When I visited China this spring, I remembered that signs of affection aren’t always obvious. Translator Fiona Zhu and I worked together two years before, when she helped me find my great-grandfather’s village in Taishan. She's become a friend and, familiar with Western Culture, she greeted me at the airport with a hug. But, although Fiona sometimes held my hand when we walked, I was not to receive a hug again in China.

We returned to my great-grandfather’s village of Git On, where I met a distant cousin for the first time. Ma Jak Ying’s great-grandfather and mine were brothers. I followed her into their old house, now falling apart, and climbed a ladder to the ancestral altar. She offered our ancestors food, lit incense, and burned fake money. I was thrilled to connect with a Chinese relative, but I knew it wasn’t typical in this culture to hug someone, especially after such a short encounter. I satisfied myself with putting a hand on her shoulder as Fiona took our photo.

Two years ago, the village’s 99-year-old patriarch, Ma Mun Fei, helped me discover that Git On was my ancestral home. He told me stories of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum, and showed me his name in the village’s book of genealogy. The reason I returned this year was to celebrate the Qing Ming Festival with Old Mr. Ma and his family. Qing Ming is a time for visiting ancestral graves. I walked with his family to a muddy cemetery in the midst of rice paddies, where we fed roast pig and rice wine to Mr. Ma’s deceased first wife, second wife, and son. Mr. Ma was too old to walk with us. But that weekend, we held a party for his 101st birthday. I gave him a gift package: candy, oranges, apples, and a red envelope with money. He was most excited about the red balloons tied to the package, which he took off and held, grinning like a boy.

When I left, I felt a strong urge to hug him, but that wouldn’t be proper. Instead, I patted his arm and took his small, bony hand in mine. When I started to let go, he gripped it for a moment longer. “Bye-bye,” he said. “Bye-bye,” I replied. We probably won’t hear each other’s voices again, this side of the grave. But that final touch was enough.

Take action! This post was submitted in response to My Story: Holding Hands.

Comment on this Post


Cara, I so related to this and to this day, some family members almost back away when they think I am going to hug them. They find my forthrightness very "western" and it clearly makes them squirm. But holding hands – those hands of many ages, hands that have toiled to make my life what it is – holding those hands connects me to their affection in a way a hug cannot. There is a lingering touch that lets me know that they are always there for me and are proud of me. Thank you for sharing this story of connection. Janice

Hey Janice,

Well, you can claim a hug or hand from me anytime, Janice, if ever we meet in person. I was delighted to see how directly you related to my post. I've been re-reading one of my favorite books, "The Hummingbird's Daughter," which is full of Mexican culture, and one of the characters, a Native Mexican (or Indian) critiqued the way caucasians (Yoris) hug:

"Have you noticed," he asked, "how the Yoris hug? ... They never put their hearts together. They lean in and barely touch the tops of their chests, and they hang their asses out in the wind so none of the good parts touch. Then they flutter their hands on each other's backs. Pat-pat-pat! One-two-three! Then they run away!"

Someone just did that with me the other night, and I almost laughed. So, it seems every culture has its eccentricities about human touch, though there's no doubt we all want it, and find a way to get it sooner or later. Thanks for touching me via the Internet. I'd been thinking about you recently, hoping to hear from you or see one of your posts. Always great...

Take care, Cara

Thank you for sharing your beautiful story Cara. Different strokes for different folks i would say. In Nigeria, females greet elders by way of courtesy and the males prostrate or give a little bow as a sign of respect. Hugs or hand shakes? No way! that is seen as too western and a sign of disrespect. Hugs and hand shakes or holding hands are reserved for ones siblings, close family members and contemporaries. Even though we all express affection differently, that bound is always there!



I love discovering the many different ways that different cultures use to express affection, friendship, and respect. Thanks for adding another sweet image to the mix, Fatima. I think the affection is there in every culture, if only we know how to read the signs.

Hi Cara,

It is really interesting to learn about how different cultures express affection. I used to live in the Netherlands, where kisses on the cheek is a common greeting. Nobody does that in Australia - just hand shakes and hugs. It took some getting used to, but I do miss it now.

Your story highlighted the importance of human touch. A little squeeze can say so much.



I love the cultures that kiss on the cheek, Katie. What a warm and wonderful greeting, though I confess sometimes I have to stifle a nervous desire to giggle. I'm glad you felt what I tried to convey: the importance of human touch in any form.

I once heard a news story about a study on how touching affects mood. In the study,as people checked books out of a library, the person who checked their books was asked to find a way to touch some, while not touching others. Then, when people came out of the library they were surveyed about their mood. Those who had been touched were more likely to report that they felt happy. I wasn't surprised.