Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Chinese Problem with Hugs

I am not a touchy sort of person.  Physical affection is most definitely NOT one of my languages of love.

As with so many things, I blame this all on being Chinese.

In my family, we didn't really hug, kiss or say "I love you."  That was the American way of showing love, like the Brady bunch or the Cosby family.  I didn't think there was anything strange because growing up in very Asian Hawaii, most of my friend's families seemed even less affectionate than mine.

I realized my experience was uniquely Chinese during a college Family Communication Behavior class.  Dr. Kathy Galvin noted that Chinese families shower their babies and kids with physical affection (and almost no discipline), but when their kids turn 6, they almost completely cease expressing any physical affection at all.

Immediately, several thoughts raced through my mind:  Wow!  That's why. . .

  • We don't all kill ourselves.
  • I can't resist pawing and kissing babies incessantly
  • I feel so uncomfortable with affection from non-Chinese friends, namely hugs and kisses 

As a human development major, I knew that the most important years of personality and identity formation were from birth to age 6.  It was fascinating that the Chinese had perfected a parenting style that eked out the most performance from their children--basically showering kids with love, affection and unconditional approval from birth to 6, providing a solid core of identity and love, then yanking it all away right when they're ready to go to school.

We hapless kids spend the rest of our lives trying to win back what we lost and barely remember. . .

And as a single (very single) young female, I realized I was starved for physical affection, and that I could get used to my non-Chinese friends greeting me with a hug and a kiss.

When I became a parent, armed with this knowledge, I was determined to not inflict this same Tiger Mom manipulation behavior over my kids.  It was easy when they were little and cute.  My Chinese instincts took over and I couldn't stop myself from hugging, kissing and squeezing their fat little thighs (usually accompanied with the words, "Squish, squish, squish").

But when they got bigger, that Chinese instinct of reserve took over and I couldn't help it.  I literally felt myself stiffen.   I had to force myself to hug older ones and invite them to sit in my lap.

Now that my 2 older girls are not only big, but bigger than me, with a son catching up quickly, it's even harder.  Frankly, I just want them to wave hi.  But as bi-racial kids showered with affection, they don't get that I, as a Chinese parent, get to stop giving it now that they're long past age 6.  Like the worst of ugly Americans, they demand it of me and take it.

They hug me as a form of torture.

I tell them, "Physical affection is NOT my language of love.  Give me a quick hug after you come home from school, but don't hang on me after that."

"Don't care!" they insist, "We want hugs!"  And then they drape their long heavy arms over my shoulders, or grab me around the waist.  Sometimes all 3 of them go for it at once--I get gang-hugged and feel like I'm going to suffocate.

I know, I know, I could have many worse problems than 3 kids who want to express physical affection.  But I can't help just wanting to be left alone.

It's in my genes.  I'm Chinese.


gr8god said...


perhaps this is just a sign that i'm an alienated ethnic, westernized in my core. i am, after all, american-born, non-chinese speaking, and married to a non-chinese woman. or maybe it's because of the modeling in my family of origin -- dad was warmer and more tactile (hugs, shoulder massage, even washing our hair when we were little), mom less so. but for whatever reason, i love hugs.

i'll admit that in these days, i'm more wary of hugging just about any woman but my wife for very long (including my own college-age daughters), but the issue there is a sense of propriety. touch is still important to me.

it's one thing i miss about montreal: the exchange of bises as a greeting among friends. when we first moved back to the u.s., i had to remind myself that such a greeting could easily be misunderstood...

Jessie said...

Indians have this same issue. I too am a non-hugger!