Chapter 23: The Sound of Silence in Love

My Chinese boyfriend, John, by the West Lake in Hangzhou
My Chinese boyfriend, John, became increasingly quiet, and I wanted more words, instead of more silence.

In Chinese, you can say so much, with so little. Four-character idioms could say what a sentence or two in English might. One character could even do the work of a short sentence or sentiment.

But sometimes simplicity invites questions — when one character could mean so many different things. Think about the character 到 (dao). Depending on how you use it, it could say: arrive or reach; to go to; up until, or up to; or thoughtful.

After spending several days touring Beijing with John, our conversations went from so much to so little, where silence filled more of our moments, as if our relationship, like one character, could say more than so many words.

Yet, despite our understanding, I longed for words. I found strength and security in John — in us as a real, lasting couple — through words. Without them, questions began to fill in my mind as we passed National Day together.

John and I arrived in Shanghai, and it was so thoughtful of him to take us to his school dormitory for a break, after the exhausting overnight trip on the train, with little sleep. With the questions churning in my tired mind, it wasn’t long before I did the not-so-thoughtful thing, sitting on his bed — I cried. The tears seemed as endless as the ridiculous questions in my head. And words to explain it all to John failed me.

It was easy enough to pretend there was nothing wrong, because Shanghai wasn’t home to me. On vacation, we filled the time with intimate meals, movies, and the landscape on the train from Shanghai to Hangzhou. But once I arrived in Hangzhou, in my familiar surroundings, suddenly my most familiar senses — my true feelings — came out, and there weren’t enough meals, movies and landscapes to make me forget. Especially at one evening dinner, just after watching “The Bourne Identity” in a theater, dubbed in Chinese.

“You’re so quiet. We’ve hardly talked during the past several days together. I just wonder…is everything okay with us?”

John looked up at me with placid eyes from his bowl of rice. “I’m just a quiet guy. That’s my nature. You should just learn to accept me.”

His words left me in silence — because they spoke the truth I had avoided all of these days. I had some more rice, and soup, as I searched for the words to say to him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be that way. I guess I just get emotional sometimes. Words are comforting to me.”

John didn’t need words the way I did. He grew up in a culture where you could say so much with so little. If I wanted to be his girlfriend, and more, I needed to learn how to manage the silence, how to know him beyond the words.

But, even so, a part of me understood the power of saying less, of showing, not telling. Before John left, I presented him with a formal scroll painting for his birthday, done by my next-door neighbor and local artist, Tang. “It’s to commemorate our first date by the West Lake, when we watched those bats flying across the water from Su Causeway.”

Something moved me to commission that painting so early in our relationship. Maybe I knew it then — that ours would be forever. That we had finally arrived into something thoughtful: true love.

Were you ever surprised by the silence from your Chinese boyfriend or Chinese girlfriend?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 23: The Sound of Silence in Love

  • Pingback:Chapter 24: Tied in Chinese Knots over John | Speaking of China

  • October 3, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I absolutely love this post. I think for foreigners, silence as chinese see it, it’s really hard to understand. My chinese boyfriend is really quiet too, but just around his family. With me, he is completely different. I’ve never been in a situation like the one you describe on this post. My country is famous around the world for our way of talking, often too much. And I think he was aware of it.
    I’ve learned how to overcome “chinese silence” in other situations. But still, it really makes me unconfortable.
    Your blog is GREAT.

    • October 3, 2010 at 11:31 pm

      @Liu, thanks for the comment, and glad you enjoy the blog!

      Silence can be different in China, and with different people from China, for that matter. John just has this really quiet, shy side, I guess. It took me some time to get used to it, but I did. To be honest, we often have very little conversation over dinner, but I’ve learned that this is a good silence — it means he loves the food. 😉

  • October 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Same here! it makes me soooooooooo uneasy that I end up talking rubbish. but then a part of me remembers that everything i learnt about him is through his actions and less through his words. but i also get very uncomfortable from the silence because I’m thinking he is not interested because he is not asking questions about me or just using the gap to talk about myself so he can get to know me better.

    oh dear. it is one of my fears anyway, because i too need a lot of reassurance and mental stimulation, but if his actions continue to speak so loud then I will make every effor tpossible to hold on to whatever it is we have.

    • October 22, 2010 at 9:57 am

      Thanks for the comment, Vyara! It is very, very hard in the beginning of a relationship if your Chinese guy is super quiet. But as things progress, you’ll get used to it. Nowadays, when my husband is really quiet at dinner, I smile — because I know it means he thinks the food I’ve prepared is truly delicious, so much so that he’d rather eat than talk. 😉

  • May 2, 2011 at 9:03 am

    I actually would get into bog fights with my boyfriend over his silence. Not the regular day to day silence; thats the part I actually enjoy. That we can be completely quiet and still OK with it. In the beginning though, with all the “He’s just not that into you” anecdotes in my head, I would equate his silence with disinterest. Especially since during our friendship, we could talk for hours into the night. But I soon realized not to base my opinions of him on dating jargon but his personality. And it made me comfortable with silence because I knew that even when we will reach a point of familiarity where words arent necessary, we wont feel we fell out of love or something.

    There is another kind of silence though. Like when you disagree, or state a different set of opinions. I used to think I was the most conflict avoidant person till I met my boyfriend. He maintains this stoic silence during our ‘arguments’ (one sided), simple because he probably answered my concerns a month ago in a separate argument and wont repeat or because he doesnt feel like talking. On the flip side, he has always been equally measured in his affection. The idea of a guy who will reiterate that he loves and cares for me every time we make up, made me feel insecure about this behavior too. And I am still learning how to be comfortable with this kind of silence…

  • August 19, 2011 at 1:21 am

    I grew up in the States and my boyfriend is chinese too. He doesn’t like to talk much either.. I’ve tried to learn to accept it but at the end it is not who i am. I hated it when he kept quiet and did not want to talk to me about “us” (I respected that he did not want to talk to me about his work or his personal stuff but not about “us”). At the end, I knew i couldn’t take it anymore.. not talking pushed us apart and I finally told him i wanted to break up…because I could not live like that.. relationship should be about sharing..and compromising. Now he starts to share things with me and we have never been happier. Good luck to you =)


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