At one point or another, everyone has held the hand of a parent, friend or loved one.
When I was little, the act of reaching for my mom’s hand at the sight of danger was instinctual. Every intersection, open cellar door or pit bull tied to a parking meter warranted a tug on my mom’s shirt, signaling that I wanted her to take my hand.
As a child this felt so second nature, but once I grew up the habit faded. At a certain age, holding hands becomes awkward, too intimate for friendship, too romantic for familial affection. This notion, however, is not universal.
Go to any popular leisure spot in Beijing—Houhai, Nanluoguxiang, Sanlitun or even Chaoyang Park—and you’ll see all the usual stuff: parents pushing strollers, couples window-shopping and friends out to lunch.
However, you might notice something a little different about the body language involved. Specifically, there’s a lot more pushing, hugging, bumping and, most notably, a lot more holding hands.
When I first came to China, what surprised me the most – other than the fact that walking around in a crowded area felt like a contact sport – were the people holding hands. Though getting tussled on the street quickly became familiar, I couldn’t stop staring at the friendly and familial affection so publicly on display.
There were teenage girls holding hands with one another and middle-aged women walking arm in arm. There were boys reaching out for their mother’s hand and girls well into their twenties locking pinkies with their parents. To these people, holding hands felt no different than simply walking side by side. But as I looked on I felt embarrassed, like I was spying on something personal and private.
When we were young, my sister and I would hold hands too. We would walk together, her right hand holding my left. I can’t entirely place when this stopped feeling normal, but the feeling was mutual, and slowly we both stopped holding hands at school, in public and eventually wouldn’t even hold hands at home.
I recall some instances during my pre-teen years when I tried to hold my mom’s hand. She usually obliged, but one time laughed and asked, “Do you think people are wondering if you’re my girlfriend?” I realized then that for the rest of my life, handholding would be reserved for dates, significant others and my future children.
When asking my Chinese friends what it felt like, they replied, “Nothing.”
But when I was living in Beijing in 2013, one of my Chinese friends tried to hold my hand. We were walking to a bar and she reached out to me, linked our arms, and grabbed my hand.
I panicked. I could feel my palms sweating and suddenly the focus of my attention was only our linked hands.
Thoughts formed in my head. Do I look normal? Is my grip too weak? Should I be holding harder? Should I swing my arm? And the most difficult to answer: When do I let go?
Luckily for me, she quickly let go of my hand and moved on to ask someone else a question. For the next ten minutes I fixated on what had just happened, and why I had been so alarmed.
In the U.S. we think of PDA as a park bench make-out or even our parents kissing goodbye, but in China it’s not that simple. While romantic PDA is ubiquitous in the U.S., it is almost absent in Chinese society. However, the friendly or familial PDA missing from American life is alternately the norm here.
Today in China it’s popular for teenagers and young adults to hold hands as friends. In the same way that I would throw my arm around someone’s shoulder, a Chinese girl might reach out and grab someone’s hand instead.
Now that I think about it, it seems strange that holding hands is reserved for intimate romantic moments back home. Here in China it’s a casual act of friendship. Many Americans are comfortable expressing romantic love publically but are much more reserved when it comes to other types of affection, and I was no exception.
China is not a cold place—far from it.
Perhaps there is a discrepancy between the way Westerners conceptualize individuality versus the Chinese sense of self. Many Westerners are taught the value of individuality: adults around us emphasize our unique thoughts, opinions and emotions. In China, however, the family is often the smallest unit of society and the individual isn’t as important.
When I asked my Chinese friends what it felt like when they held hands, they replied, “Nothing. It feels like nothing.” They didn’t see why holding hands would be associated with love at all; it was just simply something they did.
Maybe because of our Western sense of self, actions like holding hands, hugging and high-fiving become more about ourselves than the other person. Maybe we think of everything in relation to how we feel, so everything becomes self-conscious. Thus, expressing affection becomes something reserved for only a select few.
I have found that many Americans think of China as a conservative, cold nation. These assumptions are likely a culmination of China’s modern political history, the experiences of a few and portrayals in Western media.
But if you ask any American living in China if they’ve seen a granny carry a baby without putting him down for an hour or a mother holding the hand of her twenty-year-old daughter, they will absolutely say yes. China is not a cold place—far from it. Affection has a very tangible place in society, far more so than in the United States. It may not be romantic, but love is certainly abound in China.
There’s a Chinese saying, “入乡随俗,” which has the same meaning as, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Perhaps when it comes to friendship and affection, thinking less and doing more is the way to go. The next time one of my friends reaches out to grab my hand, I won’t flinch.