Recalling my childhood, I picture my Chinese mother’s permanent frown. Growing up, my little sister and I were more familiar with mum’s thin bamboo cane than her smile. We were terrified of her, even after we outgrew her five-foot frame, and sought refuge in our American father’s arms. Dad would comfort us with the three simple words mum never voiced, and I’d know that at least one parent loved me.
Why don’t Chinese parents say "I love you"? It’s the question on everyone’s mind after a viral video from China's Anhui TV station showed many parents reacting negatively to their children saying the phrase for the first time.
In her article for Fairfax Media's DailyLife website, Candice Chung explains that Chinese parents simply express their affection differently, through indirect gestures instead of outright declarations. But the Sydney-based writer ignores perhaps the most cryptic show of affection in Chinese culture: discipline.
We have a saying in Mandarin that sums up the role of discipline in Chinese parenting. It literally translates to "beating is affection, scolding is love". Parents discipline because they care. This "tough love" is also found in a parenting practice that most closely resembles the idea of "training". This form of parenting involves strict control over children. While this may seem overly restrictive and authoritarian in a Western context, "training" actually carries warm undertones of concern in the Chinese culture. While they may be stereotyped as cold and unfeeling, Chinese parents’ sternness actually stems from affection.
I admit that even I misunderstood my Chinese mother’s show of concern. As a child I thought mum was mean and heartless, I despised her heavy-handedness. She was so unfair. But I know now that everything mum did, she did for my future. Just like Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, the daughter of infamous Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother writer Amy Chua, I’ve come to realise that I’d never have matured into the person I am today without my mum’s stern guidance.
Both Sophia and I owe our academic successes to the high expectations our mums set for us, and the value they placed on hard work. I remember mum spending hours by my side, forcing me to study. I didn’t know it at the time, but she read my textbooks every night while I slept, just so she could help me revise. Had mum never done that, I doubt I would have taken my studies as seriously or done well enough to attend a top university.
Chinese parents love their children so much, they suffer for their child’s future. This "training" doesn’t just apply to the disciplining of children, parents too must be trained in the art of giving without receiving thanks.
Taking on the role of a disciplinarian in itself is a form of self-sacrifice. I can’t imagine mum relishing the fact that I favoured dad for his leniency, and it must have hurt whenever I yelled “I hate you”, especially when she only punished me to teach me wrong from right. I’m sure mum would have rather relaxed watching cartoons with my sister and I (which has now become our favourite pastime). But she had to maintain her stern front to keep us in line until we learned to govern ourselves. A Chinese parent’s concern for their child’s wellbeing and future overshadows their need for reciprocation. This is the extent of their love, and the price they pay for it.
The cliched "I love you" is hollow compared to the loving sacrifices Chinese parents make for their children. This is because their “do more and say less” Confucian culture places little value in words. Such sentiments are apparent in the YouTube video "Asian parents and the awkward 'I love you'", where interviewees find proof of love in their parent’s selfless acts.
My own mum exemplifies this. She spends hours cooking for our family but eats only leftovers, and sold her jewellery to afford my astronomical tuition fees. When the Hello Kitty craze hit my hometown years ago, mum even stood in massive lines outside McDonalds all over Singapore just to get me a full set of the collectible stuffed toys.
Now that mum and I are separated by 6000 or so kilometres, she resorts to the conventional phrase to express her love. Though I enjoy hearing those three words I so longed for in childhood, I miss her nagging and scolding, because they conveyed her love for me way more than any sentence could.
Jessica Li-Shan Driscoll is an international student from Singapore studying a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Criminology at the University of Melbourne.