Cultural Touch Tally

I’d classify myself as an affectionate person. At least, I used to be. China seems to have trained it out of me. That makes me sad, I admit. Sometimes more sad that I can explain.

Chinese people are just not very outwardly affectionate. That is, not in the ways you’d expect. There are exceptions, of course, and modern Western media has influenced China. In the old days, heterosexual couples weren’t even allowed to touch in public. Now you see them holding hands and leaning sweetly into each other on the subways. Things have opened up in that regard—slightly.

But I miss a more basic affection that I didn’t realize I would have to give up by coming here and partnering with Guo Jian. There are moments of touch between Western people—friends, colleagues, partners alike—that I took for granted: the hug hello and goodbye; the hand on the shoulder for encouragement or in time of frustration; the hand to the forearm in a moment of expressing support or understanding, for instance. Or, the hand that reaches out to cover yours as it lies exposed on a tabletop: a simple hand-over-hand gesture expressing empathy, loudly and succinctly.

Chinese people don’t touch this way. Not in my experience, anyway.

Let’s not forget the more intimate moments of (non-sexual) touch: the hugs that should follow quarrels with loved ones or family members, i.e. the make-up hugs; or, the face that should be stroked when a flash of sadness or worry leaks across its features—just that feathery touch signifying that the flash has been noticed by a loved one.

These kinds of touch are now extremely rare in my life.

Don’t misunderstand me. Behind closed doors, I do experience loving touch, hence this swelling six-month pregnant belly! When Guo Jian and I are not arguing about bedding(!), there’s cuddling at night, for instance. So much so, that I sometimes have to shake him off me just to get some space to sleep!

What I miss, though, are those Western touches in the day-to-day. In the very act of choosing a lifetime commitment with Guo Jian, I’ll never have them again with a partner. When I first had this realization, I was hit with a silence that resonated in my skull.

A lot of coaching, conversation, and discussion about these simple gestures has seen slight shifts in my partner. For instance, sometimes he will hug me goodbye now—even in public—and this is a big deal. It’s something I never see his friends do with their girlfriends or wives even though we all may be parting at the same time.

But in the same breath, I recognize that trying to change another person is fruitless, not to mention contradictory to having fallen in love with his specific quirks in the first place. Changing one’s partner’s ways should not the aim; we can only change ourselves.

So, here’s how I see it:

Option A) If I really want some specific touch, I need to go the direct route and verbally request it. Then, I must follow this choice up with an active rejection of any resentment that sneaks in for having had to ask in the first place.

Option B) Alternatively, I have to actively shut down the receptors that once called out for touch and just deal with its absence until it no longer feels strange or unusual. Time will render this possible.

For the most part, I have chosen option B. Option A has a tendency to depress me further. Isn’t the ultimate goal is to experience a level of affection that is simultaneously natural for one’s partner and satisfying to oneself? Thus, having to ask for touch makes his act feel artificial; it’s not natural to him so it’s not satisfying to me.

I recognize that I could be dealing with a mixture of both gender and cultural differences. Perhaps most men are less affectionate than women? I may never truly know to what extent I can differentiate the source of disconnect; it’s just there.

When I analyze our differing cultural interpretations of touch, I find it fascinating that in China platonic touch is quite high on the affection scale. I see men draped over other men (especially while drinking) or linked with arms bound clumsily around each other as they’re walking. Often I see taller men walking or standing with their arms bent and leaning into the shoulders of shorter men, laughing and chatting while consistently touching. Likewise, I see women holding hands in public all the time, stroking each other’s hair, leaning their heads on each other’s shoulders, linking arms and walking closely together. And, despite my (misplaced) excitement when I first came to China in 2007, I know now that these people are very, very rarely queer in any way (gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.). Instead, I have come to understand that this is one of the few areas of affection in China that is considered publicly appropriate.

Can you see the irony in this? If I were partnered with a woman—formerly defined as my “normal”—I’d be getting the touch I desired, even publically! Instead, I fell in love with a member of the opposite sex for the first time but because of our surrounding cultural environment (an implicit and less sexually open society), I find myself not receiving the basic touches that could normally exist in public in the West without a second glance! Especially between those of the opposite sex! So, with that logic, if I were to have fallen in love with a woman in China, because the touches would be assumed to be platonic by passersby, I would not be starved for these gestures of basic affection.

Go figure.

So, the next assumption would be that I’d seek to fill this affection gap through my platonic connections, right? Well, my Chinese female friends are too shy to touch a foreigner the way they might touch their other Chinese female friends. What’s more, my Western friends in China, like me, seem to have been trained out of affection as well. Often we don’t even hug hello or goodbye! It’s a lose-lose.

Still, I’m not giving up hope that things will improve.

Once, when Guo Jian and I were first together and I was mortified to have had an argument in front of his parents in his home town (something I am now more familiar with as he has never fully learned to censor for the sake of my need for privacy), I exited the situation and went in and closed the door to the room we were staying in. I felt more helpless in that moment than I had felt in a long time—helpless to control the love I had for this person who had just humiliated me and with whom I could not argue in times of upset. (At the time, I would often become tongue-tied and the Mandarin words just wouldn’t form in my mouth. I’m much better now at fighting back, by the way!)

I sat cross-legged on the floor with my back to the door, crying silently and trying to breathe through the anguish when I heard someone enter stealthily. I wondered if it was Guo Jian—I hoped it was—but then I heard his father’s voice say “xing le, xing le” (it’s okay, it’s okay) and he put one hand on my shoulder for about ten seconds. I didn’t turn around but the tears flowed in response to the kind touch. I was flooded with relief, grounded by someone else’s awareness. Then, as quietly as he came, he left the room. Another ten minutes of alone time and I was able to pull it together, think through my words, and seek out the disappearing Guo Jian so that we could settle the issue.

I’ll never forget that uncharacteristic touch extended by Guo Jian’s father. For a man who has almost never touched me on purpose before, on that day, his hand on my shoulder made all the difference.

Because of his father’s gesture, I don’t lose hope that Guo Jian might learn to be more affectionate as time goes on. After all, they’re genetically related. Perhaps empathic touch is something a member of the Guo family has to grow into?

Until then, I’ll fill the gaps with toddler hugs from our daughter.

They’re delicious.




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