“This is what I like about Americans,” is what I think my student said between sniffles. I had just offered her a hug after she broke down crying. She accepted and then proceeded to tell me what I’d heard a number of times before: that Vietnamese culture doesn’t allow for that sort of comforting. She appreciated my willingness to do what she said people close to her refuse to do.
For a “huggy” person like myself, it’s often hard to imagine what life is like in a society where physical contact is kept down to a minimum, even between parents and children, even when someone is experiencing emotional trauma. We’re so concerned about those living in developing nations with inadequate food supplies, poor water quality, and substandard health care. Yet there are people, not just orphans, that seem to be suffering from a prolonged oxytocin deficiency that is easily curable, relatively speaking.
I’m not saying that Asian cultures that respect the individual’s personal space have no value. (If I did, I wouldn’t have spent so many undergraduate years studying the historic Chinese American community.) However, I do question whether or not they provide a healthy environment, especially when so many women – even older ones – I’ve met have voiced dissatisfaction with it.
This is final exam week, so my student will be off to Vietnam soon to be with her family over break. Will she tell them how she feels? I don’t know. If she did, would they hug her and let her cry on their shoulder, as she seemed eager to do with me? I don’t think so. And when I remember the look of loneliness in the girl’s eyes, I worry…a lot. She’s literally starving, and like with anorexia, too many people believe it’s a good thing.