my LD bf who is Chinese doesn’t say 我爱你. He always says “I love my wife” or “love you” with a bunch of hearts following it.. He said it once but now I understand why. He also told me that Chinese express their love a different way and not just “I love you”. I see I see.. Thank you so much! I really want to do my best to understand him. I love him so much! (#^_^#)

  20. Depends on person, I guess. My Chinese husband says 我爱你 all the time, including the time when his parents are standing by. They don’t feel ashamed, as my mother-in-law often says she loves me too. They are quite special for Chinese, aren’t they? 😀

  21. It’s true. To express love in Chinese places one in an awkward situation. Even I grew up in the western culture since I was eleven I feel awkward strongly even telling my mother wuo ai night over a phone call but would feel fluent in English. However, I feel just as comfortable to say wuo ai night to my German wife and she likes it =)

  22. My boyfriend was actually the first to say 我爱你 in our relationship and he’s always been very liberal with it, though he might say “I love you” more frequently in spoken conversation. I’m inclined to believe he prefers the latter more just because he likes practicing his English. 😉

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