The “5 Love Languages,” pioneered by Gary Chapman in the 1992 book, are coined as the five primary ways to express and receive love with those in your life. They include words of affirmation, receiving gifts, quality time, physical touch and acts of service. By correctly identifying your love language, and the love language of those around you, you may be able to improve relationships by showing people appreciation and care in the way they best receive it. Although the love languages are mainly used amongst romantic partners, I find they encapsulate major parts of any loving relationship including platonic connections with friends and family.
What intrigues me is what might happen to a relationship when certain circumstances make these five languages inaccessible. I’ve grown up speaking English and can understand, but speak very little of my native language Malayalam. My grandparents are the opposite: They speak fluent Malayalam and just enough English to somewhat slice through my accent, understand and put out an unstable response. Quality time and physical touch are sparse and forced when pushed into a quick two-week visit every other year. Receiving gifts—although it means little to me as is—doesn’t happen when you don’t spend birthdays, holidays or anniversaries together. Words of affirmation become difficult when the two parties can just barely understand basic dialogue between one another.
The relationship between my grandparents and myself has been atypical compared to most of the grandparent-grandchild relationships I’ve seen growing up. I was raised in the U.S. and they lived in India for most of my adolescent years; my father’s parents (Achacha and Achamma) immigrated back to the U.S. very recently — because of their old age and growing need for care — and have been living with my family or my cousins at different points of the year they have been here. As the two of them have spent time at home with us during quarantine, I’ve reflected on the relationship I’ve curated with them and how it compares to the ones I would see growing up on television, at school events and at friends’ houses — oftentimes sugar coated, sweet and supportive. Cultural barriers and physical barriers have made this connection hard for me to find with my grandparents. Yet, the language barrier is the hardest part.
Communication with both sets of my grandparents is endearingly broken. It usually functions with simple dialogue — one party speaks slowly in their primary language, one of my parents mediates as a translator (which has become increasingly important as my grandparents’ hearing has worsened over the years) and the other party replies a short response to keep it simple. Frankly, it’s hard for me to develop a real, meaningful connection with someone when I can’t openly converse with them or get to know their lives, experiences, deep thoughts and ideas — the list goes on and on. Why? Maybe because for me, words of affirmation (and generally, communication through conversation) is my primary love language. Thus, the language barrier has made my perception of our connection blurry. Yet, after looking more broadly at the love languages, I’ve found the less obvious forms of communication between my grandparents and me; the love doesn’t dwindle because our verbal conversations are strained. It presents itself in different forms.
Take acts of service, for example. There’s a vivid memory I have from around age six when my dad’s parents had been visiting from India for a few months over my summer vacation. During the day, their schedules remained pretty constant: make breakfast, read prayers, watch Malayalam soap operas and cook. A five-minute part of that schedule still lingers in deep memories of my childhood: rice balls. Rice balls, as I correctly named them at six years old, are a small spherical mold of soft jasmine rice mixed with ghee (clarified butter) and salt. Quite unhealthy, to say the least, but delicious. My grandma carefully molded these rice balls and fed them to me with such inert care, thought, love and selflessness. The look on her face when I would eat her cooking was priceless: It was pure joy. Little things would often make her exude a similar smile, or more ambiguous moments of joy for the family when her broken English would not do her emotions justice — small moments like the rice balls however, were my favorite. With age, my grandmother’s ability to cook and move about the house is less than what it used to be. But, her moments of joy, such as those with the rice balls, remain: Every morning, she slowly walks to the cupboard, chooses her mug of the day and leaves it out for me by the coffee maker so I can have one less thing to do during my morning. Behind this small, seemingly insignificant action is packed with thought, kindness, and love — even years later.
On the other side of my family, my Ammama and Ammacha (mom’s parents) make up for lost quality time with me over the phone. They frequently call my house and will specifically ask to speak with me; in fact, my Ammama has learned how to use iMessage on her iPad in a greater effort to connect with us on our busy days. Over the phone, they speak in sweet, soft broken English with mediation from my mother. They ask about my interests, career, school, exams, friends — everything — and show their genuine interest in and care for my life. They attempt to overcome the language barrier and connect with me, even when cultural differences can make it hard. Their effort is what I appreciate most — to me, it means deep-rooted love.
My first-generation readers understand growing up with a family scattered across the world has millions of implications on your childhood. It’s beautiful — it creates an enriched cultural experience, inescapable connection with your roots, uniqueness and diversity in thought and environment. Yet, it’s challenging: Larger scale issues like bullying, inequality and injustice may be prevalent, but as are small, random experiences you feel are traditional of the average American teen and so you are therefore not that. For me, it was, and always has been, the lack of family in close proximity with whom I could celebrate holidays, create traditions and share my biggest life moments with.
Thinking about my love language and the way each individual shares and receives love best with those around them has presented me with small victories throughout my childhood. I’ve realized regardless of physical distance, my relationship with my grandparents is not as atypical as I’d like to think; it’s grounded in genuine effort, thoughtfulness, selflessness and care towards one another which will never go away. I encourage you to seek those moments in each first-generation experience you feel has made you less of a “normal” American teen, or you feel has deterred from the moments you wish you had growing up. Search for your blessings that are masked deep within different upbringings — one rice ball at a time.
Sunitha Palat can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.