In my family, love came in the form of sliced fruit. Plates of peeled apples cut into five exact chunks appeared at my elbow during late nights of studying, cubed cantaloupe when I read in the living room, quartered persimmons silently placed beside my bed. Love also came in the form of music on Sunday mornings. Some families had church; we had Celine Dion and Amy Winehouse. Some of my first memories are of sunlight dripping like honey through blinds as music filled our small San Francisco apartment. Love is expressed through many things in my home, but like many other Asian American families, it was almost never said through the words “I love you.”
I can count the number of times my dad has said the words “I love you” on one hand, and the number of times I’ve said it to him on two. What’s more, I’ve always been the one to initiate saying so, and even still, it never feels quite right. The words sit awkwardly, heavily on my tongue, always with a slight pause as I rehearse them in my mind before pushing through as casually as I can. Love in my Chinese family never seemed to work out like it’s portrayed on American television. The phrase “I love you” felt like it belonged only to the White people on screen.
Love for my family is many things, but most importantly, love in my family is secrets. For many years, I thought I had a conventional upbringing. My family gave my sister and me more independence than most Chinese parents ever would. We lived in suburbia and had the traditional nuclear family—it doesn’t really matter if I never said “I love you” to my dad, right?
Secret #1. My parents are divorced.
They’ve been divorced since I was three. And while 40 to 50 percent of couples in the United States are divorced, and the arrangement has become increasingly common, it’s certainly not common for those divorced couples to live together and tell their children they’re still married for ten years. Even now, my mom still introduces my dad as her husband to everyone we meet. I found out my parents were divorced when I was 13. My mom was filling out some government forms, and she marked a small “x” across the box that read “single.” When my sister and I tried to correct her mistake, her only response was, “No, it’s right.” She continued on as if nothing had happened.
Secret #2. My dad remarried. Twice.
After learning about the divorce, I made my peace with it and sometimes even forgot about it entirely. It’s easy to forget when they feed lies about their marriage to everyone they meet, when I feed the same lie to my friends. When you grow up Asian American, you spend most of your life clinging onto what society deems normal because you’re caught between two cultures. I clung onto my parents’ marriage like that, because losing it meant losing one more thing that made me feel like I fit in. Maybe it would have been easier to face the truth if they were truly separated, I thought.
My sister was different. Instead of accepting the lies, she dug. And three years ago, she discovered two marriage certificates in my dad’s file cabinets. She kept it a secret. A painful secret that slowly ate away at her and developed into an eating disorder and insomnia. A secret whose effects I never noticed, too distracted by my impending college applications.
I was in Hong Kong when I unknowingly met my dad’s wife. I was tired and sticky from the humidity and, at that point, had met too many aunties and uncles to care about this lady that seemed to tag along on our every excursion. I left Hong Kong still oblivious. One year later, my family told me the truth.
Secret #3. They do it out of love.
Every parent tells their children white lies. They spin tales about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and they do this to preserve the innocence of childhood. Likewise, the secrets of my parents’ marriage were kept so that my sister and I could have some semblance of an easy and normal childhood. Even my sister refused to share her burden with me for a year so that I wouldn’t be distracted from my college applications.
When these secrets came out, I became cognizant that my parents aren’t just my parents, but people, too. They have their own lives, their own childhoods. The day I found out about my dad’s third marriage, I felt betrayed. I remember being wrapped up in a blanket, pushing myself into the corner of the sofa as I tried to come to terms with the feeling that I didn’t really know my parents. That despite them being there for me every single day of my life, my dad had built an entirely secret one on a different continent. Next to me was a plate of sliced oranges.
My family history is one that I am still afraid to tell my closest friends back home. But it’s also one that I’m tired of keeping hidden just because it’s unconventional. Every family has their own unique problems, but one thing holds true throughout them, especially among Asian families: love is shown through sacrifice. Not the kind that people dangle before you, expecting something in return, but the kind of sacrifice that is silent. Asian Americans show their love in the spaces between harsh words and in cut fruit, in the ever-loaded question, “have you eaten yet?” By bundling their children up even when it’s too warm, by placing the first and last dumplings in a basket on our plates during Sunday dim sum. But more importantly, Asian American parents love by tending to their own personal problems as silently as they can.
I often think back to my high school nights, staying up past 3AM finishing homework and projects, to plates of kiwis, lychees, and grapes—I’m proud of you. I go back to arguments followed by bowls of watermelons and mangoes—I’m sorry. Back to all the papayas, pineapples, and pears smattered across my childhood—I love you.
My family loves silently with a fierce sense of loyalty and protection. And the more I have struggled to reconcile the Western concepts of love I’m surrounded by with the Eastern one I grew up with, the more I realized I shouldn’t have to. My family’s love is held in silence and in sliced fruit, in music and secrets—it’s stronger than any “I love you” could ever be, and for now, that’s enough for me.