Lessons Learned: We don’t say “I love you”– lessons on love

There’s a movie I want to watch with my mom. It came out early last year, 2022. It’s called “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” On second thought, I think she’d hate it. The main characters are all Chinese. There are moments when they speak to each other in Chinese as well. And she would definitely disapprove of the daughter. She’s rebellious. She talks back, has tattoos and is gay.

She’s just like me.

But my mom doesn’t know that. She thinks I’m her smart, hardworking son who will go to college and get a degree, get a well paying job and let her finally retire. And she thinks that all her efforts paid off. That she raised me well and her sacrifice – immigrating to the United States – was well worth it. And one day, I’ll give her many grandchildren to call her own. But I won’t. I’m not. I’m not who she thinks I am. But she doesn’t know that. I’m sorry I’ve kept it a secret for so long. And I’m sorry that I will continue to keep it, because I’m not sure if she would ever accept me after finding out. I’m not sure if she could still call me her son. If she could still love me as your son. Because in this house, we don’t say “I love you.”

In October 2020, I adopted an orange cat, a silly little boy named Leo. He taught me unconditional love. That little asshole has bitten and scratched me, covering me in cuts and scars, but how could I be mad at him? In his tiny single little brain cell, all he wants to do is play. And so he plays with sharp teeth and equally sharp claws. And I could never be mad at him for that. Because he does not understand what it is to hurt others – the way you, me and everyone else does. Because that’s what people do. We hurt each other.

Love hurts. I’ve spent much of my life believing my parents didn’t love me. You know, during the pandemic, I took the year off from school. I was home with my mom, dad and sister. Every. Single. Day. And, God, did it drive me insane. But in that broken little home, we learned (or rather relearned) how to love, and it was the silly orange kitty that taught us.

My parents were not happy when I brought Leo home — but it was too late. I paid for all his vet bills and his supplies. So they let me keep him, and before I knew it, Leo was no longer mine, but my family’s. My mom, who did not love me, showed so much affection to Mr. Leo. Mr. Leo who would sleep beside her every night. She tells me that Leo is my older brother, reincarnated from when she miscarried before me. My dad kisses Leo on his silly little head every morning before heading off to work. My absent dad, who never once showed me an ounce of affection.

And it’s not fair.

Why was it that my parents, who never loved me, showed so much love and affection to my cat? I guess it’s because people change. It’s gradual, but they change. And the way they show love changes as well. In the years since I’ve left home, I learned that love is so much more than uttering the words “I love you.” Love is in everything we do. And it looks different for everyone.

When I was a child, love was parental neglect. My parents were never home because they loved me. They never spent time with me because they loved me. Because they were too busy living paycheck-to-paycheck, too busy trying to keep food on the plate and a roof above my head, to tell me they love me. So in my house, we don’t say “I love you.” My mom says “I love you” when she cuts fruit for me while I study. She says it in the cuts on her hands. My dad says “I love you” in the silence when he drives me to school in the mornings. For 12 years, he had been saying “          .”  

My parents said “I love you” with clenched fists and raised hands because my parents did not know better. Because no one told them that violence would only breed resentment and fear. But that’s what they were taught. So in the only way they knew how, they said “I love you.” Again. And again. And again. Until blood had been spilt and tears had been shed. And I was too young, too naive to know it then. 

I can’t say I forgive my parents for what they’ve done. They’ve given me a lifetime of mommy and daddy issues. But I’m trying. I want to. Because they did the best with what they knew, with what they’ve been taught. So “I love you” is violence and discipline. It is pain and suffering, backed with good intentions. So in my household, we don’t say “I love you.” Because it hurts too much to say it.

So don’t say “I love you.”

Man Truong is a junior writing on reflections made in life. In a world full of different personal beliefs and philosophies, he makes sense of it in his column, “Lessons Learned.”