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Love Through Actions


Guest article by Travis

Travis Lee ( is a current contributor to China expat blog Lost Laowai. He lived in Wuhan for two years, where he taught, studied and devoured copious amounts of 热干面 [hot dry noodles]. He currently resides in the United States.

Wo Ai Ni

My Chinese wife rarely says “wo ai ni” (“I love you”).

One day at dinner I remarked offhand that I had worn holes in a pair of socks. It was just one pair; God knew I had plenty more at home.

She showed up the next day with a new pair. Like I said, she rarely says “wo ai ni“.

Perhaps she doesn’t have to.


I once took a semester of Chinese classes. Paid the 8500 RMB tuition fee, this before I realized you could just find a classroom full of laowai, sit down and no one would care. I miss Wuhan.

But I took the class, and in the first lesson learned that ni hao = hello, complete with a conversation between two friends to demonstrate. In this same class, my teacher went on a mini-rant about how Chinese people really don’t say “ni hao” to each other. Maybe for strangers, but not to people they know. Certainly not friends or family. As for us foreigners, we get ni haos because, well, we’re foreigners. There’s no bigger mark of a stranger than being an outside-the-country person.

I’ve gotten plenty of ni haos in my time, along with “hello”, “how are you”, “where are you come from”, and from one freethinking guy, “I love you“. I guess he wanted to be different. Or maybe here it’s like ni hao: you can say it to strangers, not friends or family.

My wife has never said it to her parents. They’ve never said it to her. Growing up, I heard “I love you” plenty. My wife? When we were in her hometown, leaving her parents’ store one night, she remarked simply that we were going back. They responded with short hums. Then they turned to me, and offered a loud “wan an” each.

So I guess these things really are reserved for strangers.

Of course, they only said it because I said it to them first, and the only reason I said it to them was because I was used to saying it.

My wife isn’t used to saying it. Which raises the question: if she’s never heard her parents say “I love you”, then how does she know it?

From their actions.

Does it seem that simple? Let’s take a closer look: she knows they love her from the way they raised her, took care of her, give advice on what she should wear when it’s too hot or too cold, advice on what she should be doing, and miscellaneous advice on other matters. Their actions show that they love her. Perhaps you could say that’s how parents express love in China.

How about a husband?


When I was in China, she helped me out a lot. She did this not out of a sense of pity, or just to be polite, but rather, because I was her boyfriend. Her future husband.

She brought me medicine and food when I was sick, took care of me after a brutal rice wine hangover (if there’s another kind, I’ve like to know), and many, so many things to show her love that I’ve lost track. It’d be pointless anyways. I know she loves me. She’s shown it so much it’s a given.

When we were dating, she told me she thought I didn’t love her enough. At the time I wasn’t sure where she was coming from. Only later did I understand. Since that time I pay more attention to what I do.

It does not require jumping through hoops, or submission. This isn’t some sort of contest, nor is it about so-called Chinese love being somehow truer (i.e. better) than so-called Western love. It is not a dichotomy, no matter how good it may feel to believe that.

It’s simply about two people who love each other, in such a way that it needs not be spoken.

You know it through your actions.


My wife rarely says “wo ai ni”. She doesn’t have to. Her actions say it.

I just hope my actions say the same thing.

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5 comments to Love Through Actions
  • keius

    True enough. I’ve never actually heard anyone say “i love you” in Chinese. When me or the wife say it, it’s always in English, never Chinese.

  • TLB

    It may not *need* to be spoken, but I’ve never met anybody anywhere who didn’t enjoy hearing it expressed verbally as well as through other actions.

    I guess I’m lucky, my Chinese wife says it to me all the time (though I don’t think it means the same to her to say it — or hear it — as it would were she American). Maybe because she’s a Northerner and they’re supposed to be more verbally direct?

    Perhaps I’m just selfish — I love to love and be loved in as many ways as possible! :cool:

    Actually, her saying “I love you” (she does this both in Chinese and English) is, in my mind, a kind of double love action on her part, because she knows Westerners do this and she wants to make me happy. So she is expressing her love feelings (one kind of action) through words and also doing something she knows I like (another kind of action).

    In this way, also, we meet in *between* our cultures (and I have learned, as has Travis, to pay close attention and show caring in those little ways my wife likes).

    And such meeting is, for both of us, an act of love.

  • my boyfriend often says i love you in English and rarely in Chinese however that’s because i don’t speak Chinese so it would be just odd to switch to speaking in Chinese, I am sure if he was speaking in Chinese he would say the same things.Anyway I think actions speak louder than words sometimes. so its good to show that you love someone through acts of kindness and saying it

  • Kevin


    You wrote:

    “…nor is it about so-called Chinese love being somehow truer (i.e. better) than so-called Western love. It is not a dichotomy, no matter how good it may feel to believe that.”

    But a dichotomy is exactly what you’ve set up here, no, by discussing “saying it” vs. actions? I fail to see such a “one vs. the other” as anything but cultural relativism that attempts to undermine psychological universalism.

    I agree with your wife’s not often saying the words. As a Taiwanese woman once said to me, “Westerners throw these words on top of things like putting fudge sauce on a sundae.” But that’s an aesthetic argument, meaning there’s a world of difference between being sparing in saying the words and being afraid to say the words.

    Instrumental love is afraid to say the words other than as a license for control. Unconditional love is not afraid of the words – and the actions that back them up.

    Does unconditional love ever demand anything at all? Does it ever complain about what it’s not getting? I don’t mean it would never criticize behavior; rather, I mean would it ever do this in an effort to get something for the critic?

    The acid test, I would say, is whether the parents were afraid to say more than “wan an.” I’d say they were – or else they are very sub-par aesthetes. Because “wan an” at the end of the evening is a default statement extraordinaire. It’s so un-special, and no number of actions can make it special, the same as no number of expressions of love mean much when there’s a failure to show love through actions.

    How does culture enter in at all? At bottom, aren’t these only questions of fear vs. courage?

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