Asian Girl Problem #109: Verbal vs. Tacit Love

Though I certainly know some exceptions, the majority of my Asian-American friends say “I love you” and hug their parents without giving it a second thought. It’s easy to love in America—I love donuts, strangers’ tattoos, a bookmark. I love at the end of phone conversations, to avoid awkward conversations, and when I’m trying to ingratiate myself with someone I pissed off. When I’m feeling sarcastic, I love things I actually hate.

When I was a kid and visited my dad at the university science lab where he worked, I yelled “Bye, I love you!” from down the hall every time I left. It became such a habit I’d often forget that sometimes he wasn’t in the lab when we went to look for him, so my declaration sounded like it was only meant for his grad student, Sean. I was only slightly embarrassed.

I never say “I love you” in Chinese, and hugs are few and far between when I visit my relatives in the motherland. I’ve never hugged any of my uncles or male cousins, and embracing my grandma whom I’m crazy about is reserved for the first and last time I see her of every visit. Instead, we say “like” for everything, including people we want to date. Or, in my case, “really like” for donuts and tattoos.

Rarely seen or used outside of tattoos on white people.

From a chapter in “Couples on the Fault Line” by Esther Perel:

Most cultures tend to gravitate toward one pole or the other in [the spectrum of “high-context” and “low-context” societies.] Another way to conceive of the spectrum is individualism versus collectivism. In low context societies such as Germany, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, England, Australia, and the United States (often countries rooted in Protestant Calvanism) people compartmentalize personal relationships and work, and focus on short-term relationships. Factual information is stressed and is explicit verbal expression. The high-context societies are more rural and less industrialized than then low-context societies. In Latin America, Africa, the Mediterranean countries, the Arab world, India, China, and Indonesia extensive information networks exist among family, friends, and colleagues. This shared experience allows for a greater degree of tacit understanding. People are often involved in close and lasting personal relationships.

For the first time ever, I’ve been saying/writing the words (in English, or course) to a person I’m boning. When it first came up, it took me a month to reciprocate, and I still feel a jolt of confusion and hesitance every time I say it—although writing it feels easier? Sometimes I even have to rationalize in my head that the context I’m using it is no different than when I say it to a close girl friend.

Other times I’m just like, who the fuck cares. Spoken word are so easily made and easily broken. I want his time, energy, effort, thoughtfulness, touch—basically every other “love language” than words. That’s how I express my love, but sometimes I forget that my language goes unnoticed by people who didn’t grow up feeling the deep meaning behind the saving the last bite for someone else or going 30 minutes out of the way to see them for 5 minutes. (Not that I’m saying my dude doesn’t do either of these things.)* But how sad and drab not to notice and revel in those subtleties. Wouldn’t you say that the more we evolve, the more ways we should be able to express affection?

*Okay, there are definite drawbacks, i.e. how my family loves to whine about the sacrifices we make that go unappreciated by others.


Asian Girl Problem #73: Chinese School Dropout

The older I get, the more I realize there is a part of Chinese culture I’ll always be an outsider to, because I can’t read or write the language past a third-grade level. Chinese school was supposed to help with that, but in actuality, it did nothing to educate me.

We first heard about it through word of mouth. Every Saturday, families would drive from far and wide to an elementary school in downtown Columbus, where, for $30 a month, their children would receive an hour of Mandarin instruction and an hour of an extracurricular, like basketball, singing or traditional painting. All the teachers were parent volunteers, and the school’s profits went to to board of directors and special holiday events, such as the New Year’s talent show or Moon Festival dance.

It doesn’t take an over-imaginative person to predict that asking competitive Chinese parents who have no teaching experience to lead classes of 30+ kids is a recipe for chaos. The competition between Chinese people with their own kind is no joke, and it rubbed off on us kids. Normally demure in American school, we became super competitive brats who constantly tried to seem smarter, richer and cooler then others. I cheated on tests, ripped my friend’s lesson book when I was mad at her, and felt a sense of superiority when my dad started teaching the martial arts class, elevating my status in the school because he was then in cahoots with the directors. I also got into more crying and screaming fights with my parents than ever–at least once a week.

Even though leaving meant that I wouldn’t see my Chinese friends as often anymore, my last day was a relief. I remember standing outside my last dance class in our leotards, when Li Dan, the meanest girl at school, made a girl cry by saying in front of the class that her parents couldn’t afford to buy her ballet shoes. Even they had to admit that quitting Chinese school was a good idea. “The caliber was too low. She said she wasn’t learning anything, so it was a waste of time,” they said smugly. Because it was still kind of a competition, and we felt like winners.

Asian Girl Problem #68: Second-Generation Guilt

I always wondered if I should label myself first or second-generation Chinese-American, because I was born in Beijing but moved here when I was 20 months. Because apparently the two are hugely different, and people can’t help but make huge assumptions based on either. Sometimes I’ll be in a situation where I’ll clearly gain more respect from the person if I say I’m first-generation. Others, I’d rather skip the discussion altogether and say I’m from Ohio. In this essay I enjoyed today, the author talks about meeting first-generation immigrants who are fully immersed in their communities without finding the need to learn any English or adopt much American culture.

Of course knowing English would make life easier for them and their families, but I have a soft spot for these resilient people that can thrive perfectly well without associating with the outside world. It might be in South San Diego, Chinatown (where I don’t understand  Cantonese) or even an Indian supermarket near my house, but suddenly I’ll feel totally displaced without language to guide me. Once inside, the power dynamic is different and wonderful. I become the minority for not understanding their language, whereas they’re free to be individuals unbound by cultural limitations.

I used to get depressed seeing Asian women cleaning the bathrooms in my dorm, or picking up sidewalk trash outside of the fraternity houses after a crazy weekend. I kept seeing my mom in them. Did she feel upset when she cleaned houses or earned $2/hour in restaurants? No, I think the anger is all mine, distinctly second-generation. My parents are surprised when I lash out at people who treat them like second-class citizens partly because half the time, they aren’t aware it’s happening. But something I can’t control requires me to speak on behalf of her whether she cares or not. 

…his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children. I found that immigrants are acutely conscious that they’re changing the trajectories of generations to come when they decide to emigrate from their often-impoverished homelands.

I rarely think about how the first generation must have a whole different set of priorities. They work with their families in mind. They aren’t bogged down by options and what-ifs. They are often too busy for neuroses. The second generation has to bear the fruits of their parents’ labor. We have resources to care about “image” and “identity,” which come in conjunction with “guilt.” We seek and expect acceptance from all sides. I expect people to accept my parents, my Asianness, and my Americanness, which is a ridiculous thing to ask.

But it’s interesting that the affects of immigration last way past the first generation. So much of the experience exists in the gaps between .

Asian Girl Problem #37: Same Difference

I always thought, coincidentally, the Chinese had a saying that was the exact translation of “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” But this week my dad pointed out that it’s actually “strive for the best, prepare for the worst.”

“Because we don’t hope,” he said. “We have to be more active than that.” Cue tiny violins.

Whatever language you use, the saying seems to be used most when people are actually quite dreading, and anticipating, the worst. If everything’s working out, no one thinks about preparing for the worst. They’re thinking about pina coladas and new clothes. Just something that I notice as I prepare myself…

It’s also interesting that, like in English, the word for “swallow” in Chinese is also homophone for both the bird and bodily function. So you can say “I swallowed the swallows nest” in both languages, and you’d be using the same word twice. The only difference is the reaction you’ll get in each country.

Made properly, it should look like something that’s already been swallowed.

Asian Girl Problem #4: Unofficial Proofreader for Everything Ever

Like a lot of Chinese kids in America, I have a dad who’s in Biochemistry and constantly has to draft science grants, patents and reports in English. Unfortunately, he never quite mastered the language, so I’m always the de acto editor of his papers (in addition to reminding him not to call my friend Sarah “Cereal”, and that Bookface is not a popular website kids use.) Editing has been a large role in every job I’ve had because it’s one of the few jobs I could find with an English degree. Basically, with this diploma I was guaranteed to a lifetime supply of essays and documents  from my parents, their friends, and their friends’ children to be edited. Often while they reminded me what a silly line of work I chose. But regardless of degree, lots of Asian kids edit their parents’ work. Better than letting them send out an email to their boss with “Dawn” instead of “Don” or “the rapist” instead of “therapist”. In his science writing and legal patents, it’s hard to determine if my dad actually has an English problem, or the jargon is just that convoluted. I sort of just dodge around the repetition and words like “polymerization,” “chemiluminescense” and “phosphodiester” looking for the prepositions and conjunctions to save my life. It must be hard to walk around knowing words like that yet not being able to write a clear note to the mailman to leave the package at the door. But the best thing about having an English-challenged parent is definitely the emails you end up exchanging. They almost make everything else worth it. Untitled   Personally I resort to a combination of cat photos and baby talk to get my point across. And who hasn’t thought of their parent as a cat or a baby at some point in time? Next time they piss you off in real life or via phone, just propose to take a break and continue the conversation online.



Then send this picture if they keep bothering you to do the dishes.

image (1)

Or this one if they think you need an attitude adjustment. And they will forget the reason they were mad at the first place and as a peace offering, probably send you a patent to translate.