Ways to Say “I Love You”
By Stephanie Li, UW Junior
Since the beginning of the pandemic, my mother has been fond of making fried eggs for breakfast. Every Saturday morning, I come into the kitchen and she asks me what I want to eat. Before I can reply, she says, “I can make eggs for you,” already rummaging through the refrigerator even though it’s close to noon and by then, it doesn’t make sense to have a full breakfast.
The results of her attempts vary. In the beginning, they’re overcooked, the undersides various shades of burnt and the edges cutting against the soft flesh of my cheeks. Later, they’re undercooked, a glistening layer of clear egg white still covering the yolk that I scrape off with my fork. She approaches egg frying like it is an experiment in her lab at work, switching out pans and cooking oils like they are independent variables, methodically checking the time on the oven clock.
Every time, she asks if they taste good. And every time, I say yes.
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Mandarin was my first language, but now I am only fluent in English, the years of Chinese school my parents put me through faded from memory. Yet, I cannot speak the western language of love. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I have said “I love you” to my parents. And I say probably because I do not remember the last time I did. The phrase itself sits heavy in my mouth, round syllables unfamiliar and foreign, and my tongue becomes vestigial. Humans learn through example, but I had no example to learn from.
Across the internet, perhaps on the comment section of a youtube video or a post on the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook page, it’s not hard to find a self-deprecating joke or two about how stoic Asian parents are and the lack of physical affection they exhibit. Recently, a friend texted me in shock that her dad said to her, “I’m proud of you,” an occurrence so rare that she had to share it with her other Asian friends. And just the other day, when I video called with her, her mom bent down on the screen to hug her, face resting on the top of her head. She stared at us in surprise and whispered, “What just happened?” before burying her face in her hands, a simple act of affection rendering her into a stuttering mess. Even though I was laughing, I couldn’t stop a twinge of jealousy in my chest at the scene.
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When we were still living in Illinois, my mother wore a pair of bright red slippers around the house. It was the first thing that others noticed about her: the shock against the white linoleum floors. Even when I couldn’t see them, her footsteps echoing through the house would make her presence known.
I could always tell when she was on one of her cleaning sprees due to the slap-slap of the slippers moving from room to room. That noise became synonymous with the slide of the Swiffer, the suction of the vacuum, and the cloying scent of disinfectant.
My mother loves cleaning. When she moved to Seattle for her new job, she would visit us every couple of weeks. And every time, she’d clean. Rarely the whole house, sometimes the bedrooms, always the kitchen. It was a piece of herself she didn’t take to her new house, and for those weekends, things settled back into the cadence of normal.
When we unpacked the boxes after the rest of us moved to Seattle, I saw the slippers. In the sterile whiteness of our new house, it was clear how worn out they were. The fabric had faded to a motley of brown and dull pink patches, and an unidentifiable stain had made itself at home across the toe of the right slipper.
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My parents immigrated to Canada in the late 1990s with my older sister in tow. I don’t know the details of their journey, but what else did I need to know other than what every child of immigrants knows? There is a shared sense of understanding when it comes to imagining what our parents had to go through to be where they are and the things they left behind. And for us — to give us a better life. It feels silly to verbalize something that should be obvious and clear through the thousand gestures that my parents exhibit through the very act of raising me.
Yet growing up in America with immigrant parents left me to perceive the world in dualities. Chinese and American were firmly fixed on opposite poles, and with the help of society, I assigned certain characteristics to each: white and non-white, strict and relaxed, shame and longing.
When it came to the concept of love, I was assaulted with how loud Americans declared it. Everywhere I looked, love was spelled in bolded letters. Go big or go home. Movies told us that the epitome of romantic love was a shouted confession in the pouring rain. TV shows told us that parental love came in the form of extravagant gifts and an excessive amount of freedom. And above all, the words “I love you” were the most treasured three words in the English language.
Love became another thing that was split between two opposites. America capitalized on love, magnified it, and said, “This is the correct way.” So, I took what was offered, accepted and internalized it, then fashioned a yardstick which I used to measure the love I had received.
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My hair is becoming too long, according to my mother. She makes her feelings known only through exaggerated stares at my back, always making sure I notice. One day, finally: “When are you going to cut your hair?”
Growing up, I always got my hair cut at home, a fact that I was greatly embarrassed by. But after a butchered haircut at a salon, my teenage angst was quelled and I switched back to home haircuts, done mostly by my mother and a pair of shears that couldn’t close the whole way.
I watch as clumps of hair fall to the floor, a caress brushing past my neck. Afterimages of split-second memories resurface from when I was a child: fingers dutifully separating knots, absentmindedly brushing an errant strand away, the pulling of my scalp as my mother braided my hair too tightly; always too tightly, as if she were afraid of letting go.
Afterward, she painstakingly sweeps the trimmings as she crouches with the mini plastic dustpan because the longer one is in the garage. Something was soothing about the rhythmic “sweep, sweep” of the hard bristles against the floor, and I had begun to expect it — listen for it — every time she cut my hair.
Like summer breaks, dentist appointments, and birthdays, getting my haircut became a marker of time. Like clockwork.
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I can count on one hand the number of times my mother has told me she loves me, a fact younger me was resentful of. However, “I love you” is static, meaning already laid into the words. I can trace all the ways that my mother has loved me through the passage of time and by the way that routines have settled, evolved, then settled again. Love is muscle memory, exercised by the things we do for each other, not by the words we say.
“I love you.”
Or: The quest for the perfect fried egg, a stained pair of once-red slippers, and the brush of hair against my neck.
Many thanks to our outreach officer Stephanie for sharing this article in our Summer Blog Project! Stay tuned for more narratives! If you would like to contribute a story regarding Asian mental health, please contact email@example.com for more information.