I’m becoming a big fan of international shows. They offer a different and refreshing perspective on love and intimacy. Lately, I got into a string of Taiwanese dramas that got me thinking about the ways that we as Americans think about and express our romantic feelings.
Taiwanese dramas have many things in common with American dramedies. Many of them have male and female leads who seem like opposites, but somehow end up falling for each other. However, they differ in one major way: the love confession. From the shows that I watched, “like” and “love” in Taiwan mean something completely different from “like” and “love” in America. In America, people can like many people at the same time. Actually, when we say we like someone, we often like them in an innocent way. More importantly, liking someone is NOT the same as loving them. In Taiwanese shows, however, liking has a much different meaning. It is very serious and intentional. More often than not, saying “I like you” in Chinese has the same meaning as saying “I love you” in English.
I like to think of the difference between liking and loving someone in these countries as the distance between two parts of a spectrum of intimacy. In America, the distance between liking and loving someone is farther apart. We can like someone right away, at the beginning of the spectrum. Liking to us largely consists of an attraction. If we say we like someone, often times we mean that are physically attracted to them and want to spend time with them. Love comes farther along in the spectrum, where these feelings of attraction are often now paired with deeper attachment and emotional intimacy.
Based on the shows that I’ve seen from Taiwan, liking and loving are much closer together, starting at the farther end of the spectrum. That is, it takes a while for someone to like another person in a Taiwanese drama and to admit that they like them. (Not years, but a bit longer than the relationships we see in America). When someone does ends up liking another person, you can be pretty sure that they are very close to loving them as well. As an outsider, it took me a while to adjust to the seriousness of saying “I like you” in a Taiwanese drama. I did not understand at first the deeper meaning behind the phrase. Now that I have seen more shows, I am beginning to understand and appreciate the variances of romantic expression.
Neither country’s version of like or love is necessarily better than the other. After watching a couple of Taiwanese shows, I started getting used to a deeper association with “like.”
Then, it happened, out of the blue. I started watching a show that flipped the Taiwanese meaning of “like” on its head. It confused yet intrigued me, so I naturally I had to watch more. The show, Love Buffet, takes its viewers on a ride as it questions the differences between sympathy, the pleasure from being wanted, and romantic love.
As I watched the show, I began to make comparisons between the plot and a popular love theory, Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love. Sternberg (1986) argues that there several types of love that consist of variations of three central components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. For example, it is easy to find examples of infatuated love in American shows. It is high on passion and intimacy. It’s the type of love where people can’t get their hands off of each other. By watching Love Buffet, however, viewers get exposed to other types of love.
Throughout different character interactions, the show consistently questions what true love actually is. Characters ponder whether they actually like a person, or if they just feel sympathy for them. At first glance, it seems like the difference should be quite apparent. However, the show argues that sympathy and like/love share several components. When you like someone, you want to spend time with them. When the other person is feeling sad and lonely, you want to make them feel better. People may even wish to share their pain and to take the pain away. Having sympathy for someone can mean a lot of the same things, especially if the person is someone close to begin with, like a classmate of a friend.
Then the show introduces another related concept, the feeling of being wanted. Sometimes liking someone can be confused with the pleasure that one gets from being wanted by someone else, which can also be conflated with sympathy. If I feel bad about someone’s situation, and I get pleasure from them needing me to comfort them, or thinking I am a hero in their eyes, is this the same as liking or loving someone?
I can feel it right now. Some of you are disagreeing with me. It is probably very easy at first thought to explain away the differences between sympathy, feeling wanted, and romantic love. Getting pleasure from being wanted can be the same as companionate love, the feeling one gets from spending time with friends. It’s a type of closeness, or intimacy, without the physical attraction. Also, one can say that sympathy (from the giver’s point of view) is a type of empty love. It’s like feeling a commitment of having to be with someone, but there is no intimacy or passion. In other words, you are being sympathetic because of some moral obligation (Sternberg, 1986).
But I want to emphasize an important underlying factor in this media representation: physical attractiveness. In all of these shows, in both countries, the main characters are gorgeous. LIKE. REALLY. HOT.
It complicates things a bit, right? Now let’s look at the situation of sympathy again. What if that person who needed sympathy was very attractive? It would be a bit harder in this case to tell if one is being only sympathetic or if one actually likes that person. Remember, in this case, “like” has a deeper meaning. So one can argue that it could be possible to fall in like with someone in this way. After feeling sorry for them for a while, you could potentially start to like them, especially if they look forward to your company.
Love Buffet, in all its dramatic glory, really taps into the intentions behind love. It questions whether love be simple, natural, or develop from a non-love situation. In any way, it is truly a pleasure to watch.
*This post is based on my own observations of Taiwanese and American shows. It is in no way meant to be a sweeping generalization of American or Taiwanese love. I acknowledge my Western lens of love analysis and that are many variations of love in different countries (and also, variations within the same country).
Wang, C. R. (Producer). (2010). Love Buffet [Television series]. Taiwan: Gala Television.
Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93(2), 119-135. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119