Who knew two nonverbal rocks had so much to say?

I don’t remember the last time I said, “I love you” to my parents. In fact, I don’t think they’ve said that to me much either in the 30-something years of my existence.

For a Chinese Singaporean family, this is hardly out of the ordinary. Our affection for each other is mostly communicated through sharing food at mealtimes or through questions about how work has been.

But there’s another way that my parents—and grandparents, aunties, and uncles, for that matter—express affection for me: through biting, negatively framed opinions that hit you like a punch in the gut.

You’ve got more white hair now. You put on weight. You look so tired. (There’s also the all-encompassing “Aiyoh!” which usually conveys a mix of disappointment, disapproval, worry, and concern all at the same time.)

That is why, when watching Everything Everywhere All at Once at home one Friday evening, I cringe-laughed when the protagonist Evelyn Wang blurts this line out to her daughter Joy early in the film: “You have to try and eat healthier. You are getting fat.”

Such judgmental comments have become a tried-and-true method of communicating care and concern, bypassing anything gushy or sentimental. To be clear, this is not a condoning of verbal abuse, which exerts manipulative control over another. I speak of the pessimistic, unsympathetic sentiments that often color speech in a Chinese family.

Over the years, I’ve deflected remarks like these by laughing or shrugging them off rather than allowing them to take root. As I tell my husband when similar phrases roll off my tongue, these are simply words of “endearment.”

I used to view this inability to articulate “I …

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