The love languages are a concept created by Dr. Gary Chapman, a marriage counselor who discovered common ways of communicating love during his work. In 1992, he published "The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate." The five languages are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.
As an Asian American growing up with immigrant parents, I experienced slightly different forms of love, some within the original five, and some in a completely new category. Because my parents both grew up in Korea, they had traditional, sometimes more conservative ways of expressing love. For example, it was rare to hear the words “I love you” being spoken in my household, even though our family definitely loved each other. The following were more common ways to show love and care when I was growing up.
1. Asking if you've eaten yet
This is probably the question that I heard most often growing up: “Have you eaten?” In fact, in Korea, this sentiment is so commonly used that it’s a form of greeting someone, just like saying “Hello”. For many immigrant families, not just of Asian heritage, food is a vital part of our culture and an important part of our identity that we bring over from our home countries. It is something that brings joy to our everyday lives and we hold immense pride in it, wanting to share it with loved ones.
"Have you eaten?"
Even now, when I have a certain dish that I make myself or order from a store, it vividly takes me back to my childhood, when my mom would lovingly make my favorite Korean dishes, without a recipe, but rather years and years of practice, experimenting, and memories from her own mother teaching her how to make it. Whenever I would come home during college break, my mom would ask if I’ve eaten yet; knowing full well I drove 5 hours to get home, and without waiting for an answer, already be pulling out dishware and the ingredients for a delicious meal. If I was lucky, a warm meal would already be waiting for me by the time I arrived!
Even something as simple as cutting fruit is a form of love that many Asians experienced growing up. My mom knew apples were my favorite fruit, so she’d use her paring knife and cut the skin off around the apple, so there was one long spiral at the end, and cut it into slices for me to eat easily with a toothpick as a snack.
Food-related compliments are also a form of love that I experienced. While chowing down, my mom would sit beside me, stroking my face and hair and say “Wow, you’re eating so well! You have a big appetite!” Complimenting my eating was my mom’s way of saying that she knew I was healthy enough to eat heartedly, that she was appreciative that I enjoyed her cooking, and that she was happy to be sharing a meal with me.
2. Gift giving
The typical form of gift giving was pretty rare when I was growing up. For birthdays or Christmases, I was never showered with gifts like many of my non-Asian classmates. Instead, on very special occasions, I was surprised with a very thoughtful, usually small gift from my parents. When I entered college, money became a more common gift. When I would drive back to college after visiting for a week or two, they’d call me while I was on the road or had arrived at college and tell me to check the glove compartment for the car manual booklet. When I flipped through the book, I found an envelope full of bills with a note that said to spend it wisely.
In Chinese culture, giving money is an important aspect of the Lunar New Year. For some Asian cultures, money is often seen as a sufficient, thoughtful gift for parents to give their children. It’s certainly more efficient, practical, and can provide positive money habits. I believe that unlike the American value of maximalism, many Asians who came to America didn’t have the luxuries of being wealthy, of having excess money to spend on gifts as much as they’d like, and for those who came as refugees, they were lucky to come with what little they could bring. It’s no wonder that because of this, their idea of gift giving stems from minimalism, and the greater thought behind the gift itself.
When I was growing up, it was no secret that I should be thankful for privileges, what other Americans would see as a given right, such as clothes, food, a warm bed at night, education. These were things that I was taught to be grateful for. There’s a tradition that’s becoming outdated in Korea - once a child grows up and gets their first job, their very first paycheck was traditionally given to their parents, or a very expensive gift purchased from it for their parents. In this way, people were able to reciprocate all that their parents had given them growing up.
3. Words of Affirmation
There were countless times in my childhood where I brought home a test or report card that I thought I did well on. I expected to hear praise, congratulations, and reassurance that I was doing a great job. However, it was quite often the opposite. I was always pushed to do even better next time. “Try to get an A+ next time, instead of an A.” “Make sure you study hard to get all A’s.”
While discouraging at the time, I can recognize now that those were my parents’ own form of words of affirmation.
Education and hard work were highly valued by my parents, and they wanted to share that with me.
By encouraging me to work harder and do even better next time, they were affirming that they believed I had the ability in me to excel in all that I do, not just academics.
While I didn’t often hear the words “I love you” being explicitly spoken, I sensed it in so many ways growing up. I could feel how much I was cared for when my mom made my favorite meal after a long drive, and when she patted me on the back while eating, with a smile on her face. When my parents helped pay my college tuition, and gave me extra spending money as a surprise. Because of my background, I’m able to recognize that love can come in so many forms, even more than the original five presented by Dr. Chapman.