Parents Hurt Rather Than Love Their Children

In one of my English classes last week, the students wanted to talk about mǔqīn jié 母亲节, so I let them.

After a while, the discussion turned (I turned it) to whether the students had ever said “I love you” to their parents or heard their parents say “I love you” to them. The overwhelming majority said “no” to both. They said that they knew their parents love them because of all the sacrifices they’ve made, but they’ve never heard them say “I love you.”

I said, “But in songs it’s always ‘wǒ ài nǐ 我爱你 this’ and ‘wǒ ài nǐ 我爱你 that’, right?”

They agreed it’s common in songs, and lovers might say that occasionally to each other, but it’s rarely said between parents and children.

Then one student said, “My parents will say ‘wǒ hěn téng nǐ 我很疼你’, but never ‘wǒ hěn ài nǐ 我很爱你’.”

Ok, just to put closure on my cheap, shock-value title, “téng ” really does mean “to love” in addition to being the same character for “hurt” (although, I’m pretty sure it can’t be used transitively for “to hurt” the way I did in the title). What was interesting to me was: when I asked them in English “Do your parents say ‘I love you'”, they (most of them) shook their heads. But later when the student said her parents say ‘wǒ hěn téng nǐ 我很疼你’, they (most of them) agreed with that.

So, questions for the reader(s):

  1. What does that ‘wǒ hěn téng nǐ 我很疼你’ REALLY mean? Is it really just another way of saying “I love you”? If not, what’s the difference?
  2. (For our Chinese reader): How prevalent is this phenomenon? Is it true that parents prefer to use the word “téng ” over “ài ”?

If you’ve got answers or theories, please enlighten us.

14 Replies to “Parents Hurt Rather Than Love Their Children”

  1. Growing up in a Chinese household, and hearing how other parents express their love for their kids, I think teng is the preferred choice. I’m no expert, but I think “ai” is probably the reserved for the love expressed between husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, between “lovers.” Teng, to me, expresses and includes love, affection, and adoration.

  2. The way I understand it is it’s an abbreviation for 心疼. The idea being my heart hurts for you. Sacrifice and pain for another seems as good a definition as there is for love. However I’m not Chinese so ….

  3. 1.I think “wo hen teng ni” means “i really care about you”. It is another way of expressing your love, but less strong than “I love you”. I never heard people around me say “WO hen teng ni”, instead, they say “Your parents hen teng ni”, “He/She hen teng ni”, “Your boyfriend / husband hen teng ni”, “My brother / My cousin / My sister hen teng wo”. Or you can tell your kid by saying “Dad / Mom hen teng ni”. See, the third person is used as the subject. Plus the subject is usually male in describing a loving relationship, or an elder one in relationship among relatives.
    2. Yes, parents prefer to use “teng” over “ai”. Um…“prevalent”? Most of my friends’ parents did not say the word “teng” to them, not to mention “love”. Chinese parents show their love to children by actions cuz they are more introverted than the western counterparts. But I think as time passes by, our generation will say “I love you” more to our kids than our parents did.

  4. Your parents can teng you, but you can not teng your parents. You xiaojing your parents. Ai in Chinese has very different meanings than the word love in English.

  5. Here is what my wife had to say, when I sent her the link:

    It is an interesting observation. Yes, indeed, Chinese don’t say “I love you” to each other much at all. It seems in Chinese means a lot. It is not a word we would use casually. However, we tend to use English “I love you” to substitute the Chinese .
    It is also true that parents would say 我心疼你; 我疼你, 我疼爱你.
    — means that I love you so much that my heart even feels pain; I love you so much that I don’t mind sacrificing myself; etc. This is more used for elderly to younger generation.

  6. I should follow the above with a simple observation, for what it’s worth: Albert is in China now, whereas my wife came from Chang2sha1 (长沙) over 20 years ago. Language changes daily, or hourly.

    I mention this because I recently happened across a book, “Niu2bi1,” (牛屄; pardon me), a kind of dictionary of Chinese slang (some of it quite obscene, as you might guess from the title). While reading it, I wondered how current the phrases in the book really are, since dictionaries of English slang are outdated long before they ever hit the presses. Similarly, my wife has been here in the USA for so long that she may understand the use of the phrase in question a bit differently than does Albert, or others here, simply because of the passage of time.

  7. Bruce, above, states: “Your parents can teng you, but you can not teng your parents. You xiaojing your parents. Ai in Chinese has very different meanings than the word love in English.”

    I think this is a great comment and perfectly summarises this whole concept.

    It’s like the Chinese wondering: “Why don’t English speakers have just one word for 孝敬 or 孝顺.”

  8. Wonderful topic! To learn a language have to know the culture. “Love” in Chinese, similar in Japanese, has much narrower scope than in English.

  9. Many months late, but téng means more or less (I’m Chinese diaspora) to care for dearly, tenderly. English “tender” has a similar meaning; it can mean fondness, but it can also mean sore.

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