Personal space be damned. A non-hugger rethinks her position.
Some time in my 40s, I developed a reputation for “not being a hugger.” It’s not so much that I have suddenly grown uncomfortable with hugs in my middle age; I’ve just become more comfortable saying so.
My friends—most of them white, effusive, teacher types—were committed huggers. No gathering was complete without a grand, prolonged showcase of hugging at the end that made me fret about getting a parking ticket.
“Come here, you!” friend after friend would come at me, with a missionary zeal to convert a non-believer. I’d groan inwardly. It was just dinner, people. Not even a special occasion. I could gear myself up for a hug when the situation warranted it—a breakup, infertility problem, unfair suspension of an offspring—but must such excessive displays of affection take place following every gathering?
Though I have off-handedly mentioned my aversion to hugs enough times for it to become a running joke, I was not brave enough to reject this social custom when it kept happening. I could only take a step backward before accepting the inevitable: my personal space would be breached. Again.
I would stand still holding my body upright while they reached out their long paws, pulling me into a tight embrace. With my feet planted firmly, the upper half of my body would relent, my butt jutting back awkwardly. Boobs, arms, faces all mashed together so closely, scarves and earrings getting caught. I’d tilt my head up and away at an unnatural angle to avoid having my makeup rub off on their shirts. Inevitably, my 5-foot-1 frame would get trapped under the crook of their armpits, pungent mix of sweat and coconut-oil deodorant making me want to pass out. Would it have killed them to use real deodorant for once?
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I would reach my arms up for a perfunctory pat pat on their backs, signaling for them to release me. Some would take that as a challenge and draw me in tighter while I held my breath.
“I’m not letting go just yet,” Susan would say, reveling in the intimacy. Others would cheer her on with a knowing smirk. “Aww, we know Terri loves her hugs!” Had I not been schooled in the culture of conflict-avoidant Asian women, I may have put my arms up like The Supremes and sang, “Stop! In the name of love!” Alas, resistance was futile.
Where did my disdain for hugs come from? Some of it stems from growing up in an Asian household with different norms for displays of intimacy. That would only be partially true. As new immigrants to the country, we were aghast at the utter lack of decorum and boundaries—I love you’s thrown around like cheap party favors, hugs dispensed freely among strangers. Shouldn’t these expressions of intimacy be reserved for loved ones?
At back-to-school night, my husband and I watched in amazement at the easy familiarity with which parents immediately called each other—and the teacher! —by their first names, the intimacy presumed, formality forfeited. But then just as confusing were the oddly formal social customs between friends, like thank-you cards. When a close friend sent me a thank-you card for giving her a ride home after surgery, I called and yelled at her. “I can’t believe you sent me a thank-you card! Driving a friend home from the hospital is what friends do!”
Thank-you cards were so formal, to be exchanged among acquaintances and strangers, not between intimates. There were some things that didn’t need to be said between loved ones. You just knew. Insisting on this formality held the friendship at arms’ length.
Growing up in Korea, I was used to more fluid boundaries between intimates in the way family and friends dropped in on each other unannounced but always bearing delicious gifts. Many evenings of my childhood in Seoul ended with impromptu gatherings among fellow apartment dwellers, our dinner tables filled with dishes prepared by the neighborhood moms. Our family mourned the loss of these spontaneous moments of connection when we learned that in our new land, drop-in visits were considered rude. One must schedule the visit ahead of time, like a doctor’s appointment. Where was the fun in that?
The epitome of the formally arranged visit in contemporary American culture is the post-baby visit. A couple of years ago, I was surprised to receive an invitation for a Meal Train signup for a co-worker on maternity leave with these instructions: Sign up for the precise hour window to deliver the meal, followed by a list of their favorite and least favorite meals, and dietary restrictions (No wheat, sugar, or dairy). Email/text ahead of time to schedule a visit in addition to dropping off a meal. Otherwise, leave food at the door as the baby and parents might be napping.
Several colleagues expressed appreciation for having everything spelled out so clearly and explicitly. Just like thank-you cards, for my white colleagues, the built-in formality was not only acceptable but welcome.
I cringed. So many exacting rules to keep track of (during pre-Covid era)! While I understood these rules were set up to protect the sanctity of the new family unit, I couldn’t help but wonder: would the visit be stilted?
Would I sit up nervously on their sofa, eyeing the clock to avoid exceeding my allotted hour? Would I share the meal I prepared with the new mother, or would she prefer I tiptoe away after a stealthy drop-off like a DoorDash delivery driver instructed to leave food at the door? I sent a Grubhub gift card instead.
When I shared my thoughts with a friend, she was baffled. “What’s the big deal?” she asked. “Meal Train is great! It takes the guesswork out of it. And there’s no expectation to interact.” But wasn’t interaction the point? How could our reactions be so completely different? Was I feeling the reverberations of a new immigrant’s shock more than 35 years later? Is this why I’m thrown by hugs—because I’m constantly trying to navigate different cultural norms for boundaries?
It wouldn’t be accurate, however, to attribute my aversion to hugs entirely to my immigrant upbringing. Or to suggest that I grew up without physical displays of affection in my Korean family.
The truth is that during my childhood, my father was one of the most enthusiastic huggers I’d ever known. He was that uncle who insisted on extricating a kiss on the cheek from his nieces at every family gathering. As his baby girl, I was showered with kisses and hugs every day. Though the 8-year-old me pretended to only tolerate them because hugging wasn’t really part of Korean culture in the 70s, I understood I was precious to him.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that I married a guy who’s a smotherer. Andy, a fellow Korean American, stumbles through his I miss you’s while FaceTiming our daughter at college, but he does not share my hang-up about personal space with his intimates (I suppose our immigrant idiosyncrasies show up in different ways).
If there was a Spooning Marathon, he’d win. He likes to sidle up to me, aligning his body closely behind mine, and hold on for dear life. I like a short-and-sweet goodnight cuddle, but sleep-spooning? Now that was too much. Feeling my chest constricting, I’d practice my mindful breathing, wondering when it would be acceptable to send him back to his side of the bed. Finally, when he’d fall asleep, his breath hot on my neck, I’d gently pry his fingers open and give him a nudge, asking in my most soothing voice, “Honey, could you please scoot over?” He’d relent grudgingly. Personal space reclaimed.
Andy likes to remind me that we have blissfully shared beds much smaller than a queen over the course of three decades together. When I look back on those days of co-sleeping in the cramped dorm bed, I shudder. But it also makes me wonder if my claiming of personal space may be a sign of coming into my middle-aged self. In my younger days, like many young women in patriarchal societies, I internalized the message to minimize my body and its demands and the space it took up—diet, don’t speak too loud or out of turn, prioritize others’ needs before your own.
In my 40s, I have begun embracing the imperfections of my middle-aged body. I have grown more comfortable with taking up more space, even demanding it. No more squeezing my body into shapewear to cover up my curves. No more sucking in my breath when Andy’s arms reach around my thicker midsection. I let it all hang out, doughy ripples, stretch marks and all. Whereas I might have suffered through a fitful night of sleep for fear of hurting his feelings before, now I unapologetically ask for my space. I readily joke about my hang-up about hugs. Even with our most intimate partners, boundaries need negotiating and redrawing.
But during the past year of pandemic isolation, I have begun to reevaluate my stronghold on personal space. Now that distancing barriers have been forced upon me, I have found myself yearning for connection, both emotional and physical.
I have been thankful for backyard gatherings with my friends when weather permits, with camp chairs spread out according to the CDC social distancing guidelines. Giddy to be together again, we would talk late into the night, lit only by the ambers of the wood-burning fire pit on a makeshift brick foundation leaving burn marks on the grass. Conversations flow easily, inhibitions shed with more beers consumed, the darkness making us lean in closer to each other.
One night, a friend shared about her father’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease. He had grown so frustrated with Covid restrictions at the nursing home that he had become aggressive. Laura’s voice broke as she said, “It’s heart-breaking because he doesn’t understand why we can’t hug or kiss him, let alone visit very often.”
Watching my friend fighting back tears, it was tough to stay in my chair. Words of support we murmured felt inadequate. I desperately wanted to reach out and touch her. To squeeze her arm to let her know I was with her. To pull her into a hug—the very thing I had dreaded for all these years! In that moment with Laura’s pain exposed so bare, I saw what was needed was an expression of intimacy to match.
When protecting personal space became everybody’s priority, I have finally begun to understand the power of physical touch to express all the things words could not. While my father had rarely verbalized his love, he showed me his affection through his daily hugs during my childhood; now we live on different continents that, during the pandemic, required a two-week quarantine even to visit. Laura’s father with dementia needed the reassurance of his family’s hugs in a time of upheaval and confusion.
Hugs are a way of saying I see you when we reveal our most vulnerable selves to each other—and they were cruelly denied to us during the pandemic. Now that we were officially mandated to keep six feet away from our loved ones, the distance seemed too great. The irony is not lost on me.
When pandemic life is over, I can’t wait to hug all my friends. This time I will be the one not letting go. If there is anything this year of lockdown has taught me, it’s to treasure the close relationships in my life. I won’t self-consciously ask, “Is this one of those hugging situations? ” before reluctantly giving one. I’ll lean into those hugs with my friends, personal space be damned. And if my friends want to hug to greet hello and goodbye, bring it on. We’ve got a lot to make up after two years of pandemic-wary life. I’ll never take for granted the simple pleasure of sitting side by side with friends without the filter of masks. These years of social distancing are enough space to fill a lifetime.
Have I become a hugging convert? Not quite. I won’t be one of those people offering free hugs on the street corner any time soon. The thought of hugging anybody who’s not on my “safe list”—Covid protocols or otherwise—fills me with even more dread than before. Maybe the pandemic is only reinforcing my finely tuned sense of boundaries. Dr. Fauci knew what he was talking about with those pandemic pods. Reserve the hugs for the intimates. Offer the care emoji for the rest.
Terri Chung is a writer and an English Professor at North Seattle College. When she is not writing or teaching, Terri likes to hike, sing showtunes, and go on the hunt for the best cheap eats with her husband and two daughters.
Seattle Story Project is a collection of first-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. Read some of our favorites here.