I’ve written previously about number slang used for texting in China – such as 520 meaning “I love you” (520 wǔ èr líng / 我爱你 wǒ ài nǐ). That makes today a big day for romance in China’s internet world – May 20 = 5 20 = 520 = I love you. It’s like an internet age Valentine’s Day – making three lovers’ days in China! (February 14th has gained some traction, and there is a traditional festival later in the year known in English as “Chinese Valentine’s Day” which I’ll explain some other time).
In my previous post there were several number phrases to do with love-y stuff, probably in part because Chinese typically are very indirect in saying these things out loud. There’s been a growing push in China to encourage people to say “我爱你” (I love you) out loud, to their children, their parents – any loved ones. I saw a community service announcement type video about it not long before I left. There are lots of images for May 20 (520) with slogan such as “say in a loud voice ‘I love you'” or “say ‘I love you’ out loud”.
As with many “ordinary” words (like please, thank you, and water) the phrase “I love you” is used very differently in Chinese than in English. Chinese people don’t often say “I love you” straight out. I know a few mixed marriages in which the Chinese partner says “I love you” to their partner in English but never in Chinese, even when the partner is bilingual. For many the phrase 我爱你 just feels/sounds wrong. It is sung in songs but rarely said in person. There is a Chinese game called “are you normal?” where contestants are asked if certain statements are true. A year ago they used the statement “77% of parents have never said ‘I love you’ to their children” – and called it true.
Last year a provincial television station in Anhui came out with a video of Chinese young adults saying “I love you” to their parents – and the parents’ shocked reactions! It went viral, and there are lots of articles about it in both English and Chinese (here’s one in English). In most cases the children say they’re calling because they have something to tell their parents, then say “I love you”. Many of them have a look on their face akin to someone making a prank call or pulling a practical joke – the bated-breath anticipation of what will surely be a funny response. The typical response from parents initially is a stunned silence as they try to work out what their kid wants. It makes no sense in their cultural context for a child to call them up and say “I love you”. We hear fourteen parents respond, something like this:
- “What? What?” [laughter]
- “What do you mean? Do you need money?”
- “There’s something wrong with you.”
- “Are you in Wuhan? Here’s your mother.”
“Are you in Wuhan?” [I guess Wǔ hàn and wǒ ài do sound somewhat similar…]
- Answers in English: “Me too”
- Daughter: “I received my bonus yesterday, when I get home I’ll give it to you”
Mother: “Such small change, you just keep it.”
- “Ohh, what’s wrong, are you drunk?”
- Daughter: “I love you”
Mother: “I love you too”
Daughter: “I really love you!”
Mother: “I love you more!”
- “You’re acting, you’re acting. Did the sun come out today?”
- “Are you pregnant?”
- “Thank God, Jesus loves you, Mum loves you more.”
- [Son says “I love you” and that he’s sending his parents on a holiday]
Mother: “You’ve grown up, I feel very comforted.”
- “Thank you! I’m so happy. This is the best thing to happen all year.”
I came across a great post recently – called How to say “I love you” in Chinese. Actually. – which does a great job of explaining the whole thing, including the substitution of strings of numbers to express feelings that aren’t commonly put into words. Of course Chinese parents love their children, but (just like with please and thank you) the manner in which they express it differs.
A company that install in-floor heating capitalised on the way Chinese show love in a long video ad about parents and children – how a parent shows love to a child when they are small, and how a grown up child shows love to a parent (you can see it here). It plays on the concept of “warmth”, and in the end a grown son has a floor heating unit installed for his mother. These sorts of long, touchy-feely ads are not uncommon in China. Now that I think about it, it makes sense. If love is shown through action, especially gifts, reminding adults how much their parents did for them must be a pretty strong purchase motivator!