For some of us stereotypical Asians, showing physical affection and love doesn’t come easy. For some of us stereotypical Asians, expressing one-on-one intimacy like holding hands, hugging and kissing someone who matters to us feels hard or doesn’t cross our minds often.
All throughout school in Malaysia and Singapore, my Chinese-Malaysian parents wagged the finger at dating and romantic escapades. Physical contact with any classmate whom I fancied was frowned upon. Part of me resented this, part of me didn’t.
Love is often entwined with affection. When it comes to expressing love by the means of touch, at times we hold back because of what we’ve always known.
For some of us of Asian heritage, our conservative upbringings go some way towards why we’re wary of physical romantic gestures. Our parents may have never advocated touchy-feely attitudes as something to be proud of. We may have grown up following a faith denouncing men/women as objects of affection, or a religion stressing pre-marital sex is taboo. In Malaysia, “collectivistic cultures” are championed in the Muslim-majority country, with codes of conduct around public displays of affection: Muslim girls have been threatened with arrest after hugging K-pop band members.
Historically, Confucianism patriarchy was advocated since the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. During the revolutionary Mao era, Chinese men and women were comrades and wore unisex army suits. They were not supposed to be lovers; intimacy was seen as a duty for procreation. Whenever I hung out with my friends at the shopping mall in my high school days, my mum chaperoned me to the door of the mall and then lurked around in nearby shops – and made sure I never went anywhere else with any of the guys. Well, I always got home safe.
As such, expressing physical affection can be embarrassing to some of us of Asian descent. It’s something we’re shy about, unfamiliar with or we don’t see that as a respectful move towards the one we fancy (until we’ve know them for a while).
Some people I’ve met are decent that way. During a break in between high school classes one afternoon, one of my Chinese guy classmates looked at me and stammered, “D-d-do you want to go shopping?” I barely heard him over the din of our classmates’ voices, across two rows of vandalised desks wedged between us. Such courage.
How we perceive the notion of love arguably rubs off on whether we’re comfortable expressing romantic affection or not. To those with the typical Asian mindset, love is much more than hands all over each other – love is practical. It’s putting food on the table and building a toilet for family. For instance, many Japanese men work round the clock for the money (and pride) and see their loved ones once in a while. One becomes acquainted with physical distance in the realm of love.
As we chase dreams and opportunities in this ever-changing world, romance and romantic intimacy willingly get put on hold as we better ourselves. But occasionally old habits die hard: matchmaking is still the norm in Asia, ironically in a time when more “shengnu” (剩女) women are embracing the single life, living independently and embracing their sexuality.
Often I get home from work, sit down for dinner and my mum goes, “When are you going to get married? You need to do all these life things…” I shovel food into my mouth. Think of finishing writing my first book. My mind flashing back to the time when out of the blue, my parents introduced me to a lanky Chinese-Malaysian guy over dinner: my lips pursed into a thin line after pleasantries. We didn’t talk much. Good. No touching. Even better.
Not all of us mind being set up with potential partners, or modern matchmaking. If You Are The One is China’s top dating show and it sees one male professional facing off with single women who will decide if he is “date-worthy” based on a series of interviews and talent stages. In Chinese culture, playing hard to get and courtship is quite the norm before the two parties get physical. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said on loving someone:
“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”
Consequently, some of us are all for physical intimacy and public displays of affection at any time of the day. Couple of Asian heritage holding hands are a common sight in Australia. Whether we warm to one-on-one touch ultimately depends on the company we keep, what we believe in and most certainly our personalities.
Physical affection can be a manifestation of lust, or a manifestation of true love. Showing affection can be a calculated move, or an unconscious move. Whichever way, they tend to be moments we remember. I’ll never forget back in high school how this guy always sat next to me in class and casually rested one palm on my skirt and thigh now and again. Each time I silently, persistently went inside, “No”. We were friends; today I see him as an Asian person with good Asian values. I wondered why he did that. Physical affection is never the means to an end to any friendship or relationship in any culture. At the end of the day we long to connect with others emotionally, as author Tahereh Mafi said:
“All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart.”
We might remember moments of affection because we believe these moments could very well bring us closer to someone for the reasons we hope. Standing upfront in the shoulder-to-shoulder mosh pit at dancing violinist Lindsey Stirling’s concert last year, Lindsey’s words echoed from the stage: “There are seven, seven couples who have met at my shows…” Silence, and suddenly a cheering crowd surged forwards, pressing against my back. My head jerking forwards, every anecdote in this post flashed across my mind. Just like falling in love, affection often comes around in a twist of fate.
For some of us, maybe we’re a bit more private and prefer to shy away from physical affection. Or maybe we’re inclined to wait because every bit of affection, given and received, is simply something special to us.
Do you show physical affection to the one you love?