I recently learned that I’ve been pronouncing love in Chinese incorrectly my entire life. The “ai” sound is like “I”. My second generation tongue has been saying it like the e in “egg.” What I thought had been the authentic pronunciation turned out to be a bastardized form of the true word, a fitting metaphor for my relationship to the feeling itself.
Growing up in a Chinese household taught me to save my emotions for when I was by myself, away from the judging gaze of others. This pertained to all emotions: approval, disapproval, pleasure, sorrow. Crying was a sign of weakness, rage a sign of no control. Happiness was reserved for the best of occasions.
The expression of love was no different. My family defies the idea that Asian families are foreign to the concept of love. We say “I love you” regularly, hug, exchange good-night kisses. But outside, under public scrutiny, there is no handholding, no hugging, no indication that we are a tight-knit family.
As a result, I only knew love to be something that should be hidden, reserved for private, and it manifested in multiple facets of my life. My friendships were all tentative and short-lived. Once the school year ended, and we ascended the educational ladder, we moved onto the next friend as though our schoolyard games of four-square and basketball never happened. More telling was the fact that my relationships, romantic or otherwise, were all based on the unstated mutual agreement that there would be no exhibition of love or support.
I recall one friendship I had in middle school with two girls, both Chinese. We hung out at recess, stuck together for group projects, and were never seen without at least one other. Yet, we never did anything to let the each other know how much we loved them.
Perhaps we thought it was too corny. Perhaps we operated under the idea that true friends expressed love through mild insults and teasing. Or perhaps we were all unable to reconcile the idea that love in a relationship could be expressed without being fake. If anything, our form of love was more inauthentic. Without expressing love outright, jealousy and envy weaseled their way between us when anyone achieved anything. The love that I had for them never felt real. It always felt like something I had to act out, a daily performance of false compliments and forced smiles.
University challenged my perspective of love and its expression. In first-year, I saw but three people on a semi-regular basis. Our fear of showing each other care and affection is perhaps the biggest reason I have little contact with them now. A romantic relationship I allowed to fizzle out ended in part because he thought I was “distant,” something that confused me until recent reflection.
I loved them all, but they never knew it.
It wasn’t until third-year that I started to form long lasting friendships. The major difference I noticed was the open expression of positivity and support for one another (in between the roasting). After the first time we went to a bar together, my closest friend turned to ask before departing on the subway, “Do you like hugs?” I gave her a startled nod before thinking it through and was suddenly encased in her arms. It was then that I realized I enjoyed this concept of love, one that was unhindered, unequivocal, and unafraid to be known.
Allowing myself to show love, unrestricted from notions of shame or embarrassment, opened the path to feeling it without pretense. And this isn’t limited to feeling love. I cry more than ever now at heart-wrenching films, I shout with joy when my friend gets into graduate school. I will clap my hands in excitement when someone I meet shares the same geeky interests as I, and I let my dearest friends and family know how much I love them.
Why should we pretend we are all unfeeling automatons? We experience emotions, we feel joy and sadness and anger and love. Sometimes, it’s only after we show emotion that we realize what it is we’re feeling.