On a long bus ride home, several people avoided sitting in the empty seat next to me, less because I smelled (probably), and more because sitting next to a foreigner can always be a little bit scary.
Finally, the bus was too full to ignore me any longer and two very tall college boys got on. One gestured to his huskier friend to take the seat next to me but that friend insisted on standing.
The first guy sat down in defeat.
The seats were too small to avoid touching thighs even though he gripped the seat edge and sat rigidly straight on turns to avoid bumping shoulders.
There was an animal something in me that enjoyed the closeness and reveled in his discomfort because I knew it was unintentional and therefore safe. Maybe I should have tried my experiment then:
“Ha, wow this bus is pretty crowded right?”
“……yes.” He says, eyes darting wildly, silently begging his friend to save him from English small talk.
COVID has made me aware of how much physical contact I used to have and how little I have now.
I’ll take it where I can get it.
These days I don’t have student hugs or high-fives or puppy piles. My school training handbook even mentioned to be aware of “close proximity culture” in our Korean kiddos.
I have to make do with playing with Freshman‘s hair or petting the corgi when she feels like being pet.
Korea gave me all the platonic physical affection that America never could only to take it away six months later.
I know that Americans like to think that they are very touchy because they hug others. And while hugging is seen as overly intimate among acquaintances in Korea, America lacks the casual and daily platonic “skinship” that defines much of East Asia.
I think I’ve always felt a bit odd with hugging strangers which made me feel like there were no other avenues for physical affection and left me at a bit of a touch deprived dead end in America.
American friends don’t exactly hold hands or link arms or play with each other’s hair or pat each other on the thigh. Nearly all touching seems to be reserved for romantic partnerships, in which case you may go hog wild.
But it is a bit strange, right? Americans think kissing on the cheek as a greeting is weird or two boys holding hands that are not dating is weird but instead expect two near, or actual, strangers to press their bodies together.
There’s nothing like the tight warm, tight hug of someone you care about fitting your jagged pieces back together and nothing quite so diametrically opposed as the cold, awkward side embrace from everyone else.
I remember years ago I told one of my coworkers from Eastern Europe that I was leaving my position. She grabbed my hand, held it tight, and asked if everything was okay.
I’ll never forget how important and special that kind of platonic touch was, and how tightly I gripped her hand back, unaware of the anchor I needed until she reached for me.
Sometimes, unbeknownst to us, we are someone else’s life raft, however briefly.
Today, a woman on the bus let herself lean a little into me on sharp turns. I didn’t mind. Maybe she’s like me: maybe she just needed a little point of contact in this new, contact-less world. A reassurance that we are human, and that we need just same. A float to hang on to for a single breath of air.