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half enough

On hugs

I’m generally not the hugging type. I’ll hug if I’m at a function where everybody is hugging hello and hugging goodbye, i.e. graduation ceremonies. And I’ll hug if a friend who is the hugging type wants one. What I don’t like is that most of my hugs nowadays have become half-hearted including the ones I receive. It is rare that I give or get or both give and get a genuine hearty hug to or from someone. The rare occasions that I do get and/or give hearty hugs are limited to events in which I haven’t seen someone for a long period of time. I usually have an excited anticipation for the person I would hug genuinely before I see him or her, and when I do see that person, the hug is heartfelt, warm and long enough to be felt and absorbed.

American hugs these days feel routine. I call them half-hugs. They’re the ones we give to acquaintances and the ones we can’t avoid when we’re at large functions because everyone is giving them. Handshakes are more meaningful than meaningless half-hugs that we don’t want to give anyway. I only see long and hearty hugs at airports.

When I was in Spain for six months as an exchange student, I adapted quickly to the Spanish customs. I remember arriving at my host mother’s house as she greeted me with open arms and a kiss on both cheeks. She made me feel so welcome that it felt like I was seeing my long lost Spanish grandma after fifteen years. This was our first time meeting.

I wasn’t used to such a physical culture. And while this was all new to me, it didn’t feel foreign either. I flowed naturally into the Spanish order of things. When I think about it, Spaniards thought I was Spanish, which may be a reason why there was a natural comfort when I was among them. However surprised my Spaniard friends were to know that I was half Japanese and half White with no trace of Spanish blood, they still thought I was Spanish. I looked the part, therefore I was Spanish, and for the rest of my days in Spain I would be greeted as a fellow Spaniard however poor my language skills. Aside from the intellectual dwelling, Spanish hugs are the best. They’re the most natural ice-breaker.

This brings me to the Japanese hug. The Japanese hug is like half of the American half-hug. It’s almost not even a hug. I call it a hardly-hug.

The cultural differences between Japan and the United States became blatantly apparent when I visited my family in Japan a couple of winters ago. It had been three years since I last saw all of my relatives there. I thought it would only be natural to give my grandma a huge bear hug when I saw her. I remember running up the stairs to her apartment and as soon as she opened the door, I went at her with my arms wide open. Her way of returning the hug was soft pats on my shoulder. 90% of the hug was from me and the remaining 10% was from my grandmother who, it seemed, just tried (and not very hard) to go along with my American cultural habits. There was no doubt that she was happy to see me. She just wasn’t the hugging type. It was the same with all of my Japanese aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Hugs were foreign to them, something they didn’t do or see regularly. I think the only reason why they accepted my hugs were because I was American and didn’t look Asian.

Unless I’m in Spain, I consider myself not to be the touchy-feely type. And hugging is too physical an act in Japan unless you’re an infant or toddler. When I think about it, the hugs my mom gave my brother and me from when we were toddlers until around the sixth grade were a regression of American-like hugs. We got the whole-hug up until age six and the half-hug until age twelve. After that, it was the Japanese hardly-hug and those are rare.

While it may seem abnormal to some average Americans, this has made me more curious about Japanese culture. I argue with myself that the reason why I’m not generally the hugging or touchy-feely type is because it’s a part of my personality. I’m beginning to think, though, there may be some familial factors.

My mother not giving me hugs after age twelve wasn’t traumatizing. It’s made me think about the hugs I give and whether they’re meaningful to the person receiving my hug. I’m going to stick with the whole-hug. I might throw in a Spanish hug on special occasions.

© 2006 Victoria Kraus

culture identity

このシリーズについて

"Half Enough" is Victoria's first regular column series. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Discover Nikkei.