Saying “I love you” is not something I grew up with. It didn’t end our conversations, console our boo boos or send us off to school. Perhaps it is the nature of my parents, perhaps it is cultural. Koreans don’t express affection that way. Phone calls end with the words “hang up”, seriously, that is the literal translation. But this is entirely normal. This is what I knew, this is what my Korean friends knew.

This was such the norm that when in our early days of dating I overheard a conversation between Anthony and his Dad end with “I love you” I thought it was odd. How American of them.

Then I had children. I found myself saying “I love you” as I kissed their tiny toes, as I changed a stinky diaper, as they took their first steps, each and every time they smiled. As they grow older these words tuck them into bed every night, they accompany every hug and kiss, every insecure moment, every farewell. They take comfort in hearing these words and offer it in response naturally. This is their normal. I like this normal.

If I can endlessly profess my love for my children, why not to my parents? So I tried. I remember my first phone conversation with my Mother, we were wrapping up and she was ready to end it with her usual “hang up” when I said the three words, or actually in Korean it’s one word. There was a pause, she was confused. I had just served my lactose intolerant Mother a piece of cheese. She sniffed suspiciously, what was my reason? Was I sick? Did I need money? She deliberated and then hesitantly took a bite, she repeated the one word back to me. Later that night these words would haunt her, was her youngest dying?

Now I say it to my Mother regularly; she responds with a giggle, the novelty still not worn off, and hugs me warmly and fiercely and says it back, with a giggle.

So recently I tried to test it out on my Dad. Now this is my Dad, a very traditional Korean patriarch. Raising four girls forced him to soften, a bit. Then the grand kids came along, eleven in total, and he soon found himself accepting germy kisses accompanied by snotty noses. Couple that with the overall effect of aging and I figured he was ready. But when I said the words he acknowledged them with an awkward hug and nod. He’s working on it, I think.

These words, so simple and natural to some, carry so much weight. These words express gratitude. When we say “I love you” we are in fact saying “Thank you for thinking I’m clever and talented and beautiful and always defending me against all those that don’t, please always stay, you are my cheerleader, my bodyguard, my comfort, with you I beam and radiate confidence.”

I exchange these words with my friends, including them in texts, emails and cards. Some embrace it and effortlessly and naturally repeat it quickly and often. Some are slowly graduating from “luv ya” to “love ya” to “love you” and will eventually find the right reason to say “I love you”.


Exchanging Valentines