Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Maybe the title of this post should be expressed as a question, because I'm really not sure if this is a white-people thing or not -- to say "I love you" a lot.
I have noticed that many of the white people I've known say it frequently. Women more than men, of course. Lucky me, some might say, to be around so much love.
But then, is it "love," when people say it so often, almost like a habit, or like, a duty?
And even if these expressions of love usually are genuine, is saying "I love you" the only way to express love?
Of course not.
But maybe saying it a lot is an especially white thing. Which is not necessarily to say that it's not something that some other racial or ethnic groups say a lot too.
I see white people habitually ending phone conversations this way--kind of, hurriedly.
"I love you! Bye!"
I've seen them saying it to their children as they drop them off at school, again as the last or second-to-last thing they say: "Bye! I love you, you know!"
It's sweet, I suppose, and as I was growing up, my own mother said it a lot too. I know she meant it, but I sometimes cynically wondered how sincere she really was, if she kept saying it so often.
My father didn't say it often. He hardly ever said it. I now realize, with gratitude, that he showed it instead.
Actually, that's how I hear it generally works in some other cultures -- don't say it, show it.
In Native Speaker, a novel by Korean American author Chang-rae Lee, the protagonist is Henry Park, a son of Korean immigrants. He's married to a Lilia, a white woman, and much of the story revolves around their marital problems. One big problem that Lilia has with Henry is that he isn't emotionally expressive enough. Not enough for her, that is.
"I know you have parts to you that I can't touch," she tells him.
As Henry struggles to figure out whether he does have some problem openly expressing his emotions, and especially his love for her, he thinks about how love was expressed during his immigrant Korean upbringing. He especially thinks about his father:
To tell him I loved him, I studied far into the night. I read my entire children's encyclopedia, drilling from aardvark to zymurgy. I never made an error at shortstop. I spit-shined and brushed his shoes every Sunday morning. Later, to tell him something else, I'd place a larger bouquet than his on my mother's grave. I drove only used, beat-up cars. I never asked him for his money. I spoke volumes to him this way, speak to him still, those same volumes he spoke with me.
Writing for the web site Urbanatomy Shanghai, a white guy named JFK Miller takes on the dubious task of speaking for Chinese people on this topic. Miller attempts to explain, as his article's title says, "Why the Chinese Don't Say 'I love you.'"
Miller finds evidence suggesting that in China, verbal expressions of love may be common between family members, but not between lovers:
Shanghai Love Education Institute founders Ni Meiqi and Dong Xingmao say Chinese love is “like a thermos – cold outside but hot inside.” Western lovers (particularly those of the American variety), they claim, say “I love you” far too much, and what’s worse, “they don’t actually mean it all the time.”
So while some Westerners tend to overuse “I love you,” those three little words (or rather, their Chinese equivalent, “Wo ai ni”) just don’t seem to roll off the tongues of Chinese lovers so nearly as readily. Between parent and child, yes; but between man and woman, well, Chinese people seem to subscribe to the notion that some things are best left unsaid. . . .
Miller also interviewed professor of psychology Yan Wenhua, who says that in Chinese culture,
actions speak louder than words, especially when it comes to love.
“To the Chinese mind, if I do all these things for you, then you should know I love you," explains Prof. Yan. . . .
“In Chinese people’s eyes, if I say ‘I love you’ too often . . . then maybe you don’t really love me because you say it so much."
In a recent memoir, Vietnamese American writer Lac Su directly addresses this topic, right in his book's title: I Love Yous Are for White People.
Like Lee's Henry Park, Lac Su is a son of immigrants. In a review of Su's memoir, Terry Hong writes,
Desperate for his father's approval, Su dares to voice his love for him. His father's reaction when Su utters the three unforgivable words ironically gives Su his title: "Are you trying to imitate those white people by telling me those f- words? . . . Is that what the whites are teaching you at school? To say stupid things and stand there crying like a girl? If you love me, show me. . . . Words are useless -- they do nothing but piss me off."
Maybe, instead of saying "I love you" a lot being a white thing, not saying it much is more of an Asian thing? No -- I'd need a lot more evidence before I could safely say that. Again, at this point I can only speculate, and sift through largely anecdotal evidence.
I don't know much about how love is expressed among other groups, and I suppose even what "love" itself is could vary widely across cultures. Who knows, when different people say "I love you," they might be saying very different things.
I also imagine other factors play a role, such as gender, as well as socioeconomic status, and all that goes (or doesn't go) with it. Being exhausted or frustrated or frantically busy can leave little time or inclination for expressing one's love.
And yet, people still do find ways, don't they?
I remember the following poem, by African American poet Robert Hayden, about a father who found ways to show his love, apparently instead of saying it. However, I don't know how "black" this poem is (no matter how much I'm encouraged in America to read it that way by my awareness of the author's race).
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
What do you think?
Is it an especially white thing to say "I love you" a lot? Or maybe, to say it lightly? And to put less emphasis on instead showing it?
Do you think white people tend to say that more often than members of other racial or ethnic groups?
And if so -- why might that be?