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The Culture of Touch

I'm not big about hugging. But is it because I was raised that way?

It’s a well known joke in the Asian community that we don’t say, “I love you,” but we do say “Did you eat?” or “Let me know when you’re home.” And hugs and kisses may be rare, but our love is shown through things like sharing knowledge or food, or giving opportunities or experiences. I grew up knowing there were families that hugged and kissed, but mainly that was a thing that happened on PBS or Disney Channel in American households. My family was different, I knew that, but I never felt like I was less loved than my non-Asian friends or felt jealous of the lack of physical touch. Did the way my family showed physical affection shape who I am today?

My closest friends know that I am not the affectionate one of any group. I won’t outright reject you, but you also won’t find me initiating a hug at the end of a hangout. My dislike of physical touch has nothing to do with how much I love or how close I am to that person. At our wedding rehearsal, when the wedding planner instructed me to kiss my mom after she and my dad walked me down the aisle, I laughed and politely told her, “I don’t kiss people.” But my parents and I share a bond that’s worth more than a touch for me.They always cook me food when I come back or take me on weekend day trips. On the other hand, I’ll bring them coffee and baked goods, or order stuff on Amazon for them. I didn’t feel like it was odd or felt like I had to have more physical affection with them growing up. They let me pursue any after school activities I wanted, which spanned from abacus to piano to dancing. They always told me they would buy books I wanted to read, didn’t make me pursue a degree I didn’t want, and they made me meals well after graduating from college (and didn’t charge me rent!). While my family may not be the one spending time all huddled on a couch or kissing goodbye at the end of a visit, I know the love my parents’ have for me spans much larger than an arm wrapped around me.

I consider my family’s physical affection on par with many other Japanese families. Most of my Japanese friends don’t seem to share a physical bond with their families. But I wondered how other Asian families were and if their culture or upbringing affected how they show affection today, so I asked a few of my friends from ranging backgrounds to tell me how they grew up.

A (he/him/his), late 20s, Los Angeles, half Japanese, half Chinese

My mom was born in Los Angeles where I was born and raised as a second generation Chinese American, and my dad was born in Japan, but came to the United States when he was about four years old. I suppose this makes me a third generation Chinese American, and a Shin-Nisei on my dad's side.

My parents were both raised very differently, which I think affects the way they show affection. My mom spent most of her adolescence without her father, having lost him to a heart-related illness very young, and my dad grew up in a more traditionally Japanese family. I haven't talked to my parents about the way their upbringings have impacted the way they show affection today, which on one hand is a testament to how we as a family have been conditioned to address vulnerability and demonstrate love, but I also imagine that those variables factor heavily into who they are today.

My parents showed affection differently when I was growing up. My mom was more physically affectionate, giving hugs and kisses to my brother and me. Giving my dad hugs was always and continues to be a weird, awkward experience because it was so rare. I still hug my mom, but probably the most physical contact I'll have with my dad is a handshake, which feels very classically "Asian."

At this point, you can see that my parents are very different people, but both of them certainly showed affection and undoubtedly do love my brother and me. I feel like I paint a picture of some loving mother and cold, distant father, but that's not really the case. My mom left the workforce when my brother and I were very young so that she could stay heavily involved with our education and support us on a day-to-day basis. I could say she micromanaged our childhood, but I was very lucky to have a mom who was always there and always showed up and always made sure we felt supported. My dad showed affection primarily by supporting the family financially. Unfortunately, this meant that while my mom acted as chauffeur, home cook, janitor, caretaker, and homework checker, my dad was in the office working 14-16 hour days, so we typically wouldn't see him very often or for very long during the week. But I will always remember my parents, specifically my dad, telling us: "If you need to pay for something to improve yourself, or make yourself better," i.e. workout equipment, books, music classes, academic classes, speech and debate bootcamps, "we will pay for it." What I didn't realize at the time, and I'll paraphrase what I interpret from their actions: "We love you so much, we'll invest any amount of time or money to make sure you can pursue your passion, if it will make you a better person."

I actually don't really express affection all that often. I think my experience with my parents has led me to be much more cognizant of the way that others express affection, so I kind of base my interactions with other people off of the way I perceive their preferences to be. So the extent of my physical affection is limited to those who I feel closest to, and even then, physical displays of affection are limited to other people's comfort level.

For example, I know my parents don't like having a digital footprint. While I don't mind listing my own name, I've chosen to remain anonymous since I know they would feel uncomfortable with their love languages being publicly mentioned online.

R.D., 28, San Jose, born to Kashmir parents from Pakistan and England

My dad was born in Pakistan, and my mom was born in England. Both are originally from Kashmir. I was born & raised in California and continue to live in California.

As a child, hugs & kisses were normal but not expected. As I grew older, they became less frequent. Between my younger sister and myself, physical affection was fairly limited. We did show affection in different ways (ie; helping with things, making food / treats, going on walks etc) but if we hugged it would have been because one of us was going somewhere for an extended time. I rarely saw my extended family as they mostly live in other countries. When I did see my extended family, they were normally very quick to show large amounts of physical affection. And making food was a big way to show affection in my family. Spending time together (at events, on walks, showing up to my sports games, even watching TV) was another common one.

The way I show affection now, I think it's heavily dependent on my relationship with that person, and the setting. I can generally match the response of the other person, though I don't think I'd be the type to cry or 'hug it out' with a friend. I think your environment plays a large role in how you interact with people physically. Your family, friends and even community will shape and mold how you interact with your others.

K (they/them), early 30s, Yonsei Shimanchu

I’m yonsei shimanchu (Okinawan with roots in Okinawa honto).  My parents moved to Los Angeles in the 80’s after being raised in Hawaii,  where my great-grandparents immigrated to as contract laborers for the sugar plantations.

Physical affection was used only as a greeting — hugs only.  I believe I asked for a kiss on a scraped knee(or arm, I don’t remember which) which was met with a lesson on keeping open skin wounds clean and that kissing was dirty.  (My mother is a nurse).  I’m an only child but my mother was affectionate with our dogs a lot more so than with my father or myself.

Love in my family is expressed through acts of service and money (not necessarily gifts).  My parents never hesitated to buy me equipment for sports I was playing or to spend hours making snacks for all of the other kids on my sports teams.  My dad coached all of the sports teams I was on.  My mother volunteered to help out at any activity I was doing, be it the PTA or leading our Girl Scout troop.

I am getting better at feeling comfortable with using physical touch to comfort others, only initiated by me, in addition to short moments during greetings and goodbyes.  Casual physical touch puts me on edge.

I am sure that the lack of physical connection with my family has influenced my intolerance to physical contact/affection.  In addition to being an only child, my parents had no extended family to rely on so while my cousins are all about the hugs, I most definitely am not.  A friend in high school was very playful and used to love to grab people’s elbows. It was the first time anyone not in my family kept touching me and I mistakenly took her actions as a sign of romantic affection and developed a crush

T.S. (she/her), 26, SF Bay Area, Low-income single parent multiple children household, Vietnamese

My mom was born in Saigon, Vietnam. My biological father was born and raised in Vietnam as well. I have an older sister and both of us were born in Saigon and we lived there until 1998, until I was two. My mom divorced my biological dad and remarried a caucasian American man that she had met through my step-grandpa.

For a lot of Vietnamese families, my own included, physical affection is not a major love language, so we didn’t see that as much compared to what happens in caucasian families. I did get a lot of hugs and kisses when I was younger because I was a cry baby and scared of the world, so I stuck around with older adults that I trusted by hanging onto their arms, or asking for piggy backs. We don’t really give each other hugs unless someone is going on a trip or going somewhere for a really long time and I only give and receive kisses from my grandparents and that might be because of the French influences on our family, as well as, Vietnamese culture.

My sister and I didn’t hug each other a lot when we were younger unless we were asked to for pictures (but she hated my guts) but now we hug each other a lot or we’ll latch onto each other's arms and walk around like that around the mall. Also, in Vietnamese culture, it’s expected of younger people to bow when they greet older people, so for the first few years of my life, I would bow to my older relatives because that’s what they asked us to do, but as I got older, it became just hugging. There was a transition later, where I would bow and then hug them, but only after they realized how normal it was in American culture to hug. My step-dad also let us sit on his lap, pat us on the head, and other stuff that’s normal for caucasian families.

Affection was shown mostly with gifts in the family. For the Lunar New Year, if you were a favorite of an aunt or uncle, we could get more money in your red envelope, or try to talk and speak to you more often than others. Another way was that if someone was sad or felt down, the adults would cut up some fruit or cook up some good food and bring it to them, or pay for a meal for them.

I don’t think the way I was raised significantly affects how I show affection today. It just affects how I interact with my family members and I think how the influences or the variables of how I interact with non-family members come from elsewhere.

Article featured in this issue:
February 2022
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