Monday, August 3, 2015

Warmest of Welcomes

I am not naturally a hugger. I don't particularly love physical touch.

My brother totally did, and I remember as a young child overhearing a conversation my Mom had with someone else about how he would snuggle with her all day long but I was stiff and awkward with my affection.

Have you heard of the Five Love Languages? My top one is Words of Affirmation, with a close second of Quality Time, while my lowest, barely on the scale, is Physical Touch. But I married someone whose number one language is Physical Touch and gave birth to a child who must be touched in every single conversation and wants to snuggle even at age 12, so I've learned to "speak" the language for their sake.

Americans, generally speaking, are not terribly physically demonstrative when compared to many Europeans. When we moved to Macau, my husband's job was with a show which employed people from nearly every European nation along with about two other Americans. The first time I went in to the theater to meet the cast and crew, I was hugged and kiss-kissed repeatedly by sixty-odd people. The Americans in the bunch just gave a friendly wave or a handshake. To say it was overwhelming is an understatement. But it wasn't just the initial meeting, every time I'd bump into my new German or Russian or Belgium or French friends, I got the double, sometimes triple, kiss-kiss action and a hug. I decided to embrace this way of greeting, even to the point of being the one to initiate it.

Then we moved to Shanghai. Shanghai does have expats from Europe, but there are overwhelmingly large numbers of Americans here. Especially Americans from the Midwest (lots of automotive and pharmaceutical companies here). I'd spent a year perfecting the hug-kiss-kiss in Macau, and so when I'd meet someone new here, I'd go in for the physical hello. One day a few weeks into our Shanghai relocation, we met my now-bestie Cynthia (from Indiana) and both Michael and I gave her the full European hello. Then Michael and I looked at each other and started giggling. "Sorry," I told her, "we don't usually kiss people we've just met, especially not Americans!" Awkward, but one of my favorite stories.

I've dialed down the kissing to nil, but I still hug, despite not being a hugger. I think this helps with my tendency to be slightly awkward with small talk upon meeting someone, or reconnecting with them. You can engage me in deep, soulful conversation at any time, but the pattern of niceties discussing health and weather make me crazy. A hug can work to cut through all that. However, sometimes this brings a different level of awkwardness.

I have super bright red hair in a land of dark brown hair. I stand out, and this can mean that people will remember meeting me while I might not remember meeting them. I'm also lousy with names and sometimes with faces, but have great memory of things like awesome shoes. Which people generally change instead of helpfully wearing the same awesome pair every single time I see them! I tend to compensate for this lousy memory by greeting nearly everyone as though I've already met them. This means I now have a reputation as being very friendly. Which is okay! Shanghai can be a brutal place with a population of 24 million people who are more than happy to push and shove you out of their way, or at the very least run you right over (true story, I've had many bruises and a scar to prove this). So if I can be a friendly oasis in the middle of all that, awesome! But then there are days like yesterday...

I saw an older man who looked very similar to someone I'd met many months ago and had a few conversations with. He made sustained eye contact with me, which further made me think we knew each other. So I put a huge grin on my face and bounded across the room to give him a big ol' hug. Hello! How have you been! I haven't seen you in ages! He returned my hug but his face was one of confusion. "Do we know each other? I just moved to Shanghai... and I don't think we've ever met," he informed me.

Very quickly I swallowed any embarrassment which could have caused my face to flame into fierce blushing, and tried to do a charming laugh. "Oh! Well welcome to Shanghai, then! I'm so happy you're here! Welcome! I'm Heather! I have to run and find my family now, but it was lovely to meet you and I'm sure I'll see you again soon! Buh-bye!" And out the door I ran.

I posted a very short version of this to my Facebook page, where friends chimed in to say they weren't surprised, or that I had greeted them similarly when we first met and it made them feel so welcome. Sooo, yeah. Maybe I have something in common with a certain enthusiastic Disney snowman?

I never got comfortable with the kiss-kiss greeting, but I'm now firmly a fan of saying hello with a hug. Unless you just prefer a big smile. I'm very fluent in that, too.

1 comment:

  1. I hear you - the whole greeting thing is definitely an unrecognized hazard in the expat community. It would be fine if you could just adopt the custom of your host country, but most of the time you're in a mix of cultures. In Korea, a bow was theoretically fine - assuming your new Korean friend hadn't lived or worked among Westerners. I can't tell you how many times I would meet a Korean and I would bow and they would stick out their hand for a handshake. (Son#1 eventually developed a sort of bowing handshake, which he claimed covered all the bases, but it still looked odd to me.) It was easy with the Germans - new ones, you shake hands with, friends, it was always kiss-kiss. My biggest problem was the number of different cultures I had friends from- and making a quick mental distinction (bow? handshake? kissese? hugs?) without looking too stupid. Here in the UK, it's mostly kiss-kiss - but not always, since we have plenty of American (and other) expats working at MrL's company.


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