How does your culture handle human touch?
I moved to Ecuador two years ago, and during that time, I’ve learned that notions of space are drastically different here than in the United States. One time, I waited for twenty minutes at a pharmacy because the older women and men kept going in front of me in line. Then, people my age started cutting through, apparently sensing my hesitancy. They would approach the window as if asking a question, and then sneakily file their order. I was baffled, temporarily upset; then I tried it. A slight shove, holding my footing ground, and I made it to the window. Success. In Ecuador, lines are suggestions. We all rub up against each other a little as we try to make our way to the front; it’s not rude, or invasive; it’s tradition.
In Ecuador, fathers walk down the streets with their arms around their teenage sons. I saw one of these duos today from the window of my yellow taxi cab. The father was shaking his head and laughing, his arm tossed around his son’s shoulders. The son was trying to explain something, gesturing wildly with his hands, staring at the ground then up at his dad’s face. I imagined the son explaining how some new romance was in the works — how he was confused as to what to do and how to behave — and the father was reminiscing on his days of youth. Wisdom was passed from one generation to the next, tucked within the space of an arm’s length.
The older women here hold onto one another, for support, or love, or simply for need. Women walk arm in arm, wrapped into each other’s bodies as they walk down a street. There’s no separating the arm hold. It’s a small nest, a cove created for secrets to be shared: whose grandchild is doing what, what is that woman wearing, whose husband has been watching too many Cuenca Deportiva soccer games. The old women — las abuelas — whisper fast, their words impossible to overhear even when you’re sitting right behind them on the bus. They hold onto one another — an anchor in the changing present as they reminisce about their pasts, and as they weave their concerns about an unknown future.
Teenagers, too, practice the tradition. PDA is rampant. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it as much in any American city, and I’ve lived in the suburbs of Chicago, the concrete jungle of Phoenix, the sunset mountains of Tucson, and the southern drawl of Chapel Hill. In Cuenca, Ecuador, young teens cling to each other, their faces pressed together as they share air and possibilities. It could be cultural: youths here live with their parents typically until they are married, and so the sooner they find their media naranja — soul mate — the sooner they may get the chance to taste freedom.
It could be hormonal: teens in all corners of the world respond to that fire dancing in their bellies. Once, I was riding my bike down a clearly marked bicycle-only lane, and a lovey-dovey couple wandered right in front of me. They were too busy neck-kissing and eye-staring to realize that I was charging toward them at a pretty fast pace. Breaks screeched; I almost fell over. In what I imagined to be perfectly clear Spanish, I yelled, “Este camino es para los bicis, no para los enamorados!” (This lane is for bikes, not for lovers!) I smirked as I rode away, thinking I had made my point. But I glanced back, and they were still walking in the same lane, kissing and staring at one another, oblivious to any outer obstruction.
My friend is Ecuadorian-Tunisian, and he told me that if I think that Ecuadorian is touchy-feely, I should go to North Africa. When he’d been gone for a long time and returned to see his family in Tunisia, he was greeted by 20 people at the airport.
“When you’re gone for a long time, there’s a tradition that you give four kisses to the person, so I waited in line as 20 people came and gave me four kisses each. I was like, ‘Aghhh!”
“You can’t compare cultures though, he continued. “Sometimes I miss it, but you can’t be Tunisian here in Ecuador.” Ecuador doesn’t hold enough touch for him; Ecuador presents too much touch for others. Here, women kiss each other once on the cheek, but the men don’t do cheek kisses. In Spain, there is a double cheek kiss between all. In all the confusion of which direction to go and which cheek to kiss, you may even end up getting a kiss smack dab on the lips — and all the better.
Touch makes us feel more alive. When I’m sick, as I’ve been for the last week, and in a funk, just the touch of my partner’s hands on my shoulders can make me warmer. On a day when something is plaguing my mind, or I’ve heard news that I can’t wrap my heart around, I just want someone — anyone — to give me a hug. I fear I may burst into tears, but that would be ok. This person wouldn’t mind.
We don’t touch as much in the United States. Culturally, it’s not our norm. This is the same in many countries. I recently had dinner with a friend from Zimbabwe, and when I went to leave, I hugged her in one of those awkward I’m-standing, you’re-sitting types of good-byes. I stooped down, ostrich-like, and pecked a kiss on her forehead. I meant for it to be motherly; she stared at me in shock. “Too much touch!”
Why is it that some of us are uncomfortable with human touch- be it a kiss, a hug, a shoulder bump, a gentle shove in line? For some, it may be that their pasts hold memories too raw to open in the present moment. Touch has been abused. But touch is something we all know, and yearn for, the infant within us that wants to be held. Perhaps there’s fear: what if that person doesn’t want to be touched? But isn’t it better to try — to really try — anyway?
We may hug good-bye, but do we really give good hugs, or just a single-arm side-hug? Do we really look at one another when we speak to each other? What color are the eyes of your friends, or that last person you had a meeting with? Do we give an arm squeeze when we empathize, or a firm handshake when we meet someone?
The strongest memory I have of my grandad was in the weeks before he died. I visited him in his retirement community in Kansas City, and we were eating cheese and stale crackers and drinking 7-Up while we watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island, interspersed with recordings of my brother’s basketball games from years before. My grandad’s speech was slurred at that point, thick after years of battling Parkinson’s disease. His mind was still perfectly intact; his calculus book lay open on the table. My grandad was a neurosurgeon; he knew better than most the struggle he would encounter when he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s fifteen years before. But he’d fought all that time, until he was over 90 years old.
While we were talking, me straining to understand, nodding a few times when I pretended I knew what he was saying, and feeling instantly guilty after, he paused his story. He reached across the table and his fingers shook as he touched the golden earrings hanging from my ears. He smiled and said, “So beautiful,” looking right at me. I remember his perfectly combed hair, his blue-gray eyes, and all the wrinkles of years of laughter. That’s the memory I hold most dear. When we want to feel love, we have to give it. We have to open our eyes and palms, hold our arms wide with gratitude for the people around us — and hug, kiss, touch, and hold each other for as long as we can.