It’s well known that I’m a bit of a cold fish. I don’t do “hugging” or “cuddling” much – especially in public! – whether it’s my husband, my mother or my dog, and I get really uncomfortable when people start kissing and groping in front of me.
As some pop-psychiatrist would probably say – I wasn’t hugged enough as a child. And that’s totally true. My mother hardly ever hugged or cuddled me. That doesn’t mean that she was a terrible mother or didn’t love me – it was just that she’s Chinese.
Chinese people don’t hug. In fact, most Asian cultures would be hesitant about physical displays of affection, especially in public. It’s just not done. It’s not that you’re afraid of doing it or are embarrassed (although usually you are! ) – but more that you just don’t think of doing it. It’s like it’s missing in our behavioural repertoire. I mean, come on – you’re talking about a culture where the traditional form of greeting was standing well apart and bowing to each other, hands kept to yourself!
So getting all touchy-feely just doesn’t come naturally to us and actual close bodily contact, such as hugging, can be quite alarming. My husband found this out the hard way. Coming from a very touchy-feely English family himself, where the standard form of greeting was a kiss & a hug, he scared my mother to death the first few times he greeted her after we got engaged, by trying to hug her. She stood stiff as a board and leaned as far away as she could, as he attempted to plant a respectful son-in-law peck on her cheek. We’ve been married nearly 15 years now and she is only just getting used to “being hugged” by him when we meet up. But I still think she tolerates it more than enjoys it.
Then there was the time one of my best friends – a Taiwanese girl I had gone to school with in the U.A.E. but hadn’t seen in years – came to visit us in the UK. I was so delighted and excited to finally get the chance to see her again (and vice versa) – and we spent a wonderful week with her and her husband, sightseeing around Oxford. At the end of their stay, as we saw them off to the airport, my husband rushed forward to give her a kiss goodbye, and was completely bewildered when she stiffened and tried to duck away, a look of horror on her face. I pointed out to him afterwards that even my friend & I didn’t hug each other goodbye – and this was the reunion we had been planning for years. It wasn’t that we hadn’t loved our time together or weren’t upset to be parting…but just that we didn’t feel the need to hug & kiss to show it.
I know it can be hard for Westerners to understand. In fact, whenever I’ve mentioned my “non-cuddling” tendencies on my dog’s blog, I often get many readers urging me to “try it more – you might find that you like it”. They seem to think that I don’t know what I’m missing out on and that if only I could bring myself to hug more, I would find that I actually enjoy it more than I realise.
Well, to be honest with you, I find that attitude a bit frustrating and patronising. It’s not as if I haven’t tried it but it is just not something that comes naturally to me. It would be like me suggesting that you start bowing to everyone you meet because you might not realise how much you enjoy doing that!
And I think one of the most important aspects of meeting people from different countries and cultures is learning to be open-minded about “other ways” and to accept that other cultures may do things differently from you but that does not mean that their gestures have any less meaning. To Americans, hugging & kissing may be the universal sign of affection – but it may not be for others and that doesn’t mean that we feel less affection, just that we have a different way of showing it.
In Chinese culture, we tend to do things for each other, to show caring & affection. My mother may never have cuddled me much – but she did things like bring me a home-cooked lunch to school every day so that I could have a “hot meal” and staying up till 3am the night before I left for university, to hand-stitch my name onto all my towels and sheets, so that I wouldn’t lose them in the college laundry. She didn’t even hug me or kiss me as we were saying goodbye and I was leaving home for the first time to go overseas – but I didn’t feel any less loved because of that. In fact, it would have felt very weird if my mother had suddenly smothered me in her arms.
And I guess we do repeat the patterns of behaviour we’re raised with. Because I don’t tend to hug or kiss my husband much – but I do things like get up much earlier than I need to so that I can make a fresh fruit salad for him to take to work; wake up in the middle of the night to lean over in bed and make sure he is properly covered (coz I know he tosses & turns a lot and ends up cold and uncovered) and organise elaborate, creative birthday surprises for him that take months of planning & research. But ask me to kiss him in public? Er…no way.
I’m like this with my dog too. Friends often comment that I don’t act like I love my dog much because I don’t indulge in the same ostentatious shows of affection many pet owners do – hugging and cuddling, kissing and cooing…But I spend a LOT of time on Honey – continually looking for new ways to enrich her life and devoting a large part of my day to making sure she has daily exercise and mental stimulation.
Yeah, my dog isn’t constantly cuddled on the couch – but I don’t think that means she feels neglected. I show my love by giving her things a dog needs (rather than what we humans think they want) – like letting her roll in “disgusting stinky stuff” to her heart’s content. And you could argue that letting your dog indulge in a natural canine behaviour she enjoys – even if it means that I will have the hassle of washing her afterwards – is a better way to show love than just constantly wrapping my arms around her and squeezing tight.
Oh, don’t get me wrong – I do hug my husband and my dog and my friends and my mother. Sometimes. Usually not in public (Physical affection is a private thing). I’m not saying that hugging is a bad thing – I know it’s been scientifically proven that physical affection is important for development in children and emotional well-being in adults, blah-blah-blah – and I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t hug! Just that you shouldn’t expect it to be the only way or the better way to demonstrate love & affection.
In any case, I can hug with the best of them when the situation demands it. Growing up and living in so many different countries has taught me to adapt easily – so I have no problems hugging & kissing my in-laws when we go back to the UK and I am comfortable with the traditional Arabic cheek-to-cheek kiss greeting back in the U.A.E….but these are just empty gestures that I enact, to fit in. The same way you might curtsy when you meet the Queen, because that’s the ritual. They have no meaning for me and I am not really showing affection when I’m doing them.
So – sure, I can do it. I can hug. I can kiss. I can cuddle….if it’s expected of me. But I don’t want to just “go through the motions” just to satisfy somebody else’s expectations. When I hug someone, I want do it because I mean it.
Still, having said all that, all those comments – especially the ones suggesting that I was neglecting my husband by not demonstrating enough physical affection – did get under my skin a bit. I started worrying and wondering if maybe I wasn’t being a “good enough” wife by not being touchy-feely enough. My husband often hugs or kisses me and I do respond when he does it – but I hardly ever think of doing it by myself. And you know how they say marriage should be a compromise? So recently I decided maybe I should try harder – to get more “cuddly”, reach out to hug him, pucker up for a kiss, make the effort so that my husband wasn’t “missing out” like all these people claimed…
…so earlier this week, I hovered around the front door as I heard him arrive home, eager to put my plan into action. I put on my best touchy-feely smile, filled my mind with touchy-feely thoughts and launched myself at him as he came through the door.
“Huh -?” He hesitated in the doorway, holding his bag up in front of him protectively.
“HI!” I tried again, reaching around his bag.
“Uh…Hi…” he shifted uneasily, “…what are you doing?”
“Saying hello!” I beamed, grabbing his neck. Somehow I miscalculated and ended up with my face buried in his armpit. Hmm. Guess this ‘hugging’ thing wasn’t as easy as it looked. Never mind – practice makes perfect. I stepped back and let him come in and shut the front door, then watched as he took off his coat and shoes and stowed his bag.
He eyed me warily. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing!” I smiled. “Did you have a good day?”
“So-so. Clinic overran again…I’m starving. What are we having for dinner?” He headed towards the kettle and switched it on, then turned towards the fridge but before he could open the fridge door, I swooped in front of him and lunged for his neck.
“What are you doing?” He reeled back.
“I’m just happy to see you!” I smiled, thinking that he wasn’t being very touchy-feely himself. Instead of putting his arms around me, he stood there looking puzzled.
“Er…OK. I’m happy to see you too,” he pulled my arms gently away and took some milk out of the fridge.
Hmm. This wasn’t going quite as I planned. I retreated to lean against the kitchen counter and watched as he made himself a cup of coffee, calculating my next move. He took his coffee to the dining table and sat down, flipping on his laptop. My eyes lit on his back turned to me. Perfect. Nothing like the element of surprise, they say.
I sidled over and snaked my arms around his shoulders, leaning down to kiss the top of his head. He jumped out of his chair, nearly tipping his coffee over.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” He bellowed.
“I – I’m showing you affection,” I explained.
“You’re what?” He looked completely confused.
“I’m trying to be more affectionate. You know – ‘coz some of the blog readers said I don’t hug enough and they were sure you would be happier if I was more cuddly or something -” I tried to demonstrate by reaching up to hug him again.
He stood stiffly as I put my arms around him. Somehow, he didn’t look much happier.
“Wouldn’t you like it if I hug you more?” I asked.
“No! I mean, yes, of course, but – well, it’s just not normal!” He staggered back from me.”It’s just not you.”
“I’m trying to change,” I explained earnestly. “You know, to show more physical affection. ”
He sighed, then smiled and leaned forward to kiss me gently on the forehead. “Don’t. Just be yourself. Otherwise it’s just creepy. It’s just not you and it’s stupid. You’re fine the way you are. Just be yourself.”