We Don’t Say “I Love You”

IMG_7560Some nights waves of nostalgia hit me.  I’ve been thinking about food and the meaning of food quite a bit lately, and it reminded me of an old blog post I wrote, 4 years ago…
March 15, 2012

Scooping out the rice from the rice cooker, the fresh jasmine aroma overwhelmed me with memories of my family…

~ ~ ~

“What did you eat today, koun (daughter)?” Mak asked over the phone.  

Living on campus during college, I didn’t have the freedom to cook. “Umm.. pasta,” I answered.

“Pasta?!?! But that’s not rice. You’re going to go hungry, you need rice,” Mak advised.

“Mak- pasta is okay too…it’s still a carbohydrate, it gives you energy the same way.”

She probably didn’t know what a carbohydrate was…Who are you to act like you’re smarter than your mother?!

Instead, she replied, “It’s not the same.”

~ ~ ~

At the dinner table, about 10 years ago, we all sat wide eyed, staring at my sister’s rice bowl.

“Why aren’t you eating anything with it?!” Mak looked bewildered and a bit insulted. Steaming hot entrees sat in the center of the table, all to accompany the rice.  Mak and Ba always cooked fresh meals, every night.

“I am. I put salt on it.” My little sister leaned over her bowl, and shoved a spoonful of salt-sprinkled-rice into her mouth.

Our eyes followed.

She swallowed, then frowned. “It doesn’t taste that good.” She released her spoon from her hand and set it in the bowl. “I’ve been reading this book about a Khmer girl living in the labor camps during the Khmer Rouge. She said something like eating salt on top of rice… tastes like heaven. Is this what heaven is supposed to taste like?!”

As Mak and Ba listened, their demeanor changed.  The gates guarding their dark memories of genocide had slowly lifted.  Temporarily.

“Koun (daughter)… it tastes like heaven.. if you have nothing else to eat. Like Mak… Mak had nothing to eat. I wasn’t even lucky enough to get rice. I was only given water with a few grains of rice in it.”

“Oh,” her eyes lowered.  So this is why Mak and Ba never take food for granted.  Learning about our parent’s starvation, we lost our appetites.

“Nyam bay, koun (eat rice, daughters),” they encouraged, heaping meat and vegetables into our bowls.

~ ~ ~

“We don’t say I love you,

we say, are you hungry…?”

-“Cold” by Magnetic North &  Taiyo Na

This song resonates deep within me.  I have never heard my parents say, I love you.

As I whiffed the sweet scent of rice this evening, I was reminded that though I may never hear such words of affection, but the people whom I love- I know how they like their rice.

When Mak cooks rice, it’s always the perfect consistency: never too wet, nor too dry. Mak always prefers freshly cooked rice. Warm, from the rice cooker.

Ba always taught me to stir the rice in the pot after its been cooked, so the grains don’t stick to the bottom. Ba will eat Bai Kok (“frozen rice” in Khmer, aka leftover rice) so we never waste food.  Hot or cold, he never complains.

My sister and sister-in-law like rice, but prefer noodles if they have the option.

Mom (my mother-in-law) likes her rice steamed with dried shrimp on top.

Dad (my father-in-law) likes rice, but especially likes Shanghainese rice cakes.

When they weren’t working, my parents spent all their time in the kitchen, cooking for us. My parents-in-law too..they cooked, even if they didn’t like cooking, and even if it hurt to stand too long in the kitchen.


These feelings, they linger.

I wish to break free, be more bold. Be bold enough to shout aloud, “Mak, Ba, I miss you! I love you!! Mom, Dad, I miss you!! I love you!!” Yet it doesn’t come out. The words are frozen inside… solid.




Until I become less of a coward, to speak how I really feel…

I resolve to learn to cook better,

and, perhaps, more often.

19 thoughts on “We Don’t Say “I Love You”

  1. Thank you for re-sharing you past post.

    Beautiful and emotional words and thoughts…

    I never met your parents, but seeing as a representative of them, I’m certain they are quite special.

    The sorrow of physical life is that it one day comes to an end, which means eventually having to say goodbye to those we love, but their spirit lives on in all those whose lives they touched – and we carry the torch they gave us to pass on to future generations.

    • Aww thanks so much soulfire! Yes I’m very thankful for my parents, they taught me so much that it’s difficult to iron out into words… I try but think I fail more often than succeed at conveying the wisdom they have taught me.

      You leave me with such great words of truth- it is a bittersweet sorrow- to eventually say goodbye, but to also carry that torch. That torch lends hope though, right? πŸ™‚

  2. This post struck a chord with me. The other day, my Chinese-Malaysian mum made rice in the rice cooker but it came out lukewarm that day. Dad wasn’t very happy about it and voiced his displeasure…and I think I know why now after reading your post. A long time ago, my parents did it all hard, living in rundown shop houses and food was hard to come by. I suppose dad saw the lukewarm rice as a waste of rice in a sense.

    It is so true some parents don’t ever say “I love you” out loud, either to themselves or to their kids. Generally they prefer to show love through their actions, by giving and sharing with others – just like how you perfectly said in this post πŸ™‚

    • Thanks for sharing this interaction with your parents! Yeah a lot of times we see these nuances daily so they seem normal to is but we may not completely understand its meaning- it took me so many years to figure this out, and this particular post I only came to write after listening to that song (linked at the end of the post). Yeah, maybe your dad grieved the loss of good rice since it wasn’t made the way he liked; maybe you can ask him more about his tough times and what it was like for h then. It’s then that we understand the preciousness of rice to our families . πŸ™‚ I’d be interested in hearing more about our parents stories!

  3. I love the entry. It’s amazing how something seems so simple can be the foundation of a family’s bond. I remember the first time I claimed credit for cooking rice. I just pressed the button on the rice cooker. Eventually though, I graduated to washing the rice without spilling any of it out and figuring how much water to put in.

    Rice is my addiction. I even have rice with rice noodles and fried rice. I’ve cut back on my doctor’s advice to watch my blood sugar.

    • Lol! I love how you bring up your first time cooking rice- it is like a rite of passing- I am not that good at it either, I can’t always get the amount of water perfect! I always make it too dry or too watery. Lol- you are definitely a rice bucket! Have you tried brown rice? It has more nutrients than white rice.

      • I do eat brown rice. It has the same amount of carbs but it does have more nutrients and fiber. But I do like white rice better.

        Believe it or not, I sometimes forget to push the button to cook the rice. So my food will be ready while I wait for the rice to cook… it drives me crazy.

  4. As always, love your writing, insights and shares. Plus, I love rice! If it was rice versus noodles, rice would win, chopsticks down. It’s funny, we’re not a “I love you” family either, but talking long distance so often since college, I broke the ice and now we say it quite easily before we get off the phone.

  5. The first time I cooked stew for my Chinese husband he complained that I hadn’t cooked rice. “But we have potatoes,” I said. He looked at me as though I were crazy. Potatoes aren’t rice.

    When I was studying Chinese, I had learned to say, How are you? Good morning, and good evening. So I asked my husband what was most common way simply to say hello. “We don’t say hello,” he said. We say, ‘Have you eaten rice?'”

    • I know right? In Asian cultures since rice is the staple, then any other food cannot substitute- it’s just ingrained that way. And indeed, in Chinese and Khmer and other Asian languages the standard greeting is often “did you eat rice yet?” your husband taught you well!

  6. Ah. I’m starting to see how Asian cultures are so much alike. We also greet each other with, “Have you eaten?” instead of “Hello”. I thought only Myanmar people do that. It’s always very touching and thought provoking to read your posts. It’s not common in our family to say ” I love you ” either despite the closeness. We’re probably too shy to say that word?
    Personally, I prefer noodles too. I eat rice on a daily basis, but I always choose to eat noodles or vermicelli whenever I’m eating out.

    • Yes! It’s so interesting to see how Asian cultures are so similar. I do agree it’s probably cultural and it may or may not be shyness, but just a different way one cultures expresses themselves. Like for example in English there’s only one word for rice but in Khmer there’s a different word for every stage in rice cultivation!

      So thankful for your comment and readership, and to learn more about Myanmar and its culture too. πŸ™‚

  7. i think it is heavily engrained in all of us, asians. how can the children learn to feel comfortable saying it out loud, when they never even heard it spoken out loud by their parents?

  8. Burmese here. My family don’t say I love you too. But I have started saying it a few years ago and on occasions my parents have said it well more so my mom.

    I think it’s an Asian custom to show love by asking someone are you hungry or would you like some food?

    • Very cool… we are fellow Southeast Asian Amerians =)

      That’s awesome you started saying it. It’s awkward for me to say it; I realize it might be more beneficial for me to just learn to cook better. =)

      • Haha. You are probably right about the cooking part.
        Ah that is something I need to work…cooking…oh the patience needed for it.

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