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?

Shui Tu Bu Fu: A Tale of Two Noses

Tissue box
Tissue anyone? My Chinese husband has sneezing fits in the US, I have them in his family home in China. And our only explanation is shuitu bufu.

Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo!

There was my Chinese husband, having a sneezing fit right over our sink. I gave him the usual “bless you” and worried stares of a wife, wondering if this was the harbinger of a bad allergy day for him. And he gave me his usual prognosis on why he had this sneezing problem in the first place.

“In Zhejiang, I never used to sneeze like this,” John lamented, blowing his nose. “I miss the warm, humid air of Jiangnan,” that south of the Yangtze River region, the land of fish, rice and moist air  that included his own beloved province.

It sure didn’t help that, in 2008, we moved to a high desert area in the Mountain West of the United States — what you might term a land of tumbleweeds, dust and dry volcanic mountains. But even when we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, right on Lake Erie, my Chinese husband’s nose seemed to ignore the humidity and moisture, and just sneeze away in defiance. Even worse, his skin became so dry and itchy that he scratched out two pear-sized welts on both of his upper thighs. It took an entire year for those welts to disappear.

The Chinese have a saying for this: shuǐtǔ bùfú (水土不服). Continue reading “Shui Tu Bu Fu: A Tale of Two Noses”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China”

John and I cooking Chinese food during Chinese New Year
Sometimes, it's the ordinary moments in travel that can make China come alive. Here are a few ideas to help you get beyond the glossy "postcard China"

Last week, someone asked me the China travel question. “What’s your favorite place to visit in China?”

Faster than she could say “Terracotta Warriors,” I had just the place in mind: “My husband’s family home in the countryside.”

Okay, yeah, it’s easy for me say that. I’ve bounced around Beijing, sashayed my way through Shanghai, and chilled out in Chengdu. And while I love the allure of the road, I still find myself yearning for those small moments at the family home — whether it’s making dumplings with my mother-in-law or reading my father-in-law’s story about his ancestral village.

The thing is, sometimes it’s the most ordinary things and places that make travel extraordinary — and China is no exception. So, for my last article of the year for “Travel China with the Yangxifu,” I thought I’d help you find more small moments in your own travel — and you don’t need a family home in China to do it. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China””

How I Learned to Read Chinese, Published on Matador

Reading Chinese characters
I detail my pathway to Chinese literacy in "How I Learned to Read Chinese," published on Matador.

Great news! Matador just published my article titled “How I Learned to Read Chinese.”

For those of you dying to know about my path to fluency, this piece tracks how I left illiteracy in Chinese behind. Curious? Here’s a snippet:

When I came to Hangzhou, China in August 2001 as a writer – and to work on Mandarin fluency – I faced a great, embarrassing wall: I was illiterate.

Sure, I could speak and understand basic conversational Chinese, because I’d studied while teaching English in China from 1999 to 2000. Then, as a beginner, speaking and listening in a tonal language was so challenging that I didn’t want to deal with the characters.

But in Hangzhou, my ignorance was a big deal. Even though I could chat with locals, order food and ask directions, I was baffled by business cards, menus, and even store signs. I needed to read so I could build vocabulary and truly be fluent. But how?

For the “thrilling conclusion” — and to discover the Meteor Garden connection in all of this — read the full piece at Matador. And if you like it, share it. And thanks! 😉

UPDATE: Got this in an e-mail from Matador:

I wanted to let you know that your article was featured in this week’s Traverse newsletter, which means it was picked out by senior editor David Miller as one of the strongest pieces published during the week.

That made my day!

A Red China State of Mind, in an American Red State

Red China flags
Sometimes, even Red States in America have a little Red China in them.

“Wow, you’re like a celebrity!” he exclaimed. “I want to shake your hand!”

As a foreigner in China, I’d felt “almost famous” hundreds of times. Chinese have surrounded me in curiosity, asked for my photograph, and grilled me with the tenacity of a tabloid news outlet.

Except, this time, I wasn’t the “celebrity” — my husband was, in a Wal-Mart in Eastern Idaho, when a man discovered he was from China. Continue reading “A Red China State of Mind, in an American Red State”

Ask the Yangxifu: How to Learn Mandarin from Your Chinese Boyfriend or Girlfriend

Learning Mandarin Chinese from your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend
How can you learn Mandarin Chinese from your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend?

Language Lover asks:

How can I learn Mandarin from my Chinese boyfriend?


That’s easy, of course — pillow talk. 😉

Yeah, right. If it were that easy, I wouldn’t have sounded like such a moron in Mandarin back in 1999, when I dated my first Chinese boyfriend.

He famously had this dream where we’d speak Chinese one day, English the next. But who were we kidding? He was an English major, comfortably fluent in my language, and I was drowning every time I strayed past “Ni Hao” and everything else in my Lonely Planet phrasebook. Even worse, I felt so embarrassed, awkward and inadequate every time I even attempted to say something in Chinese before him. So we didn’t even go there, and just built our relationship in English. Great for us, devastating for my Chinese. Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: How to Learn Mandarin from Your Chinese Boyfriend or Girlfriend”