Last weekend I went downtown to meet a guy from Germany, as I approached him he reached out to hug me. I was caught off-guard; it’s strange to embrace someone for the first time, especially if you’ve only had a few seconds to take in the dimensions of their body. He was small and lithe and I felt large and bulky holding him. The last time I had been touched by someone in an intimate way was almost two months ago when my best friend hugged me goodbye at PDX.
The thought that I might not have sex during my time in China didn’t bother me, but I had not realized how much I would miss the intimate familiarity of my friends and family. I’m a hugger by nature. Embracing people feels natural to me. My new friend and I had talked online a bit; we were both from Western countries, both foreigners in this place, and both gay. So I felt a certain kinship with him, it felt right to embrace.
Because of the distance of my campus from downtown, and the fact I am the only foreign teacher here, I spend a lot of time alone in my apartment.
The thing is, I am always being touched in China, I brush past people all the time as I stumble through crowds, out of synch with everyone in the city. But especially when I push myself into the crammed busses and subways. This closeness has no intimacy though; people don’t react when our legs rest against each other sitting down or when I am pushed up against them. It would be embarrassing in America, to be so close to a stranger, but here there is none. I am just an object in their world.
Maybe everyone in China shares a level of intimacy I can’t comprehend.
My students touch each other all the time. Girls lock arms as they walk through campus. Boys put their arms around the shoulders of their friends under umbrellas. When I ask a girl to answer a question she will hold the hand of her friend absent-mindedly while she things of the answer. I’ve seen a few boys do this too. Students put their hands on their friend’s thighs when they lean over to whisper something in their ears or lean on each other’s shoulders when they are bored. I watched a boy lean over the shoulder of his friend as they talked with a girl sitting behind them. The boy wrapped his arm around his friend’s waist as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It would seem romantic gesture, intimate, but I see all these interactions all day long, they are so thoughtless.
I see Chinese couples holding hands, but never kiss. Or hug.
Maybe nothing is intimate if someone else can see it. Maybe everything intimate happens in private.
When I said goodbye to my new German friend in the subway tunnel we hugged again. Dozens of people walked by us, two Western men stopping to hug in the middle of a crowded tunnel, an obstacle to avoid, having an intimate moment.