This phrase—“I love you”—is as foreign to me as kissing scenes in Bollywood flicks. It has not been a part of my world for 21 years and I don’t see it making a splashy entrance any time soon. I am not referring to the “I love you” ardently uttered in the throes of passion, or the sweetly spoken “I love you” exchanged between a couple over a candlelit four-course meal.
I am discussing the “I love you” articulated by a father to his daughter and a mother to her son; the “I love you” that drifts gently down from a grandmother’s lips to her grandchild’s newborn form. This is the “I love you” that matters the most and sustains people through generations of tragedy, family conflict, and strife. This is the “I love you” missing from my life, and I can only speculate as to why.
I am a South Asian female, born and raised in America by parents who immigrated here 27 years ago. My background is as mixed and varied as the Bengal River—I seemingly have two homes and two identities that push and pull me to act differently in certain situations. This is a typical second-generation dilemma that affects immigrants from Palo Alto to Pensacola. Being a South Asian American results in a smorgasbord of culture and traditions, adopted from the West and East.
However, putting culture aside, when searching for the essence of a human being of any color or creed, one emotion is at the core: love. Love is the foundation of every human being on this earth, whether you are South Asian, European, American, or African. Love ignores geographical barriers and cultural constraints.
In America, love is expressed fully—with specific incantations and words: I—love—you. It is emblazoned on postcards, balloons, 10-foot billboards, and is celebrated as a national holiday. The highest grossing movie of all time is still the romantically whimsical Titanic. Turn on the radio and you are bombarded with songs like Mariah Carey’s chart-busting “We Belong Together” and Bow Wow’s “Let Me Hold You.” And don’t get me started on the endless deluge of reality-TV shows—the latest being Hooking Up—that all promise true love. Love is part of American culture, almost overwhelmingly so.
Back in Bangladesh, my parents were not raised with the idea that love needs to be physically demonstrated. A hug is no proof of affection; a kiss doesn’t indicate a connection between two people. This is a product of their upbringing and dare I say, of South Asian heritage. Of course, every South Asian family is different in the way they express affection, and I cannot generalize. As for my family, I believe my parents may have roamed this earth for 50 years without ever hearing “I love you” from their family. I do not know if they have even exchanged those words privately with one another.
As much as I have rationalized all of this, I still resent it. It makes me yearn for warm hands easily thrown around my neck, a soft squeeze on my shoulder, a gentle pat on the back spelling out one’s love. I was raised in America, amid the thousands of “I love you” that shower down like raindrops. Somehow, they do not reach me but I hear them falling around me just the same.
I know I am loved. My parents made many sacrifices to raise my three siblings and me in America. As I grow older, I am more and more aware of what their love drove them to do, how it kept them going when their limbs and eyes yearned to rest. Furthermore, I am proud to be part of a culture that emphasizes family responsibility, where it is second nature for my parents to take care of their elders and extended family, financially and emotionally. If this isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
As I grow older, I try harder to accept that a simple, three-word phrase is nothing compared to actions, and demonstrating physical affection is not the only sign of a warm, feeling heart. I, in turn, try to freely use the phrase with friends and family, but for some reason it comes out chokingly. My older sister throws the phrase around without hesitation. I, on the other hand, find myself only being able to say two-thirds of it; I utter a garbled “love you” at the end of our daily phone conversations, and even then, each word is wrenched from my lips as if I am terribly afraid of their aftermath. Forget saying it to my parents. It is safer to say it to my friends, but only after they have initiated it. I wonder if I will follow in the footsteps of generations of Ibrahims before me, who generously shower their acts of love, yet never declare it for the world to hear. And this bothers me.
In this situation, I believe the best solution is to change oneself and strive to become more open and affectionate, and to realize that when two cultures mesh, you can pick and choose the best part of each to create the type of personality you want. Because I am South Asian, I value the lifelong responsibilities that come with loving my family. Because I am American, I realize the importance of expressing this with more than just actions.
For now, I take small steps towards change. A character in my favorite book, in the company of others, is always seen with his arm around someone. The moment I read that passage, I began to emulate his behavior, and I now link hands with those around me, touch the small of my father’s back as if to ease his stress, and tap my little sister’s head in annoyed affection (she is a true punk). This is difficult for me, but I try to make it natural.
“I love you.”
I need to hear those words, and I need to say them; I do not want to live my life without them.
Mahin Ibrahim is a recent graduate from U.C. Berkeley and one of her biggest wishes in life is to make her parents happy.