Food Is the Ultimate Asian Love Language
Lately, both my sister and I have been thinking about getting tattoos that represent our love for our parents.
She’s been throwing out ideas of a kind of flower for my mom and a Studio Ghibli tattoo for my dad. But for me, the most honest, distilled symbol for my parents involves specific dishes they made for us growing up. For my mom, it’s a plate of tempura, and for my dad, a simple tuna roll. And while it may seem strange, for those that identify as Asian or Asian American, the concept of food as love is as old as the box of expired sauce in my mom’s pantry.
“Food is an Asian love language,” says Ivy Kwong, LMFT a psychotherapist and coach who specializes in AAPI mental health. “It’s the cut fruit, sharing dishes, and sending you off with containers of leftovers. It’s making you your favorite dish, stuffing you and offering you seconds and thirds and fourths, and asking whether you’ve eaten yet or worrying if you’re not eating well.”
What Are Love Languages?
Love languages have become popular over time since Gary Chapman released his book, “The Five Love Languages,” in 1992. In it, Chapman distills the ways in which people show their love for each other into five distinct categories: words of affirmation or compliments, quality time, receiving or giving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. According to data collected by Chapman, words of affirmation and acts of service are the two most popular love languages.
“We know that we give what we want to receive so a lot of people are trying to use their energy and time and resources to care for the people who they love and it’s important that those people recognize those efforts,” says Jennifer Thomas, a clinical psychologist, author and a master facilitator for the five love languages.
According to Kwong, who works with many Asian Americans, the children of Asian parents are often shown love through acts of service, primarily through the making and sharing of food. And that’s been my own experience as well.
Food Is the Ultimate Asian Love Language
Food is the Asian love language. It’s the cut fruit, sharing dishes, and sending you off with containers of leftovers. It’s making you your favorite dish, stuffing you and offering you seconds and thirds and fourths, and asking whether you’ve eaten yet or worrying if you’re not eating well.
As a child, my mom was constantly cooking. She made sandwiches every morning for my dad, my sister and I to take to work or school and every evening, she made a home-cooked meal. If we got sick, she would make okayu, a Japanese rice soup—a dish specifically made for when you’re feeling unwell like Americans make chicken noodle soup. And even now, despite the fact that my sister and I are both grown, she continues to show her love for us this way.
“Have You Eaten Yet?” Is the Asian “I Love You”
A few weeks ago when my sister came down with Covid, my mom made a week’s worth of home-cooked meals, packed them into boxes, drove an hour to my sister’s apartment, and left them outside her door, all without saying a word. And that’s a common theme throughout Asian families, experts say.
Parents don’t tend to show their love through words or hugs. It’s the physical actions that mean the most. “In Chinese, there’s this saying, ‘Actions over words, the words mean nothing,’” Kwong explains. “So my parents would always say, ‘Why do we need to say, ‘I love you? Why do we need to do that?’ It’s shown. The words fall flat if they aren’t proven through action.”
Asian parents may never have heard “I love you” from their own parents or families and it may feel uncomfortable or strange to hear it, much less say it. We pass on what we have been taught and what we know. For many Asian parents, they know a lot about showing their love through food, and less so through words of affirmation.
Cheuk Kwan, an author and documentarian whose forthcoming book, “Have You Eaten Yet?” chronicles Chinese restaurants all over the world, points out that words related to familial love and romance don’t even exist in some East Asian languages.
“My parents never said, ‘I love you’ to my face,” Kwan says. “I think it’s a cultural thing. There’s no Chinese word for romance and the Japanese don’t have it either. It’s a borrowed word from English.”
In Chinese, there’s this saying, ‘Actions over words, the words mean nothing.’ So my parents would always say, ‘Why do we need to say, ‘I love you? Why do we need to do that?’ It’s shown. The words fall flat if they aren’t proven through action.
Kwong says she has experienced the scarcity of these words in her own life. “My mother said ‘I love you’ to her father for the first and only time when he was dying of cancer,” Kwong says.
She shares a time when she began practicing Cantonese and told her parents she loved them.
“I never heard those words growing up and neither did they, so when I said it, they were like, ‘Ew, yuck,’” Kwong laughs. “My mom shook her whole body and walked away.”
And it’s true. In the Japanese language, there are two ways to express your affinity for someone. First, there’s aishiteru, which is the romantic way of saying, “I love you.” The other way to say you love someone, perhaps a family member or a friend, is to say daisuki, which translates to “I like you a lot.”
Instead of hearing “I love you,” many kids of Asian parents grow up hearing the words, “Have you eaten yet?” or “Are you hungry?”
And that’s where the title of his book comes from, Kwan explains.
“It’s an expression that Chinese used to greet each other 50 or 100 years ago,” Kwan adds. “When they saw each other on the streets they would say, ‘Hey, have you eaten yet?’ and basically, it means, ‘How are you?’”
Kwan suspects that the phrase came from the days when China was a poorer country and people didn’t always have enough to eat. He also mentions how many East Asian cultures have been influenced by Confucianism which stresses the importance of the family unit and taking care of the collective.
“Because the food culture is foremost in these ethnicities, you’ll see that families put a lot of importance on having a good meal,” Kwan says. “It ties into the holistic way of how Asians treat food. It’s not just feeding the stomach, it’s feeding the soul. A lot of mental health aspects go into a meal.”
It ties into the holistic way of how Asians treat food. It’s not just feeding the stomach, it’s feeding the soul. A lot of mental health aspects go into a meal.
For Jennifer Leung, 48, everything about her relationship with her parents ties back to food. Her father, Robert, grew up as part of a long lineage of restaurant-running families in Greensboro, NC, and eventually opened his own restaurant, Hong Kong House in 1971. That’s where Jennifer spent most of her life as a child.
“I think I saw the inside of that restaurant more than I saw the inside of my house,” she says.
Over time, her mother Amelia, took over the major operations for the restaurant and became the face of the business. For decades, she cooked Chinese and American dishes and fed not only her family, but the wider Greensboro community.
“Food was an extension of love for her,” Jennifer says about her mother. “Everybody needs food, everybody needs nourishment. Even if you didn’t have money, she would feed you.”
Jennifer says that running the restaurant was her parent’s love language.
“The whole sacrifice of leaving a country and not speaking the language, I think that’s something many people don’t really understand,” she says. “Growing up, running a restaurant for us to get college-educated, that in and of itself is showing love.”
In November 2020, Jennifer’s father passed away and almost one year later, her mother passed on, too.
Everybody needs food, everybody needs nourishment. Even if you didn’t have money, she would feed you.
“A lot of times Asian parents don’t say, ‘I love you’ and they’re not big on PDA,” Jennifer says. “But to me, cooking and sharing time was their way of showing love, not saying it or touching, but being there, providing, cooking, sharing meals, spending time together.”
And that’s now how she shows love, too.
“I’m a doer; I show up,” she says. “I don’t necessarily say, ‘I love you,’ but I pay attention. I put in the time, the energy and the thoughtfulness.”
How the Dynamic Affects the Next Generation
Kwong shares about the time and work it took to heal from the pain and anger of not getting the love she wanted from her parents growing up. It took a long time for her to shift from resentment to greater understanding and appreciation for her parents who showed her love in the only ways they knew how, and she has compassion for many of her Asian clients who are struggling with this dynamic.
“A lot of the work that I do with clients is working through grief from not experiencing love from their parents the way they hoped to,” Kwong says. “There’s so much of, ‘Why am I not getting hugs? Why am I not getting ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m proud of you’? and ‘Why are they so critical? Why isn’t what I am enough?’ There’s a lot of anger and grief that so many carry.”
This dynamic, coupled with the rigid expectations that Asian parents can have when it comes to achievements and success, can have detrimental effects on the mental health of Asian American children.
According to 2019 data collected by the CDC, suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian Americans ages 15 to 24.1 A 2020 article by the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that cultural shame, such as parental pressure to succeed, mental health stigma, and racism are contributing factors to this tragic statistic that is imperative to address..2
That drive to succeed often comes from trauma that parents, especially those who have emigrated away from their home countries, have experienced themselves, says Kwong.
“I think a lot of Asian parents are very afraid of unpredictability because so much of their life has been suffering and struggling while trying to survive, and they want us to avoid the pain that they went through,” Kwong explains. “That’s also an act of love. Sometimes it shows up as being extra strict and thinking they know what’s best for you. They ultimately want you to be safe and stable, but the ways they express it can be stressful and painful for everyone.”
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How to Cope and Prioritize Our Mental Health
One way to deal with this dynamic is for children to try to understand why their parents show love the way they do, says Jennifer Thomas. “For some people, it’s harder to express words sometimes or it may feel uncomfortable to give the physical touch and that’s a challenge because as a child that’s growing up under that, you can end up feeling undervalued or unloved,” Thomas says.
“But you can translate what they are offering into your love language. You can give them credit and say, ‘Although they don’t say those words to me, I can kind of take their noodle dish that they make me and translate it into a hug.’”
And if parents aren’t understanding of their kids’ mental health issues, or they say to “suck it up,” that’s probably what they’ve told themselves to survive, Kwong says.
But you can translate what they are offering into your love language. You can give them credit and say, ‘Although they don’t say those words to me, I can kind of take their noodle dish that they make me and translate it into a hug.’
“They may have thought, ‘It doesn’t help us to stop and be sad, we have to provide for our families, we have to keep going and working,’” Kwong says. “It can be a privilege to have the time and space to feel and tend to your emotions, and can be even harder if you’ve never seen it modeled or been supported in doing so.”
Going forward, it is important for present and future generations to prioritize and talk about mental health in ways that previous generations didn’t. “Staying invisible and quiet and shut down may have helped our ancestors survive, but now it is hurting our ability to thrive,” Kwong says. “Let’s start exploring how we can help take care of ourselves and each other in new and different ways.”
If we do that, the love languages Asian families use might change over time too.
“I think over the course of generations it’s possible,” Kwong says. “I think we can learn to have more appreciation, understanding, and compassion for how our parents and grandparents showed their love. Not spoke their love, not hugged their love, but showed their love. And I think as we discover what other love languages feel good to us, we can expand our ability to give and receive love, which is a beautiful thing.”