I ‘aray’ you
This is an early Valentine’s column because, if you haven’t noticed, I only do my columns once a week now, i.e. no more Friday columns.
Growing up Tsinoy (Chinese-Filipino), I would hear the Mandarin “wo ai ni” in Chinese songs and in movies, which many of you, Tsinoy or not, probably already know as “I love you.”
Mandarin was, however, used only in schools; at home, well, my parents actually used the English “I love you.” Sometimes, too, they would use Minnan (also known as Hokkien, the Chinese dialect used by most Chinese-Filipinos), and the term they used was “tia” — for example, “gua tia di” (I love you), “tia mama bo?” (do you love your mother?).
I had always presumed tia was written like the Mandarin “ai.” It was only fairly recently, when I was researching on the topic of mental health of Chinese-Filipinos, that I realized we do have ai in Minnan but don’t use it as often as tia. I had to probe into this tia, and was surprised to find out what it meant.
What I discovered was that tia also meant pain, so “I love you,” said as “gua tia di,” is actually “I pain you.” Turns out, too, that even in Mandarin, the same word, pronounced as “tong,” is also sometimes used to mean love.
The Chinese therefore recognize that love can be painful, so much so that it becomes interchangeable with love, simply as love. Note that the Chinese character used for this kind of pain-love incorporates the character for winter, a pain that comes through like a bleak winter, I guess.
I don’t know how this happened and I couldn’t find explanations either on the internet, but maybe it reflects a broader Chinese ethos that looks at life in general as difficult, harsh, and, well, painful.
Add on the fact that until fairly recently, most Chinese marriages were arranged. Actually even to this day, in China and locally, there are still matchmakers who arrange marriages, with the matchmaker “plotting” with the parents of a male and female (so far, still male and female) to have the prospective couple meeting “accidentally,” to be followed by an introduction, with hopes that love blooms.
The matchmaking process is called “kaysiao” in Hokkien Minnan, literally “to introduce.” But the need for matchmakers has diminished, and there is even a website now called, what else but kaysiao.com, for DIY matchmaking.
Going back to my love-as-pain theories, in the olden days when you had no choice about who you would marry, the relationships could be difficult and painful, especially for the women. Discontented men could go off and find mistresses and lovers, but the women were stuck in the loveless marriage.
I would think, too, that love was painful for those who could not marry the person they truly loved, given that they were forced into arranged marriages.
If we want to be modern and existential about it, there’s a certain charm in looking at love as pain. Troubled relationships aside, haven’t we all loved someone so much that it was painful? In Filipino it’s “gigil” love—don’t ask me to translate here, except to say gigil can be out of delight and affection and, yes, love, but it can also be out of anger and frustration.
There’s something else about Chinese love worth looking at, and this is where I wish Inquirer could print out Chinese words. (Maybe it can, and will…) I’m referring to the way ai is written — same character, same pronunciation in Mandarin and Hokkien.
This ai is very similar to another word, “shou” in Mandarin, which means to endure, “magtiis” in Filipino. Now, this word shou, when you add a few strokes for the word “heart,” transforms “endure” into “love.”
Isn’t that sweet? Look now to your spouse, partner, frequent companion. Do you just shou, endure the person? Or do you suddenly feel a surge of ai, love? Or is it the more complicated tong (Mandarin) or tia, differentiated by the accompanying feeling: Do you want to hug the person so tight it’s a tad painful, or do you want to do something else that’s pure pain and no love? I aray you? Or you cause me so much, too much, aray.
Does China love us aray, tia, tong?
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