Asian Girls Linking Arms: A Cultural Thing?

Fact: many Asian girls link arms when they are out and about.

When I lived in Malaysia and Singapore, I saw Asian girls and women walking in pairs through shopping malls with arms linked around the elbows, touching skin-on-skin. Sometimes I saw them even holding hands, walking and chatting with one another. Today whenever I troop down to Melbourne’s Chinatown, my eye will never fail to spy similar scenes.

Holding hands 3

What does it mean when Asian girls link arms or hold hands? Drawing by Mabel Kwong.

Just what does it mean when Asian girls link arms, and why do they do it so frequently? Googling this trend, it seems Asian men in certain Asian countries do this as well.

This phenomenon has been discussed here and there on some online forums. There is no concrete evidence as to where it originated from, so we can only speculate the reasons why Asian girls are fans of linking arms today.

Contrary to popular belief, the sight of two Asian girls hooking their arms around one another usually does not signify that sexual behaviour is going on between them. Most of the time, it does not mean that both are in a homosexual relationship with one another or silently screaming “I love you” to the other – which is what many Westerners commonly think. Linking arms also tends not to be a means of physical protection or ganging up gung-ho style.

Putting this phenomenon down to a “cultural thing”, and “Asian thing”, is arguably a very reasonable explanation for it.

This act of linking arms on part of Asian girls – and some Asian boys, women, men – can be seen as an unconscious means to express hidden, pent-up emotional affection. After all, it is human nature to have intimate feelings towards other people and a desire to express that.

Kissing and hugging with the opposite sex in public is deemed rude in Asian cultures. In fact, showing physical affection to your heterosexual partner is often frowned upon and shunned in many conservative Asian societies. So where can Asian individuals express built-up affectionate emotions and with whom?

With the same sex of course. Linking arms/holding hands is as close as an Asian girl will get to another person outside of a heterosexual relationship. Acting touchy-feely with other Asian girls – for example playing with each other’s hair or putting make-up on one another – is constantly seen as cute in Asian communities.Also,  Asian girls and boys are encouraged to stick closely with other girls and boys respectively, be it in the classroom or playground, by their parents from a young age up until their twenties. So an Asian girl out on the town might be unknowingly channeling any underlying affection she may have towards a (male) person she is attracted to through linking arms with a girl friend – and in the eyes of conventional Asian society, “arming up” with a girl is an acceptable act.

Or perhaps these Asian girls are just so accustomed to playing with their Asian female friends in intimate ways or maybe even attracted to one another in the harmless non-sexual girly “I-like you-a lot” sense, and so why not intimately wrangle their arms round one another? It’s just natural for them.

Another probable reason why Asian girls like to link arms or hold hands can be attributed to their obsession to look young and feel young – there are dozens of whitening anti-aging products in Asia fervently sought after by Asians. Holding hands is strongly associated with children: in school, children are always buddied-up and asked to line up in pairs holding hands in school during excursions or fire drills. As such, linking arms might very well hearten Asian girls to feel young again, maintaining a youthful façade.

And yet another logical explanation for this phenomenon is that it is a means whereby Asians convey friendship. A symbol of mutual friendship, plain and simple. Friendship is articulated in various forms: listening, sharing, hugging. So why not linking arms and holding hands? There’s no reason why linking arms or entwining hands can’t be an “Asian-code” of friendship, expressed by two Asian people who are very good friends. And a good, fun means to drag their best girl friend into a shop.

However, there is the possibility that this whole linking arms trend is really more a personal thing rather than a cultural one. That is, whether one links arms with their friends may depend solely on their personal preference and perspective on life.

Some Asians might find linking arms amicably with the same sex unsettling and surely not all of them like to do so. I know some of my Asian friends who find casually linking arms with the same sex as bizarre. Also, older Asians don’t seem to do it too often, so perhaps it’s a generational thing too?

I’m one of those who isn’t entirely a huge fan of linking arms with my female partners in crime. I don’t often link arms with them. I never initiate this linking arms thing, never slinging my skinny arms around my friends’ as we walk down the streets of Melbourne.

But on the occasional occasion when they hook their left arm over my right, I don’t object. To me, this feels…natural. And nice.

In such a promiscuous world today, it would be nice if we could all come to see the sight of two Asian girls linking arms as no more than two friends enjoying innocent, wholesome company. Why not?

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35 thoughts on “Asian Girls Linking Arms: A Cultural Thing?

  1. I had an attractive female Chinese friend in Sydney who used to walk around holding hands with another attractive Chinese female. They were just friends but sometimes little kids would say, “Look mum, lesbians!” while dirty old men would smile as they imagined a fantasy involving the two ladies.

    I saw a lot of the same-sex touching in Japan and China and I attributed it to repressed intimacy that you mentioned. In Japan, it was very common between mother and daughter and because lots of marriages formed out of convenience rather than love, I believed a lot of Japanese wives got intimacy through children rather than husbands. In China I think a lot of marriages also formed for reasons other than love and there was also a great deal of touching between females, but I didn’t see as much between mother and daughter.

    I think Asians are probably more comfortable with the same sex touching because homosexuality is not really visible in Asian society. Many homosexuals actually enter into fake marriages to keep their sexuality hidden. Ironically, I think this denial of homosexuality makes people more comfortable with appearing to be gay. As far as many Asians are concerned, it is only in western society where homosexuality is common.

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    • Very true. In most Asian societies, homosexuality is taboo, so taboo that it is sort of taboo to even think about it and acknowledge it. One gets immediately shushed by someone else if they dare speak about this topic. So perhaps that’s why same sex touching is associated as playful gestures here – they can’t bear to think otherwise.

      Often, a lot of Westerners I’ve encountered in Melbourne find it hard to believe that girl-on-girl harmless-non-sexual touching is just, well, just that – and this really reinforces what you’ve just mentioned.

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  2. Excellent and insightful piece Mabel! You are always so observant! 🙂 Now that you mentioned it, I have seen a lot of Asian girls linking arms. Although I don’t link arms with my friends, I still think it’s nice, and we have to remember friendships are expressed in different cultures. For example in ancient China, men like to go out with their buddies for drinks in tea houses, or sit around and talk about Jiang-Hu affairs (in ancient times, Jiang Hu means the society, the community etc…it’s a bit hard to explain). Or, gather round for a game of Mahjong.

    For some people, they are not used to seeing same sex friends linking arms without thinking they are romantic partners. I guess it’s about getting used to it. My mother, who was born and grew up in Vietnam, said it’s a common thing for girls to link arms when they are going out.

    A lot of people have dirty minds these days, and like to judge people like they’ve known them already. I often find people laugh at wholesomeness these days and I don’t understand why. Back then, wholesomeness was regarded as a positive virtue but unfortunately this idea is no longer safe guarded. A lot of people’s minds these days are corrupted with materialism, cheap entertainment, de-sensitised to misery and misfortunate (unless it falls on them and they demand sympathy), selfishness, self-centredness, sex, debauchery and the unfailing ability to improve oneself in literacy levels. (Sorry I am going off topic here!).

    In a culturally diverse society we live in, I think it’s important to remind ourselves we are all brought up with different customs. So if we see anything unusual to us, we need to be open-minded and understand that some things are normal in different societies.

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    • Hsin-Yi,
      You’ll find your answer for why wholesomeness went out of fashion by visiting the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. Basically, the wholesome mind was judged to be a mind that didn’t accept differences of sexual orientation, cultural diversity nor accept the expression of sexual desire. The gays reacted to that by vilifying the conservatives and acting in a very sexual liberal manner within a public setting. It can actually be hard to be both wholesome and open-minded at the same time because one is about restraint while the other is about being liberal.

      Anyway, back onto the interpretation of women holding hands, as far as most Australians are concerned, it is not abnormal, it is just that holding hands is something only couples do so if two women are holding hands, the assumption is that they are gay.

      On this issue, I personally think the important thing is to remember that actions are interpreted differently by different cultures. For example, if I were in Japan and wanted to pass food to a date using chop sticks, I would offend the Japanese because they would associate my action with death. In Korea, it would be be flirtatious to pass food using chopsticks. So knowing that I would offend, I would be faced with the choice between being misunderstood or just changing. If people believe strongly in something, it’s best not to change but sometimes just adapting makes things easier all around. So if Asian migrants believe same-sex touching between friends is a worthwhile custom, by all means they should continue and maybe in 30 years, perceptions will change. In the meantime; however, there will be a lot of presumptions of lesbianism, stares from little kids and dirty thoughts from men. That will be the price to be paid. My friend was prepared to pay it and she took the reaction in good humour.

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      • Redbluesky,

        I think you have misinterpreted the definition of wholesomeness. I am referring to a clean mind, a mind that doesn’t think of salacious things, I am not speaking about wholesomeness training people to have a parochial mind.

        And I was talking about linking arms between friends of the same sex, not holding hands. It’s not very common amongst non-Asian communities here that female friends link arms. Thats why I was saying when we see something uncommon or abnormal it’s important to remember that we are all brought up with different customs

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    • I really like how you brought up the point of “wholesomeness”. Flip on the tv and you’ll see people dressed provocatively or acting all rich and stuck-up. Or overhear conversations on public transport and you’ll hear people complaining about their cushy lives. Such people are so caught up in promiscuity and materialism that they sometimes misinterpret the friendly, wholesome act of holding hands.

      True that some people have dirty minds, especially in the sexual sense. Best to ignore them and walk away if that does not float your boat 🙂

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    • Very interesting. In Asian cultures, it is common for both boys (children) and girls to sleep in the same bed without touching too. I’ve had a read of your post on homosexuality – a very thorough analysis and exploration of the issue in Kenya!

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  3. I think it’s just a way to show affection. As kids, we link arms or hold hands with people we feel close to without giving it much thought. That, until society messes it up. When I was a teen, I continued my tradition of holding my childhood best friend’s hand until classmates started to speculate we were lesbians and I stopped to kill the rumors.

    I find that as societies continue to develop and have increased exposure of western concepts, their awareness of homosexuality is increased but so does homophobia in that sense seeing how most Asian still frown upon it.

    A Chinese male friend for example would be quite touchy with other men just as a way to be friendly, but when he acted that way with Australian and Koreans, they were extremely uncomfortable and started making all kinds of gay jokes.

    In any case, I have continued to link arms with my best friend. We’re best friends, if the world thinks we’re more than that, nothing wrong with it I suppose.

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    • I am finding this discussion very ironic as I actually envy the relationship that homosexual men can have with women. I’ve often wanted to link arms, hug or praise women with no sexual intent in kind, but I have been unable to in case it is misconstrued. Even just been nice has sometimes been misconstrued and led to problems. I once knew a lady who I was great friends with. We had tried a relationship, but that didn’t work, but we were able to stay great friends and hold hands. I liked that. (Unfortunately, it is difficult to stay friends with ex girlfriends when you get a new one.)

      With men, I’ve noticed I am hugging my close male friends who I haven’t seen for a while when we catch up. Maybe there has been a cultural change or we are just getting older and are confident that nothing sexual is implied. I like it because I genuinely feel happy to see them.

      The final issue that I was thinking about was the physical embrace that used to be common when I played football. The coach used to say that if a team mate did a good thing, we should run up and ‘pat them on the arse’. That was a bit of a bridge too far for me but patting in the back was ok. Hugging was rare in my team but grand final winners hug each other. I guess that the football field is such an asexual environment that there is no innuendo involved.

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      • Interesting discussion going on here indeed. I’ve seen men and blokes – Caucasian, and Asians as well – hugging when they catch up here in Australia. You’re right about this, and perhaps it’s a combination of both cultural change and confidence that nothing is sexual going on here that this happens so often. Among males, back in the day, they would be all for giving hi-fives or handshakes with one another when they met. Chest bumping used to/is sometimes common among males too when they’re interacting with one another – more physical contact. So perhaps among males, stemming from these examples, there is a graduation towards hugging and embracing, which is what we see today.

        Or perhaps, as Hsin-Yi (http://hsinyilo.wordpress.com/) mentioned above, many of us males and females alike are lusting after wholesomeness and are more likely to be asexual in thought today.

        And hugs are nice. They give you a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling – who doesn’t like a good hug?

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    • I guess there is always “chalk and cheese” in society. While some are in favour of homosexuality, some aren’t. The latter is still particularly so in Asian countries, most likely because many pride on adhering to traditional values, values that they bestow much pride upon.

      I like your attitude and you have all my support in linking arms with your best friend. As you put it, there is nothing wrong with other people thinking if the two of you are more than just friends. Everyone has an opinion, and you can’t go worrying about the billions of opinions in the world, you’ll go crazy 🙂

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  4. I’ve noticed that about Asian girls, too. Definitely not something people do in the States past a certain age. So I think it’s at least partly definitely cultural. But I think you’re onto something with the personal and generational thing, too. Even if it’s really acceptable for people to watch certain TV shows, or whatever, here, doesn’t mean I’m going to!

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    • The more I think about this holding hands thing, the more it does seem that it’s a cultural, generational and personal thing. Whenever we make a choice, whether we actively know it or not, we usually base them on our cultural values, what our peers think and our personal tastes. These there factors tend not to be mutually exclusive when we choose to do something in general.

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  5. Maybe you can help me. I have a partner who is from SE Asia and we have been living as husband and wife for 2 years in Boston. Her friend is coming to visit and she has asked me if it is ok for her friend to share our bed and for me to sleep in the spare room during the short visit (couple of days)? Is this normal? I know there is nothing sexual at all and can understand single women doing this (sort of an adult slumber party i guess) but is it normal to still be doing this when they are married?

    Thanks for your reply.

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    • I would find it unusual, but a lot has to depend on your wife’s background and her relationship with her friend as well. If they are very close friends, maybe this is her way of asking for ‘me’ time and relieving the past days where she and her friend would share the bed and have a heart to heart talk. I’m guessing perhaps that your spare room might not have a bed large enough for two?

      In the end, the best way is just to ask your wife directly, letting her know that you would like to understand her better. I think she would really appreciate your interest in her and be happy to share her thoughts with you without you having to do the guesswork.

      Just my two cents as someone from Southeast Asia.

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    • Strawbelries has definitely suggested some interesting thoughts on this situation – perhaps your partner does want some “me” time or just some time alone with her friend, and there might not be anything sexual about it at all. They might want to stay up late, lying in bed side-by-side and having best-friend chat. Something like a slumber party as you suggested.

      Perhaps this is the only comfortable bed in the house and your partner feels that its appropriate her friend gets a good rest/sleep during her short stay in Boston (after all, traveling can be very tiring). In Asian cultures, men are traditionally thought of as “macho”. That is, it’s their role to take care of women – providing them food to eat and the money to buy food etc.. This mentality still exists in parts of SE Asia today. So perhaps this is why your partner has requested you sleep in the spare room.

      And I agree with Strawbelries – have a chat with your partner directly!

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  6. I, myself, have often wondered about this “behavior,” but never thought it necessarily indicative of a sexual relationship. Though I’ve noticed it mainly with Asian women (here in America), the only other notable exception would be with women who are, or appear to be, mother and daughter (younger woman/older woman pairings). I’m an American Black woman whose closest friends have tended to be men, and it never ceases to amaze me how difficult people find it to believe that we are not *just* friends. I think such attitudes reflect the attitude-holders’ own inabilities to be “just friends,” either with their own sex, or members of the opposite sex. While walking to work the other day, I saw two men, probably in their late 20s or early 30s, standing on a corner, across the street, kissing. I called out, “Let’s hear it for love!” (though it might simply have been ‘lust’). One of them raised his fist to me, in a kind of salute, and said, “To love!” I’m so glad you wrote about this. Some people just need to get a life!

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    • Yes, many today hold the strong perception that if we hang out with the opposite sex all the time, we must be in some form of heterosexual relationship with them. This is a very interesting phenomenon indeed – perhaps some people think this way so as to shun all thoughts/ideas/suggestions of their loved ones and friends getting involved in non-heterosexual relationships. Being genuinely just friends with people is a very nice thing – you tend to be very honest among yourselves and get a very honest relationship with people whom you are just friends with – and sadly some just can’t see this.

      Thank you for reading and stopping by!

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  7. Your deduction to why Asian girls link their arms is ridiculous. In many cultures, in certain Asian cultures, friendship towards the same sex is expressed in this way. There is no such thing as ‘your bubble.’ Done.

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    • Thanks for your comment. Yeah, I bet linking arms with those of the same sex happens in other cultures too. I haven’t noticed this with other cultures too much, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen.

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  8. Pingback: Why Asians Stick With Asians | Local Culture Guide

  9. Get your filthy minds out of the gutter for heavens sake! It is merely an indicator of the closeness of a (non sexual) relationship.
    I am a westerner and have been married to a Chinese lady for 25 years. My wife and our daughter often walk in public together with arms linked or holding hands. It’s a pity that western females don’t show this emotional openness but I guess they are more afraid of being branded as gay than being comfortable enough to show their feelings for their friends/family.

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    • Spot on, Adam. Asian girls linking arms and holding hands – it’s been going on for a very, very long time and it’s got nothing to do with being sexually attracted to the same sex. And it’s great to see that Asian girls don’t make a huge fuss or give two cents about people making a huge fuss over them doing this. They are just so comfortable with themselves and their culture.

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  10. Hi Mabel, I wanted to say that here in the Netherlands girls and women do that as well from an early age on. It is that sense of bonding that you share with a friend or a relative. You can go to a big city or the smallest of villages and you will see this everywhere around you. I am 47 and I link arms with my sons aged 16 and 17, and with my oldest son’s girlfriend. But also with my female friends and some of my male friends. It is to show our bond and affection.

    I have seen pictures from the early 20th century and the Dutch seem to be have been doing this a long time. I was born in Dutch Guyana and even my own people do it. I see Turkish, Arab, Asian and African girls and women doing it. And sometimes it can be quite hilarious when you walk the street and a group of five or more girls with linked arms approach you!

    I only hold hands with my partner (our fingers entwined) but I even stopped holding hands with my sons last year even though the youngest one still grasp my hand automatically – the sweetheart.
    I hope the linking arms and holding hands will never disappear. It is so nice to see such a positive gesture in public in a time where hate seems to rule.

    Love your blog!

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    • That is so interesting to hear that in the Netherlands linking hands with your girlfriends and those in your family is common too. Lots of camaraderie going around there. It must be a cozy kind of feeling you get each time you link arms with each other out of love and affection.

      Maybe your youngest likes holding hands for protection, or a feeling of safety, that is safety in numbers and you feel that together, you can achieve more. Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words, Mya. I really appreciate it.

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