I apologize for the academically self-indulgent entry last week, and am hoping to make up for it with something a little bit lighter this time. One of the more surprising cultural differences that I’ve become increasingly aware of from hanging out with Chinese students is the incredibly different set of rules for physical contact. In many ways, the rules for physical contact among people of different genders are completely reversed from the common norms for Americans. I know a lot of Chinese students who were quite surprised at the amount of physical contact that college-age Americans are accustomed to. The fact that male and female friends often hug every time they greet or say goodbye to each other is quite outside the comfort zone of a lot of my friends. On a trip to China two years ago through Project IMUSE a number of Chinese friends saw me and several American companions off at the airport. I remember quite clearly moving to hug one of the Chinese girls who I had become good friends with on the trip and the look of astonishment on her face. I was told later that that amount of physical contact is often only considered appropriate between boyfriend and girlfriend, and she refused a hug from a Chinese American friend who was also flying back with me for fear that he would be perceived as her boyfriend. While a good deal of PDA is common between boyfriends and girlfriends here, physical contact between genders outside of a romantic relationship is quite spare.
On the other hand, there is a good deal more physical contact between people of the same gender than Americans are accustomed to. Chinese girls often hold hands with one another as they walk down the street in a casual display of friendly affection. The rules are also different between male friends here. I have male Chinese friends that are into gripping my bicep or throwing an arm around my shoulder as we walk down the street, or slap one another’s bellies as a joke. The one thing that completely caught me by surprise, though, and which I’ve had the most difficulty getting used to, is the amount of ass-slapping among male friends. Not that hanging out with Chinese guys is like constantly hanging out in a football locker room, but it’s used every once and a while to accentuate a point during conversation–and even infrequent ass-slapping was more than I was used to.
At this point, though, I’ve been here long enough that I’ve gotten used to the physical contact besides the ass-slapping, to the point that I had forgotten how different the rules were until an American friend came to visit last week and balked at the amount of physical contact-which led to a panicked discussion with 博哥, who is transferring to Ohio State next semester, and who demanded that we explain to him exactly what would be acceptable among his American male friends.