During that English “Ask a è€å¤–” Q&A session at Tianjin University last week, a student asked two questions together near the end of the session: “What did you say when you proposed to your wife?” – they liked that answer – and “What is the essence of love?” I knew immediately that my reply to the second question was going to be glaringly counter-cultural, possibly to the point of being absurd. But for some reason it felt good to swing hard anyway, with short, slow sentences that had a good chance of being understood. Maybe I needed to let off some culture stress steam, I don’t know. I told them, as best I can remember:
“Love is something you choose to do. It’s a choice you make. You choose to love. It doesn’t ‘just happen.’ You don’t ‘fall in love’ or ‘fall out of love.’ You make love.”
I opted not to expound on the various facets of truth connected to that last point, though I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t so much fun getting to preach innuendos to 200+ people on the far side of the world who probably wouldn’t/might not pick it up anyway. Pretty sure I did it with a straight face, too. Anyway, I then briefly talked about love being a decision to put another’s needs before your own, and not confusing love with the great feelings that are often associated with it.
The students reacted strongly as soon as I said “choose,” which I tried to say slow and loud, deliberately overemphasizing. We could see and hear their disagreement/disbelief/surprise throughout the room. We’d fielded questions on touchy, charged issues all night (Taiwan, Iraq War, Western criticisms of China), but this was the reply that got them going. A big chunk of it – I think – has to do with their general worldview heritage. Another big chunk has to do with prevailing perceptions of Westerners.
I asked my Mandarin teacher about their reaction today. She was hesitant to generalize (the teachers at our school have had to put up with more than their fair share of foreigner generalizations about Chinese people), but she said a few things. Fate is a prevalent belief. Many Chinese people think that Westerners don’t take love very seriously, like it’s just an emotion (I couldn’t disagree, even if the pirated movie market skews peoples’ perceptions of typical Western relationships… then again, Western entertainment media skews Westerners’ perceptions of Western relationships!). For the record, China doesn’t exactly have a rosy tract record of widespread marital bliss by comparison. Divorce is an epidemic on both sides of the Pacific. She also said they probably didn’t believe me. I told her that’s OK, a group of American university students probably wouldn’t believe me either.
The video in this post provides some nice anecdotes when the interviewer asks some Beijing young people about love, and they talk about fate. In general, by comparison, Westerners are typically more oriented toward agency, whereas East Asians more toward adaptability. That’s not to say that both these traits aren’t easily found in people on both sides of the world; it’s a contrast of relative emphases. To read a little bit more about the emphasis on fate in contrast to the West, see this post: Negotiating Life: Accept or Revolt?
ps – The photo is of a little Tianjin traffic tenderness (we could use more of that!) at the intersection near our school.
pps – I realize that I actually ended up describing love was a verb and a noun. But it’s really a verb. So I guess then you actually don’t “make” it. Shoot. Bad English teacher!