No Hugs Please, Just Hands
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.