Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hello, Goodbye

America is a land of strikingly low intimacy. We carry on through our streets very rarely even looking up to see passersby. We enjoy this bubble-like element and in fact, become easily irked by any intruders. Most Chinatown buses consist of rows of people sitting next to a seat piled high with their belongings and faces that resist eye contact or the feeble ‘Is anyone sitting here’ murmured by those anxious to sit down. Entire 'Sex and the City' episodes have been devoted to the germaphobe man who insists on showering immediately following sex, and many people think twice before even sharing so much as a sip of a drink with others let alone something more private, like a kiss.

This tradition of extreme anti-intimacy is not one of the world though. The communal drinking of wine is a religious custom. Sharing, affection and commonality are supreme in most cultures.

In Asia, perhaps, their rituals are a bit too intimate for my liking. Living there, I witnessed people spitting and shooting snot rockets in broad daylight. In East Asia, the level of human touching is at a claustophobic high. Trains are filled beyond capacity by pushers who literally stuff humans into train cars so that they’re bursting like a fat girl’s jeans. Bus rides are rarely without your neighbor taking a nap on your shoulder or breathing down your neck and the bumps and run-ins you encounter on the street, though not malicious, can leave you with bruises.

In Southeast Asia the intimacy is less offensive but still strange to encounter. Many times in India I witnessed naked children playing on the street or defecating on it. Whole families journey to sacred rivers where they bathe and launder their clothes. In Vietnam I walked past huts whose living rooms were open to the road; you could watch a family go about their normal business, completely exposed, or cooking their dinner practically in their front yard, if there was such a thing.

Living in Paris, I enjoyed the customary greeting and send off of the bisou bisou or double kiss. In some parts of France, there are even four kisses given! That’s either true or I was duped by a traveling Frenchman, both of which seem equally plausible. But the fact that strangers, of course after an introduction by a mutual friend, would engage in such a friendly behavior is just, well nice. It’s also physically less awkward than the American ‘hug’ but a bit less serious than the handshake. It’s really an ideal way to begin any friendship.

I am disturbed however by the single American cheek-kiss that has gained popularity in recent years. Americans seem to fumble the meaning of the gesture (as we so often do) and it sometimes ends up as a lingering saliva mark on one’s cheek. The French kiss is not a real kiss; just a brush of the cheek on lips on the corresponding cheeks of your partner. It should never be wet, and, if done correctly, it should never be awkward. The American cheek kiss is awkward, because it is not customary, it’s forced or even, trendy, as we all strive to caricature some idea of wealth that is probably just European. So while imitated, it is not well duplicated.

Where does this leave us awkward Americans, striving to achieve intimacy in the most haphazard of nuances? Should we resign ourselves to being grumpy and unfriendly with our death-grip handshakes and stuff hugs hello? Or move forward with a greeting all our own? I’d personally like to suggest the secret handshake to end all secret handshakes, as seen in 'The Parent Trap'. Done with finesse and always being open to new additions, it is as individualistic as the American dream, plus fully admits that what we lack in cool, we make up for in flippancy.

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Born and raised under the Los Angeles sun and smog. At sixteen spent some time in LA County Juvenile Detention Center, although never really learned her lesson. Moved to Boston for the classic college experience. Spray painted graffiti in the Paris Metro during six month stay in the Marais. Survived an ultra fabulous and frightening internship at Vogue Magazine while living at a nunnery in Hell's Kitchen. Lived a year in Seoul, a city which can only be compared to a Disneyland theme park. Written four hundred sixty-four words of an undisclosed masterpiece novel. Currently pondering her next adventure and also the meaning of her memoirs from an artist's loft in dirty Brooklyn.