Hugging wasn’t a thing in my childhood in Hong Kong. When I saw my grandmother, I just shook her hand. In fact, I never hugged anyone until I was 13, when I came to America. The concept of hugging was so foreign to me that I had to study how other people hugged to understand the mechanics of wrapping your arms around someone. Was I supposed to put both arms over the shoulder? Both arms around the belt? One up and one down? It was a confusing time in my life.
When I finally mustered the courage to hug this girl in school, I’m pretty sure I forearmed her in the face. Yet these days, I’m recklessly hugging everyone, with complete disregard, and hopefully fewer injuries. I hug my friends, I hug people I’ve just met, I hug the UPS man if he delivered a cool package. (Even if he delivers toilet paper, I still give a quick hug.)
Most of my friends have at least two dating apps on their phones. One friend is having lots of success on Plenty of Fish, another had her heart broken twice by different guys from Bumble, and I have gathered a database of nightmare stories from my own Tinder dates.
I once matched with a woman whose job description was “social influencer.” Deep down I knew this probably meant she was unemployed with 50,000 Instagram followers — some of them real — but I gave it a shot. I took her out to Dave & Busters so if the date went south, I could still enjoy myself playing Mario Kart (a series of go-kart-style racing video games, in case you don’t know).
Throughout the date, she kept having me take videos of her for her Instagram story. “OK, do one like that but turn the phone the other way.” “Let’s do one with the puppy face filter!” “OK, get one of me playing Mario Kart.” I’m not your cameraman! I want to play Mario Kart, too! I would have walked out if I hadn’t just invested $30 in my Dave & Buster’s game card. Priorities.
We never got to know each other, but that didn’t seem to be an impediment to her, at least not on social media. The next day I saw a post on her Instagram of her playing Mario Kart, with the caption “I love it when bae takes you out for game night.” Um, what? I definitely was not her “bae” and we have never spoken since. As Justin Bieber would say, “Baby you should go and love yourself.”
The rampant spread of ‘I Love You’
In many Asian cultures, people rarely, if ever, utter the words “I love you.” But in America “I love you” can be used as an endearing greeting from lovers, as a supportive term from parents to their children and even as a casual goodbye to friends: “That was an amazing brunch, let’s do it again soon. I love you, bye!”
American culture is just much more intimate than what I was used to growing up.
If I said “I love you” to my parents, they would probably think that I’m crazy or that I have terminal cancer. I have said it to my friends sometimes, in a drunk-guy-at-the-bar way. “Hey, I love you, bro, you’re awesome, man.” And I have said it to one girl, but to be honest I’m not sure I meant it — it just seemed like the right answer at the moment.
She was wonderful, and two months into our relationship she told me, “I really like you.” I said, “I really like you too.” Then she said, “I really, really like you,” and looked into my cornea. And I said, “Yes, I really, really like you too!” Frustration came over her and she pushed on: “No! I mean, like, I really, really, really like you!” Aha — I finally realised what she meant, so I gave her the answer she was looking for: “Oh yeah, I love you.”
That was a regrettable mistake from this naive people pleaser. We eventually broke up because we both realised I didn’t mean that.
So what does it really mean to say “I love you?” Does it mean nothing more than “You’re cool”? Or is it actually a magical phrase?
I asked my 70-year-old Chinese father, “Dad, why don’t we ever say ‘I love you’?” And he said, “We don’t have to always say I love you, it’s understood.” Maybe he’s right.
Jimmy O. Yang is an actor, a comedian and the author of How to American.