My parents do not say, “I love you,” to me or to each other. The feeling is mutual; I do not say it to them either. There is a weird sort of love between us, weird because it is not eloquent and often misunderstood. My family communicates love equally through food and reproach, cut fruits and caning, hope and resignation.
My grandmother scolded me for not giving her enough clothes to wash when I visited her. “Your cousin gives me two bags of clothes every week,” she told me. I felt wronged but kept from protesting, knowing my place. I forced down frustrated tears when I was criticized for not answering her. When I offered to help with the dishes, my grandmother looked annoyed. (Grandchildren should be doted on, or studying, unobstructed by chores.) When my mother offered to help with the dishes, it was an unspoken expectation my mother would help out.
When I was younger, my mother caned me. I would be asked to pick out the cane of choice — usually from an assortment of hangers. If I picked the thick plastic ones, my choice would immediately be overturned, and I would get a bonus strike from the painful metal ones. Back then, I used to read storybooks about witches. I wondered if I was living with one; my mother, too, fed me delicious foods.
“You are an intestine in my body,” my mother liked to tell me. “It hurts me as much as it hurts you to scold you. It breaks my heart when you cry, so please stop being so disobedient.”
My family has a kind of love that values not individual freedom but livelihood, hoping to literally give you life. It is a kind of love that warms your stomach, stifles your soul a bit, but hopes to liberate you from future regrets. It is the kind of love that kisses you good night, only in your imagination, but wakes you up with a forceful curtain pull to reveal the glare of sunshine. It is the kind of love that hurries you out of bed and monitors you eating all of breakfast, so that you may have the nutrients to survive the long school day, the exam or the life that lies ahead.
There is a clockwork to this love; it just takes time to notice.
Sometimes, it is really hard to tell. Once, an “uncle” (all strangers are “uncles” and “aunties” by default in Singapore, even if familial uncles and aunties are called the exact same way) came to my house to do a government census. He had visited before in the afternoon, but I thought he was an insurance agent and intently pretended not to be at home. He came again during the evening, and his gray hair made my heart sink. Displaying a set of yellowed teeth in a smile, he asked me if I would fill in a survey for some supermarket vouchers. I wanted to tell him, I would do it, even without the vouchers; but I was too quiet with guilt and shame. When it was time to leave, I asked the uncle if he liked his job. He answered no. He was a volunteer. He kept at this thankless (and payless) job out of worry for his son, who was always called to the principal’s office and whom he feared would not find a job. If he did this job, maybe he could network for his son.
“I don’t want him to end up like me,” he sighed, “but he doesn’t listen.”
How does one listen – between the reproach, prayer and sighs? Parents are not always good at telling you if they love you. They are not good at telling you anything at all. They make long belabored points about eating well and sleeping habits. They nag about the importance of studying and safety. My father especially liked lecturing about Confucius’ values. “Oh, you want a hug,” he said, surprised and awkward, when I asked for one when leaving for college.
How inadequate our expressions of love! How painful it was to watch my parents watch me silently recede past the customs gate. How pitiful it was to stare at them to wordlessly imprint their faces in my memory. Why do we not express it more?
“If I start crying, I might never stop,” I said of my homesickness in my first semester of college.
Love is a set of relations one practices. I have “seniors” in college. “Seniors” is a concept Americans do not have. In Singapore, “seniors” do not refer to the graduating class, but a set of relations to younger members of the community or “juniors.” Anyone older than you is your “senior,” while you are their “junior.” “Senior” and “junior” designate your place in the community. The “senior” cares for the “junior” like an older sibling. In Singaporean high schools, seniors commonly mentor and coach juniors – in sports, competitions or studies. At Yale, my Singaporean senior made me kimchi just because I complained dining hall food was bad. As a junior, your duty is to become a good senior when it is your turn to do so. It is a self-perpetuating clockwork. It is a culture rather than an institution. It is part of being in a community — my family.
As ancient Chinese poets noted: When words are inadequate, one sighs; when sighing is inadequate, one composes songs and poetry; when even that is inadequate, your hands inevitably dance, and your feet cannot help but tap.
We still failingly speak, sigh and write poetry; but perhaps in this weird dance of love, my circuitous footwork shows that I care. It is not for a shortage of love. It is just a way to love, in all its awkward ineloquent glory.