Throughout my 26 years of life, it was not very often that I heard my parents say the three simple words - “I love you”. Not to us kids, and least of all to each other. It was an 'Asian thing' - a universal but unspoken rule.
When I went to my friend's house to play, I would be greeted by words of endearment such as 'dear', 'darling' or 'sweetheart'. On the occasions I slept over, I would even receive a goodnight kiss on the forehead by my friend's mother. These small acts of affection seemed to fly so casually in a white household that it made me question whether my family was normal. Did my parents not love me?
My parents were never home much. They owned two busy restaurants and it was normal for us to have dinner way past our bedtime. Actually, we didn't even have a bedtime. As the oldest, it was my responsibility to keep my younger siblings from ripping each other apart, and from burning down the house. My number one priority was to finish Mum's never-ending to-do list, while my best friend Rachel only had to make sure she didn't break her arm jumping from a tree onto the trampoline, again.
The contrast between mine and the other kids' afternoon routines was so drastic that it was a no brainer - my parents didn't care about me, they just wanted to me to do shit.
I decided to run away from home and my involuntary and unwanted responsibilities. Of my three attempts to run away, the longest I lasted was 6 hours to my friend's house, one street away. There was no way my parents were going to find me. They didn't even correctly remember the name of my friends, let alone where they lived.
To my surprise, they did find me - eating chips by the swimming pool in my friend's enormous backyard. I still remember Dad's smile of relief at the door, followed by the huge scolding when I got in the car right after. Amidst my slobbery and snotty apology, my dad told me it was okay, and that there were dumplings for dinner. They were good.
As I got older, there were more moments when I had wished I was part of a white family, free of expectation, older sibling duty and hours of cello practice. We were never given pocket money. But we could just take what we needed from the reserve bank - the underwear draw in my parents’ bedroom. Between family, you never really had to pay off your debts, but it meant you owed them eternal favours. This is the way of the Chinese.
It wasn't until I reached adulthood, that I appreciated the many upsides to 'the Chinese way', and the hardships my parents endured as immigrants to give us the best they could provide. Their 'I love you' was working extra jobs to pay for our ball dress. It was the best way they could convey it. To them, words of endearment were not going to pay for our music tuition. Neither was a goodnight kiss. Coddling was definitely not going to. They wanted us to be prepared and ready for whatever society was going to dish out. But they showed the way, as they were always ready to be there for us.