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Receiving Love and Chinese Polite Refusal

Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to receive. It takes effort to receive love. There is energy required to extend your hands when receiving a gift.

The most poignant examples all come to mind from recent life experiences:

1) As you get older, you have to plan your own birthday celebrations. Sometimes it can be a lot of fun, but sometimes it can also be a lot of pain. You have to deal with flaky people and last minute changes in plans. You have to plan things ahead of time and coordinate people. You have to communicate and remind people in the ways that they’ll remember. And you still love your friends, so ultimately you want to do something that everyone will enjoy, not just you. Because you are respectful of your friends’ schedules and their time (unless you are completely narcissistic), this usually involves finding the right balance of allowing yourself to be pampered and also planning things enough so your friends aren’t left scrambling and wondering how best to celebrate you.

2) In a relationship, I’ve found, your partner will not understand you perfectly the first time around. It just won’t happen. Good relationships will involve healthy communication of what each party expects or receives as love, but it’s unrealistic that your partner will hear what you say and immediately be able to translate that into exactly what you want and need. So, what do you do in the many in-between times when they try to love you in the way that you want, but don’t quite get it? It requires patience. It requires smiling and appreciating them for their effort. It means stifling any hidden disappointment because you know they are making progress. It takes to work to receive in the long run.

3) God is the ultimate giver of good gifts. But sometimes we anticipate the wrong “good gifts.” Sometimes we don’t recognize something for the gift or blessing that it is. Sometimes we don’t even know what we truly want or need. Sometimes life circumstances don’t feel like a gift in the moment, because they are hard or challenging. It can take trust and humility to receive open handedly and to keep asking what it is God may be trying to give you.

Which brings me to my final thought from this past week: I think something needs to be said about the art of Chinese “polite refusal.” You know, the decline three times before accepting posture or saying “no” when you really mean “yes, thank you.” The stories about fighting for the check, the ritualistic “please, take it” followed by “no, I couldn’t,” and concluded by “I insist” and a “you are too kind.”

I used to look at it in a more negative light. My parents need to learn that it’s okay to receive graciously, I used to think with some judgment in my heart, as a second generation Chinese American. Why can’t they learn that sometimes, fighting for the check is a selfish and ego-boosting rather than being truly considerate? Why can’t they see that genuine concern and compassion for others means allowing them to pay and treat you, sometimes? Receiving graciously sometimes takes more work. It certainly can take more vulnerability in some situations.

But what I’m understanding now is that each culture has strengths in certain kingdom attributes and weaknesses in others. God redeems all cultures. When Chinese polite refusal is done graciously on both sides, I actually think now that it’s a beautiful picture of love. What is wrong with a ritualistic, but familiar and anticipated way of showing each other love?

Imagine the following conversation:

“Dad, I bought you two tickets for the Warriors game.”
Dad, I love you and thought of you.

“Aiya, Son. Too expensive!”
I’m touched and surprised by your gift!

“No, I know that you like basketball. You can take Mom with you.”
You mean a lot to me, Dad. I appreciate you and Mom both.

“Don’t waste the money like that!”
This is such a valuable gesture. Thank you for saving and appreciating your dad even if it costs you.

“It’s fine, just take it Dad!”
I’m more than willing. You are worth it.

“No, no, you take it and go with your son instead.”
You mean a lot to me, Son. Your relationships and your happiness mean the most to me.

“We can go by ourselves another time. Keep these tickets.”
I know. But your happiness would make me happy as well.

“You make me feel guilty, Son. But okay.”
I appreciate you. Thank you for the gift.

In my church and own circles of friends, the polite refusal or begrudging acceptance usually occurs with divvying up leftovers (“please take the rest!”). Sometimes the first declination (“no no, you keep the leftovers”) is just a way of saying “I would appreciate the food, but I care about you too! Please, if you really would like the food, you keep it.” Whether the first person responds back with a stronger urging usually indicates whether they are accepting or declining the reciprocal offer of care and love. Between close friends, this first back-and-forth is just both parties making it known that they care for the other, and receive the offer itself as the gesture of love (instead of the food). But at the end of the day, because our adherence to tradition is usually less intense than that of our parents, the conversation usually devolves into “let’s be pragmatic and figure out who wants/would enjoy this more” rather than refusals into the threes and fours.

Regardless, it can take work to learn. There is intentionality needed in both the giving and the receiving. Love is not merely in the giving, but also in the receiving.

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One Comment

  1. […] click of the tongue, the “Mom, you shouldn’t have…” (read my reflection on Chinese Polite Refusal). You take the groceries or tupperwares with a sigh of frustration, but later secretly enjoy the […]

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