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Pet Sins May 2006

Cultural misunderstandings concerning physical affection

Different expectations concerning the display of physical affection can easily give rise to misunderstandings when people from different cultures interact. Some of our readers share their experiences here:

A, European American woman

I am an expat teaching English to kids and adults in Japan. Once, I was playing with kids and someone told me that a five year old is a "boy", not a baby anymore, so rough house and physical contact of any kind is bad for the kid. This strikes me as so foreign and not only that, but that I would be challenged on it like I had been doing something wrong or sick. Things like that just make me feel like I could never get the basic protocol down enough to not step on people's toes all the time.

D, Chinese professional

I am an expat in the U.S. I used to have a "friend" who was a child social worker. We got into a discussion about families and children. It came to her attention that my parents do not hug and kiss their children. She said they were "unnurturing people" and unfit to raise children. I explained to her that many Chinese families are like that - expecially those with older parents. Traditionally we are not very huggy and kissy especially with older children. But my parents' devotion to me was much more beyond hugging and kissing. They sacrificed a lot for my education, and took pains to teach me the right values. But that white social worker chose to gloss over the dedication of my parents and call them "unfit parents" even after I have explained the cultural difference. Needless to say, she is no longer a friend.

J, biracial woman

I lived in a mixed African American and Asian American neighborhood. The Asians are mostly Southeast Asians. When I rode public transportation, I noticed unlike the African American parents, the Asian American parents do not cuddle their children much.

X, Chinese woman:

On my campus, there was a West African man who irritated the Chinese women by being overly touchy - a slap on the back here, a touch on the shoulder there. Later one of the women told him to stop it. A Chinese man who was close friends with the African had to explain to her that it was normal in his culture to express friendliness this way. But for Chinese, for whom physical contact between friends is rare, this was misunderstood.

P, Thai woman:

When I was a child, my parents took me to visit their old friends in England. The English adults greeted me with smooches. I felt disgusted to be exposed to someone else's saliva. I knew they were being nice, but from my cultural perspective, I thought casual kissing was unhygienic.

D, Chinese man:

When I was first introduced to my friend's mother from Turkey, she hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. Despite myself, I couldn't help instinctively pulling away from the contact. I didn't mean to be rude, but in my culture, I have never been greeted like that. Even my parents don't hug and kiss me as a casual greeting.

On subsequent visits, my friend's mother would feel my cheeks, which was something I wasn't expecting either. My friend explained that it was their custom to do so after not seeing you for a while. It is their way of expressing concern, "I'm checking you to see if you're well."

B, Indian man:

In India, it is socially acceptable for male friends to put their arms around each other's shoulders and walk down the street together. Close male friends can also hold hands. But when Indian men come to the US, these gestures are misunderstood. Two guys I know were walking through a Texas campus with arms on each other's shoulders, and people looked at them very strangely. Another time, Americans assumed my Indian buddy and I were a gay couple for the same reasons.

M, Vietnamese American woman:

Most Americans don't know it is common for Vietnamese women to hold hands. I was holding hands with a Vietnamese female friend and walking down the street in an East Coast town when a white man shouted homophobic slurs at us.

It is amazing that the sex-obsessed American culture - in which you can scarcely turn on the TV or go to the movies without viewing sex scenes - cannot be more open-minded platonic physical affection.

Comment from 'G'
I'm a New Zealand-born Samoan now working and living in Japan. Being Samoan, it is a common practise to show affection (by kissing on the cheek or hugging) towards other Samoans or other people of Pacific nations. It indicates that there is no barrier and that a warm and friendly relationship is valued. other countries especially Asian see this differently. Here in Japan my observation is that they are quiet and reserved ( but not always the case) they are very reluctant to show emotion (Samoans show alot) and it can be diffucult to know their (Japanese people) true feelings. I remember 2 years ago when I first met Mrs Yu. Mrs Yu is one of my 2 closest friend's mother. She was visiting New Zealand and I was invited by her to the house for dinner. As I arrived she was waiting for me in the entrance, I was not sure how to greet a Chinese woman so shaking hands and being diplomatic was the best option. As I reached out to greet her she pulled me towards her kissed and hugged me like a Samoan mother! Mrs Yu who is from Changchun China suprised me. I was pretty shocked and remembered thinking " Chinese aren't this affectionate"... or are they?" Her bubbly and energetic character reminded me so much of a lot of my aunties....immediately I could relate with her despite the language barriers. Even when she was leaving the country, she came into work with her son to say goodbye again, giving me a kiss and a huge hug.

I don't know how many of your readers (Asian) know of other Chinese/Japanese etc showing this sort of affection. The post ups above only give one side of the coin.

May 06