Three Words From a Chinese Father

(photo by somecanuckchick via

Almost two months ago, while scanning through my inbox, I came across a post called How to be Mistaken for a Prostitute in China. What a title — and what dazzling writing. I devoured the entire post, right down to the byline introducing the author and her forthcoming memoir about her experiences in China.

That’s how I first discovered Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, and I’m thrilled to be sharing her essay with you, titled “Three Words From a Chinese Father”. 

Dorcas’ story revolves around something I’ve touched upon in the past — how Chinese families show their love through actions, not words. She explores this as she looks back on her relationship with her late father, a man who had never told her “I love you”.

Thanks so much to Dorcas for contributing her work! 


“I miss you,” my father said to me over the phone.

I hadn’t seen him for four days. He had been in the hospital for more weeks than I could keep track of, and had recently been transferred to a specialist hospital about an hour away from home. I was only a freshman in high school at the time, so I had to attend school during the week and could only visit him on weekends. My mom spent most nights at the hospital with him while I stayed home alone.

My surprise lasted only a couple seconds, during which I became very still and swallowed hard. “I miss you too,” I choked out, holding back tears. They were the three most significant words my father had ever said to me.

When he passed away less than a month later, they became the most significant words he would ever say to me. He had never said “I love you” to me. That night was the first and only time he ever told me he missed me.

My father had never been a man of many words. He left that to my mother, the chatty, extroverted half of the pair. For years I barely understood what he did for a living. All I knew was that he was an engineer, which in my young mind meant one thing: trains. I imagined my dad driving steam engines across the back roads of America, always somehow returning home in time for dinner. (He was, in fact, an electrical engineer.) I certainly knew nothing about his childhood in Guangdong Province in China, the few years he spent there before the realities of the new Communist regime prompted his family to send him away to Hong Kong.

I’m sure being the only male in a family with three women—his wife and two daughters—didn’t help. My father would often escape to the garage to tinker with small pieces of technology—a circuit board, a watch, a cassette player. He would take a Chinese-language novel with him to the bathroom or bedroom and remain out of sight for hours. Or he would park himself in front of the television to watch a San Francisco 49ers football game.

By the time I was ten, I had become an obsessive 49ers fan. It had started from curiosity, from a young girl’s intangible desire to connect with her father, but it soon became my own passion. I would pepper my dad with questions about the rules, about certain plays, about this player or that coach. He didn’t seem to mind having his younger daughter impose upon his weekly ritual; I suspect he secretly relished it. We fueled one another’s passions for the sport to the point where we drove my mother and sister a little nuts with our single-minded devotion. I promised my dad that as soon as I was old enough to work and earn money, I would take him to a 49ers game.

I began following my father into other arenas of his life. When my mom and sister went shopping for clothes at the mall, I would go with my dad to the bookstore. I watched with awe as he practiced his pseudo kung fu moves with a wooden rod from a closet. I often stood behind his chair with my chin resting on his head as he and my mom lingered after a meal.

He enjoyed telling corny jokes at the dinner table, jokes that often made my mom groan and roll her eyes. I would always laugh loudly at his jokes, even when I didn’t understand them, and was rewarded by a knowing, just-between-us grin that my dad would send across the table. In those fleeting moments, I may not have understood what he meant, but I felt like I understood him.

It’s hard for me to explain why I felt this way. In many regards my dad was the stereotypical Chinese father. He didn’t trouble himself with the day-to-day details of raising two daughters. He wasn’t the type to shower us with hugs or kisses. He wasn’t the one we went to when we were in need of parental advice. Looking back, I can’t remember a single conversation of deep significance that I had with my father.

But this is what he did do: on one of the rare occasions he cooked dinner for the family, he made salt-and-pepper prawns with so much salt and pepper that my sister and I were raving about it for weeks. (My mother promptly scolded him and switched us back to bland, low-salt food the following day.) He sincerely thanked my sister and me every time we gave him yet another striped tie for Christmas. He watched Beauty and the Beast and other Disney movies with me. He let me into his world and the things he loved on a regular basis. But he just didn’t let me in; he welcomed me and let me know—somehow, without words—that he was delighted to be sharing these things with me.

And finally, just weeks before we had to say goodbye forever, he overcame thousands of years of cultural norms and said aloud what he actually felt: “I miss you.” At the time none of us thought he wouldn’t make it; we were convinced that a cure or a miracle was just around the corner. I wonder, though, if my dad knew he was running out of time, which is why he chose to give me what remains one of my most precious memories of him all these years later.

Those are not the three words that we typically think of in American culture. “I love you” has taken on the status of myth and legend, three tiny words with the power of giants to slay or fairy godmothers to bring enchanted happy endings. We wonder if any relationship can ever feel authentic or complete without these words. Even I have occasionally fallen into this trap.

My dad never told me he loved me—at least, not in words. In the end, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I knew he loved me. And with each passing year that he’s not in my life, I know it with even more certainty.

I miss you too, Daddy.


Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience as a Chinese American living in Shenzhen, China. Learn more at or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.

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18 Replies to “Three Words From a Chinese Father”

  1. This made me tear up a bit. I love Dorcas’ essays, I recently searched all the web for her essays and I’m looking forward to reading her memoir.

    I do think that people sometimes place too much importance on the words “I love you”. Like she writes in this essay, sometimes you know people love you without them saying it. It’s not very common to say “I love you” to people other than your bf/gf/spouse in Austria, or at least it isn’t common in my family. But I actually think it’s not so common in the German language in general, which also differentiates between two similar phrases of “I love you”, one being used between lovers and the other being used between parents and children, which doesn’t mean that we’re all cold-hearted people who don’t love their family members, but rather that sometimes you just know that your family members love you without them saying it (or saying it all the time).

  2. In Chinese culture, we always use action over words. I can say “I love you” all the time but those 3 words don’t mean anything unless I have to prove it like doing something for the family. Taking your kids fishing and providing everything for them are considered ” I love you”.


  3. It made my ‘eyes sweat’ and think of my dad, hecould be a steretype Chinese dad – he hardly says I love you but I know he would kill anyone who hurt me and he even put an effort to translate it to my husband, even thought they like each other a lot. Now I’m far away from my parents I try to say I love them everytime I call, I haven’t done that face to face for a long time. And at the beginning I couldn’t understand why my husband doesn’t hug his mom he hasn’t seen in a year, my mom pushed him to hug her at the aiport. But he says it’s not about words, they will not say thank you, just nod their head and they will know what does that mean. They won’t say I love you but he will feel that when he gets the biggest piece of meat and best looking veggie, giving him good chance to study etc. I sometimes tell him ‘write to her how is she, tell her you love her’ his only respond is ‘she knows it’. Hope he won’t regret. Not only him but anyone won’t regret they didn’t say some things they maybe should say.

  4. Great post by Dorcas, but I liked more the post about “How to be mistaken for a prostitute in China” as it is about the success of WM/AW. I love to read about funny and successful stories about WM/AF. I am sorry to hear that Dorcas was mistaken as a hooker in China and was mistreated there even though she looked like a Chinese lady but was ridiculed for not being able to speak Chinese so well. My condolence to you Dorcas for losing your daddy O.

  5. Thank you for sharing this beautiful post.

    Surprisingly, when I read it, I thought of my Scotch-Irish dad not my Chinese husband. I don’t think my dad ever said “I love you,” but I never doubted his love. He loved my sister and me by cooking breakfast for us each morning, surprising us with gifts (stilts, water skis, etc.) that showed he’d been thinking of what might make us happy. When he became sick with lung cancer, our bond was so strong that I suffered with him even before I knew he was sick.

    My Chinese husband, on the other hand, was outwardly affectionate and spoke his mind. He taught me all I ever knew about Chinese cooking. But I did notice once I started studying Chinese that the language gives more responsibility to the listened to understand what’s being said, whereas in English we expect the speaker to be responsible for explaining himself clearly. I think this carries over into Chinese and American attitudes.

  6. Sounds a lot like my beloved Japanese father-in-law, who recently passed away and whom this post made me miss again. For the almost 10 years I knew him, we barely ever had a conversation–mostly just a lot of bowing and smiling. I don’t speak much Japanese at all, his English was really rusty, but mostly he was just a man of few words. But we spent a lot of time together, especially after he got sick, just taking walks with his wheelchair or eating meals together. At first, his silence, especially at the dinner table, unnerved me, but eventually I learned from him the incredible peace that can come from just sitting in silence with those you love and from not feeling the need to fill that silence with meaningless chatter. And he also taught me, like this post, how in Japanese culture (and Chinese, I’ve now learned), bonds are strengthened not through words but through caring actions. An unusual lesson for a chatter-box American like me!

    Thanks, Jocelyn & Dorcas

  7. I really love this essay. It’s poignant and crisp–no extra words that don’t bring me right to the heart of the emotion. I, too, really look forward to reading more by her. About the topic, I was certainly much more verbose! Here’s my blog about the realization that Chinese people (namely my husband) prefer not to use the words we Westerners so very much want to hear!

  8. I know Dorcas is going to be so excited to see all of these lovely comments on her essay!

    @China Elevator Stories, this also made me tear up a bit as well. And I definitely agree that sometimes we place too much emphasis on phrases like “I love you” rather than those actions that truly say “I love you”.

    @Bruce, thanks for the comment! You captured the essence of the essay perfectly.

    @Lina, how interesting that the essay reminded you of your dad! It also reminded me somewhat of my stepsister’s inlaws (particularly her father-in-law, who is very much a man of few words/sentiments).

    @Manny, I’m sure Dorcas will appreciate your interest in her work.

    @Nicki Chen, thanks for the comment! You touched upon an interesting difference between Chinese and American cultures that I’ve certainly noticed myself. I suppose you could also frame it in terms of high context versus low context cultures. (

    @Tracy, what a touching comment! I know what you mean about learning the importance of silence — I certainly experienced this spending time with my husband’s family at their home. It is truly amazing when you can appreciate the silence with those you love, as you said. My deepest sympathies on the loss of your father-in-law.

  9. Thank you, everyone, for these lovely and thoughtful comments. This was a very hard essay for me to write–lots of tears–but it was so worth it for me to be able to put into words how my father loved me without words, and to have the chance to hear others’ similar experiences. May we all become better at both giving and receiving love in many different ways!

  10. By saying ” I love you ” to your spouse is still not enough. You forgot about her birthday and didn’t make it up even though you said ” I love you” . Helping your spouse with house chores and massage her sored body mean a lot more .

  11. What a fabulous post! I, too, love Dorcas’s writing and can’t wait to read her memoir! This essay reminded me of my former Chinese in-laws, but also of my own non-Chinese parents. Before my father passed away, he never told me that he loved me. But I knew he did from his actions, namely that he was a part-time stay-at-home dad at a time when that wasn’t common (not that it is now) and definitely wasn’t cool in our very traditional neighborhood. I didn’t always make the best decisions, but my dad never made me feel bad about myself. To make sure I don’t do this, though, I’ve nicknamed my firstborn “Love”.

  12. Beautiful writing!

    The phrase “I love you” is powerful and poignant and shouldn’t be bantered around so easily and lightly, many Europeans are like Chinese in that they express their love through actions and not words.

    In saying this I believe it’s important for a child to hear these words from a parent/parents and also vice versa no matter how awkward or embarrassing it may feel.

    My father passed away 8 years ago and we as a family never told him we loved him an he never told us (even though we knew), it was painful because I believe we need to hear these words in our life time. I now make a point of telling my mother (who is 73) that I love her; not all the time but at those moments when I need to hear it or when she needs to hear it.

    As we get older we don’t have much time left so words to express ourselves becomes important more so then just action.

  13. This is really beautiful. Bought a tear to my eye.

    I never say anything love related except to my boyfriend and my rabbit. My Dad doesn’t either. The rest of my family says the odd thing like “send everyone my love” but we’re not really into being too affectionate towards each other. I know they all love me and I don’t really want them to say those words because I don’t need to hear them.

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