Thursday, March 26, 2009

Unrequited Chinese Hug Affairs

Occasionally I feel that my China experience has been a string of awkward conversations and events. I romanticize home as a place where one does not often have to think about the proper reaction to, for instance, receiving an impromptu gift of a vacuum packed whole chicken; or, trying to read the awkward smiles in our dinning group as they explained that the soup I just ordered for us is traditionally only for pregnant women. While these these memories make me giggle, there are a few moments that actually make me physically cringe, the majority of which involved my very American custom of hugging.

With the exception of young lovers on the subway and in dark corners of parks, and perhaps grandparents with babies, Chinese people don't really hug. Greetings are typically a handshake or a nod and a hello. That is not to say there is no physical contact, quite the opposite in fact. Female friends walk arm and arm down the sidewalk, stroke each others' hair, and hold hands. Male friends might throw an arm around a friend's shoulder, or lay a hand a buddy’s thigh while seated. But the big, warm, welcoming, so happy-to- see- you- I -just- can't- contain- myself American hug, just doesn't happen.

I recall one unfortunate hugging event in Dalian when I was teaching. First let me say that considering the proximity of our ages, I was already informal with my students. We would occasionally eat lunch together in the student cafeteria and chatted informally outside of class. And since I taught at a branch campus nearly an hour away from my apartment, I rarely saw my students outside of that distant campus. So, one weekend when I saw this particularly outgoing (dare I say favorite) student in the middle of the Saturday shopping crowd in downtown Dalian, I was surprised. For a split second I lost my cool and gave him a big hug! He on the other hand remained rigid, neither concave to accept the embrace, nor convex to avoid it. His arms were clamped firmly to his sides and his face shown a look of sheer panic. The embrace lasted about a half a second, as I regretted it the moment I committed. This wasn't the first time one of these unrequited hugs occurred. I have had similar experiences with both females and males and I thought my past misfortunes had cured me of such moments of American caprice. In fact, I think this self restraint has seeped into my behavior with foreign friends, ironically making ME the non-hugger!

My friend has pondered the same cultural difference, but from the Chinese perspective. He speculates Americans' hugging custom is a function of our small population [in comparison to that of China]. He reasons that the tradition developed from pioneer days when two people might have come upon one another in the wilderness and embraced out of relief from solitude. Thus the hugging trend began. While I find this to be slightly oversimplified, I'll grant that we hug more than our crowded UK and European neighbors with whom we supposedly share other "western" customs. Even the French "bises" keep you at a greater distance than any style of an American body to body hug!

This leads me to my next awkward hug experience that recently occurred with one of my Chinese roommate's suitors. After an evening out of barbecued meat, beer, and banter, "Old Zhao," as my roommate affectionately calls him, said that he heard that Americans hug. Then he asked me if I could teach him HOW to hug! It was only then that I realized the complexity of this custom. Who can you hug, under what circumstances, and how? The answers are something like: definitely not your boss, not the first time you meet, and .....there are many options.

How to hug? Who goes under? Who goes over? Do you cross? Pat or no pat on the back? Squeeze? How tight? Where does you chin go? When you think about it, hugging can get slightly mechanical for us too. If you linger a moment too long in a hug, it could be misinterpreted as an advance. There are best friend hugs, family hugs, lover hugs, and sweaty sporting event hugs. Girls often do the one armed side hug at formal events so as not risk wrinkling or smudging all that they've prepared. Guys do that slick handshake into a hug and slap on the back combination.

I chose not to attempt to explain all this to Old Zhao at 11:00 PM on the sidewalk outside the rowdy smokey restaurant. Instead, I taught him the crisscross, slight squeeze, with a pat on the back hug, and added the caveat to not use it the first time he meets someone.



  1. AHAHAHA. Yes, Laura, you are the non-hugger in our 'friend hugs', which makes me feel awkward!:D

    The French 'bises' can be awkward too, putting aside the awkwardness of kissing v not kissing, there is the kissing on one or two cheeks. When two people are uncertain, the 2nd kiss hung in midair... I believe I'm going to write on my palm greeting etiquette from now on:
    Europeans: two kisses
    Latin Americans: one kiss
    Middle Easterners: two kisses on meeting, one kiss on leaving
    Americans: hug
    Chinese: nod
    Japanese: bow

    Then there are the Chinese Americans, German Japanese, British Indians...

  2. here is me, sending many big strong python- like hugs to you!!!

  3. Not all Midwesterners are huggers.
    I know some 80 and 90 year olds who will eagerly hug babies but not their peers or adult children.
    I also have great admiration for our Chinese friend who visits us in Ohio who wants to "embrace" all things American from foods to religious ceremonies, goes with us to our extended family gatherings and braces for the onslaught of hugs from all who attempt in their Midwestern way to make him feel welcome. His body does not conform well to the experience and I am sure he is glad when it is over so he can interact in more comfortible ways like talking and smiling.

  4. Unfortunatly, I have experienced that very awkard "totem pole pose" that my new Chinese acquaintences have taken when I have "thrust myself upon them. While in China, I met the sister of a Chinese friend. When I learned who she was I greated her with my great Midwestern "Oh - It is just so wonderful to meet Sophia's sister hug". And, there it was - the totem pole response.

    When our young Chinese friend visited Ohio, I took him to meet a young woman and a man, both his age, with whom he would spend an evening. As I drove him closer to the destination location, I prepared him for what they might do, and who the two people were in relation to our family. We talked about how he might accomplish paying for dinner for the trio and how he could order from the menu. Near the end of our drive, I asked if he had any questions about things that might occur or wondered about. His response?

    "Should I hug them?"

    To help him, I told him that since he had just met these two, they were relatively new friends, and so he really did not need to hug them. However, if his new friends opened their arms and moved forward, he could hug them. Just follow their lead.

    So, I see that the "awkward hug" question is on both sides of the globe. Every one wants to do what is appropriate, and many of us manage to make the wrong judgement in this area at least once.

  5. So true about the simplification, Laura!Definitely safe, but puts you at risk of looking like a fool. But then again, that's not new for us laowai, it's a part of our big-nose, blue-eyed blood. And of course, no matter what cultural custom you ponder with a Chinese person, they reason it down to a stereotype.

  6. I hear Alex on the stereotyping; I wish we could choose our stereotypes. I want to be cast in the one that everyone knows needs chocolates, cheese, and wine before even addressing me! Too bad we are kind of cast as rich and 开放 (a.k.a having dubious morals).

    But in all fairness, in trying to wrap my head around an entire culture, I am definitely guilty of the same over simplifications. I don't think we can help it. I have to put people and phenomena in boxes, close them up for a while and move on long enough to reconsider it with better perspective later. I think it is the lack of the last step that frustrates me when talking to anyone in the world who is operating within a very small world view.