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Spill the Chai: On immigrant love languages

By Aymen Sherwani, March 3 2021—

We often associate the five love languages with romantic relationships, and how we express our love for our significant other. But in reality, words of affirmation, physical affection, quality time, gift-giving and acts of service apply to all the relationships we possess. Usually, these are learned behaviours that we have adopted from the way our parents have socialized us from a young age. Our understanding of affection — or lack thereof — ultimately stems from our childhood and eventually impacts the way we handle our adult relationships, whether they are platonic or romantic. Everyone says love is a battlefield, and being a child of two immigrants from Pakistan, my understanding of love and affection has been a constant war in my head because of how taboo any display of affection is in South Asia. 

Growing up in Canada, it didn’t really register to me why the way that my immigrant parents showed me love was so different from the way they were “supposed” to — any mention of relationships was structured more around responsibility and duty rather than the concept of affection. Most children of immigrants didn’t get the chance to spend that quality time with their parents who tirelessly worked long hours away during most of our developmental years. For us, words of affirmation, if given at all, were the scalding lectures about how important it was for us to work twice as hard as everyone around us, and succeed in school so that life would be easy. Gift-giving, instead of being met with joy, was always met with an angry, “Why did you spend so much money?” And when it came to physical affection, you’d think immigrant parents were living in a pandemic their entire lives with how much of a distance they keep. 

The love languages we crave are the ones that we were deprived of as children, and if you come from a society that labels any notion of love and affection as wrong, then your understanding of love, in general, is going to be extremely distorted. Of course, this isn’t meant to generalize the experiences of South Asians living in the West, but it would definitely explain why a large number of us engage with love so differently, and wonder why navigating affection in general is such a struggle. It would explain how uncomfortable it is even talking about how much you love and care for your friends without feeling an overwhelming sense that they’re going to reject your truth. It would explain the difficulty in even trying to have a conversation with our parents about your feelings without outward displays of anger. So many of us have gone years since we’ve said I love you” to our parents or siblings because of how normalized it is to pretend that you’re a cold machine in a culture that prioritizes productivity and success over everything. 

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that South Asian households don’t love each other, but instead that we’re taught that the physical and verbal vocabularies of affection are inappropriate to express — if that is communicated at all. Where most people grow up inviting affection, and opening doors to invite people to listen to their feelings, a lot of South Asian people build walls and grow up feeling isolated from each other. It’s hard to fully confide in others without the fear of judgement and appearances — two heavily prioritized aspects of South Asian hustle culture — and as a result, most of us don’t know how to maintain truly close friendships at all, without feeling a sense of doubt. This translates to being able to communicate your needs and concerns in romantic relationships as well, and manifests itself as not being able to address issues with your partner because you’re afraid of being discredited, or that it’s uncomfortable to talk about in general. 

Perhaps that’s why so many of us have such a distorted relationship with our culture as a whole, and why so many South Asians completely reject the ideals of their culture because of their negative experiences as children. While so many of us struggle with balancing the two aspects of our identity, there are a lot of us who choose to reject traditional South Asian norms altogether and opt for having friendships and dating lives outside of this cultural group to avoid potential judgement in the way they show affection and care. I am no stranger to being a fly on the wall when a group of girls on campus are gossiping about the love life of their friend, passing full judgement on her behind her back, simply because she doesn’t ascribe to the same ideals as they do. It’s envy, and also the perfect manifestation of the shadow self — a part of yourself within your subconscious that you don’t want to admit to having. When South Asian women are deprived of affection and the normalization of relationships as a child, a part of them will always want that, and it shows through the judgement of other women who have what they want. When you go through that, a lot of the time you would just rather spend time with people from other cultures who don’t view you as a pariah. 

Personally, my relationships have always been a little weird and driven by my idealized expectations of what a friend or partner is supposed to be, leading to so much insecurity and a certain degree of clinginess. These bonds in my life have been well-rehearsed in my head to the point of exhaustion because of how difficult it’s been to truly be genuine when you’re afraid of judgement. Much of my life has been defined by how my parents chose to love me. At this point, this balancing act in my head of needing love and affection, but being unable to be anything but cold on the outside is something that a lot of us have inherited. 

Even writing about this is like peeling back the layers of an onion. After every layer, you realize that each problem you’ve dealt with has been interconnected with why you’re the person you are today. Perhaps I’m a product of the environment I grew up in. Perhaps everyone is. But perhaps you don’t need to accept what you inherit either. That being said, I do believe we are all capable of love and unlearning the hurt and trauma we have experienced throughout our lives. We have the ability to think consciously in addressing where we go wrong in our silent struggle and come to the realization that perhaps our love languages have just been lost in translation.


Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.


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