I scanned the page of the last chapter of my Chinese textbook and smiled to myself. The characters for ‘hug, embrace’ jumped out at me, and I was instantly reminded of Andy, a Taiwanese local who has come to be one of my closest friends, and also my tutor in more matters than just the Chinese language alone.
In a course of 11 months since I first moved here, I have transitioned from knowing barely any Chinese to completing book 4 of the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese textbook series. Having covered politics, entertainment, industries and food, we are finally learning vocabulary and structures that anyone speaking any language could relate to. From kisses to condoms, who wouldn’t want to know such terms in another language?
“那, 老師.如果兩個人一邊摟著, 一邊走一走,也算是[摟摟抱抱]嗎? 可以在公共場所摟抱嗎?”
“So teacher, if two people place arms around each other while strolling around, would that still be considered as ‘cuddling’? Is it ok to do so in a public place?”
I asked because there was some level of discomfort amongst my fellow classmates about PDA as we compared the differences in Western and Asian societies. And it reminded me again of one particular cultural conflict I have experienced myself.
Hugging and embracing are actions that I as an Aussie am particularly used to, and up until I’ve settled in Taiwan, have taken for granted. A common gesture of warmth and familiarity, it’s not restricted to men or women, age group, or location. If you know them and like them, you hug them.
In Taiwan however, there’s not much of a touching culture. Though amongst the youngins, this is slowly changing, it is generally accepted that an embrace is something shared romantically and should be done in private. Female friends have been spotted hugging each other, but when male and female counterparts share one, especially in public it will attract looks.
I was already aware of Taiwan’s unspoken code of conduct. When Andy and I were becoming bosom buddies, I asked him if every now and again he’ll make the exception to hug a female friend…me. Then after one night of hanging out, he gave me one. A few formal steps I cared to go through, but we got there. It felt like an achievement more than a natural gesture. But hey, that first hug, albeit a little gingerly on his part which involved fatherly pats on the back, was a sign of overcoming cultural barriers for a friend.
In the earlier months of my life here, Andy would take me around on scooter rides. We would go explore places beyond Taipei. Zipping across highways, mountain roads and dirt tracks. Despite never riding before, I thoroughly enjoyed the rush of wind and thrill of weaving in and out of the crazy Taipei traffic. I felt safe holding onto Andy whenever we went out for a brisk ride.
Little did I know, hugging someone around their waist while on a back of a scooter can be construed as a romantic gesture in Taiwan. It’s what couples do…or that subtle hint to the person you’re holding that you’re interested in them.
I had no such intention to give misleading cues of attraction. Andy was thoroughly uncomfortable but it wasn’t until much much later down the year that he told me. Meanwhile, oblivious to what the dating game is like in Taiwan, I kept it going. I was just concerned with safety, for crying out loud.
But this is exactly the type of cultural differences that could sneak up on even the most suspecting of people. As expats we are for the most part, pretty sensitive to the the culture of our new home. But when it comes to portraying emotions and body language, especially relating to rules of attraction, what we see as conservative or relaxed, appropriate or not, may differ greatly from a local’s perspective. And this is where it gets tricky. That is, you may not find out until much later down the track that you’ve caused your friend any ill-feeling. I’m using Andy as an example, but I have also observed yet another cultural cue amongst many locals that should be noted. Taiwanese locals are wonderful hosts and to the foreigner may be too polite to confront any issue they are met with. Even as friends, they will be reluctant to tell you where you have overstepped certain cultural norms.
So how to prevent yourself from getting into such awkward situations? Just keep asking those questions you initially deem weird…no matter how small and insignificant it may seem to you.
Though I didn’t appreciate the feeling of guilt settling upon me because Andy couldn’t tell me directly and early on, it was a worthwhile lesson. To be able to overcome that cultural gap and communicate openly makes it especially comforting when awkward conversations and apologies are done and dusted. In his slight Taiwanese accent, he tentatively asked, “Are we cool?”. Yes Andy. We are very cool.
I won’t be embracing Andy’s waistline again any time soon. But that’s mainly because I currently own a scooter too. The hugs are still happening though, thank goodness.
“What does walking with arms around each other even look like?”
I looked at my teacher’s perplexed expression and grinned; stood up and politely asked to demonstrate. With the slight inclination of her head, I reached for her waist and guided her arms around my shoulders. We walked in this embrace in front of my classmates, few of which became wide-eyed upon understanding that this style of ‘cuddling’ is more than acceptable in Australia.