Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, around friends with similarly traditional Chinese families, meant that our affection for one another was shown in a myriad ways. At home, it meant that my siblings and I would always have a hot home-cooked meal to come home to in the evenings, and a ride to school in the wee hours of the morning. In school, it meant thoughtful birthday presents from friends, and them willing to spend hours with you on the phone until you understood the point of social studies.
And as with most people brought up in traditionally Chinese households, the myriad ways did not extend to physical affection. It didn’t seem strange to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I hugged my family members (as a child, perhaps?) or my friends (probably when someone left the country for studies). Overt displays of affection, even platonic or familial, seemed like a concept solely reserved for American TV shows.
As you can probably imagine, it was nothing short of a huge culture shock when I joined the media industry, where goodbye and hello hugs and air kisses between friends are pretty much par for course whenever we met. It doesn’t always have to be a form of greeting either. Sometimes, it’s a hand on the arm, or a pat on the shoulder as an emphasis to a point of conversation. The most important thing is that nobody feels uncomfortable with these platonic touches, and almost everybody partakes in some form of it.
It took me a while to get used to, and not feel startled by it. But once I did, there was something oddly calming about being freely tactile, yet never once having to worry if it would be interpreted as otherwise platonic. Because of that, over time, that strange, prickly sensation that I used to get from being so uncomfortable in my own skin, and consequently, around other people, dissipated. I’d spent most of my life being painfully, and frustratingly reserved around strangers – who knew that the remedy for me to come out of my proverbial shell came in the form of a few hugs?
A The New York Times article titled The Power of Touch cited scientific studies that included stress, heart rate and blood pressure reduction amongst the benefits of touch. More critically, a professor who studied the effects of what he’s dubbed “skin hunger”, discovered that people who were deprived of affection tend to be “more lonely, depressed, had less social support, experienced more mood and anxiety disorders and an inability to interpret and express emotions”. It’s hard to imagine that something as innocuous as a hug has such incredible and far-reaching effects, and is yet still rarely freely given in our touch-averse society.
I haven’t started tackle-hugging all my friends – I do understand the concept of consent! – but at my last holiday season gathering of old friends, I opened my arms when we parted ways, instead of awkwardly waving goodbye as we’d always done. Nobody looked at me weirdly, or declined my offer of a more affectionate greeting. Instead, I was surprised and heartened by the strength of the hugs. Who knows – maybe we’ve all just been waiting for one another to reach out with the first touch.
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