I forget how, but I came across this writing prompt last week for Mandarin speakers / bilingual people about the word 疼：
“Consider the word 疼 (Mandarin pronunciation: téng), how it can mean “to feel (physically) hurt, “to be sore,” or “to love fiercely and dearly.” When has someone in your life said that they 疼 you? What was the occasion for this saying, this sharing? 我疼你—did this utterance feel similar to someone saying 我愛你 or “I love you”? Or did it feel different? Different how so?”
I thought that this was a beautiful prompt. I can’t think of a time anyone has ever said that they 疼 me, but I’ve felt it many, many, many times; it’s so familiar that I can instantly recall the exact moments when I’ve felt it. Like many Asian kids, I rarely heard “I love you” growing up, and I rarely say it now, finding it awkward and weird and uncomfortable. For some reason, I feel like “I love you” doesn’t do justice to what I really want to convey, which is really “I love you so hard that it hurts,” and that’s where 疼 is perfect.
I once wrote a letter to my grandma the day before I was leaving Shenyang again. Using the shitty Chinese I’d cobbled together from years of Sunday Chinese School and rewatching 流星花园 for the billionth time, I tried to express how much I loved her. “我不想走,” I wrote, “我不想离开你. 我每天想陪着你.” (I’d learned 陪 from 流星雨, obviously). I tried so hard to express in my non-native tongue that there was no one in the world I loved more than her, and I left it by her pillow so she could find it after I’d left.
She had, of course, read it by the time I’d landed back in Chicago. “然然啊, 姥姥看到你写的信了,” she started, and then her voice broke at the exact same time as my heart, both of us missing the other so hard across the ocean that the pain was palpable. “姥姥想你,” she’d manage to squeeze out, and I could only grunt in return, afraid that she’d hear me crying, even though I knew she knew. This was 疼, manifested; “to love fiercely and dearly,” and even though my grandmother and I have never told each other “I love you,” I have never wondered, because my heart hurt, and that is how I knew.
This is why I find the Chinese language so beautiful: I love these words and phrases that convey a million feelings in one, that define a depth that I struggle to capture in English, even though I’m much more fluent in the latter. It’s because one word might be positive or negative but also both; concise characters packed with meaning lived by thousands of years of humans. English is the language of my head; I use it to describe and explain and summarize; I am by far a better speaker and writer in English. But especially throughout this past (almost) year in Taiwan, I have realized: Chinese is the language of my heart. It’s where my thoughts and feelings are expressed most purely, as if I were a child, but with the layers of nuance that come from a life thoroughly lived.
I’ve struggled with language since moving to Taiwan, especially when it comes to work, because I just sound less eloquent and less smart in Chinese, an inconvenient handicap especially when it comes to client work. I hate social situations where I have to choose between being annoying (“What’s 甘拜下風?”) or being awkward (because I just can’t understand the conversation). Despite this, I genuinely love learning more Chinese, and I’ve found a whole new love language in the form of friends who know me well enough to know which words I won’t know (and auto-translate without me even asking. You are the true MVPs).
But tonight, after reflecting on 疼, I feel quite differently. As I sit here listening to all the Mandopop songs playing in this neighborhood craft beer bar, I understand better why I love listening to Taiwanese artists, and why I love going to KTV to sing Chinese songs: it’s because I literally feel more in Mandarin. Words like 疼 pull my heartstrings viscerally; the language of my childhood, the language of my family, the language of love. And while this isn’t enough to optimize my professional experience, it is exactly enough for my personal experience: every day that I prance around saying little things like “开心” or “怎么办“ or even “不要!!!”, I feel so genuinely, inexplicably me.
I rarely say “I love you,” and I’m not sure that I’ll ever say “我爱你” – Chinese or not, I personally find explicitly expressing this to be somehow lacking. But I’m so grateful for Chinese words like 疼 and others like it that help me to perfectly encapsulate this feeling, to express a love that’s powerful and pure and maybe even painful. And right on cue, as I finish this post, 刻在我心低的名字 just came on here in the bar – an excellent way, I think, to wrap up love in the language of my heart.