Culture of a Kiss

“Did you eat? means.. I love you” T-shirt from Asians do not show love with kisses, they show love with food! Chinese beef noodle soup (niu rou mian), oh, and daughter Niu Niu too. | Photograph courtesy Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

We went to an art exhibit opening and reception last night at Wailoa Art Center. Afterwards, my son, Little Brother, pouted all night because he saw me kissing the artist, “that man.”

He cannot kiss me ever again, he says, and he rubs and rubs his skin with his shirt, to wipe off every last kiss that I give him. I try to explain that, actually, I was kissed BY the artist, that sometimes people kiss hello on the cheek just like others shake hands. But he will have none of it. This is not the first time we have had this conversation, but what am I supposed to do?

The artist, the man in question, is over 80 years old! That is a really funny (and completely irrelevant) distinction when you think about it from Little Brother’s point of view. At four years old, I am 10 times his age; I would gain nothing by pointing out that the artist is (only) twice my age.

So I explain that in Hawaii, it is part of the culture to hug and kiss hello, that even my parents now hug and kiss hello (although this took them a few years to get used to), and remember how (teenage) Mango nearly fainted when Auntie Marlene held out both arms and said, “Give Auntie a kiss.”

To say that Chinese people are not big huggers and kissers would be a colossal understatement. Growing up, my parents never hugged or kissed us, or said, “I love you.” But that was okay because nobody’s (Chinese) parents did. Only (Caucasian) people on TV did that sort of thing. We understood that they did love us, it just was not the Chinese way.

In my current “women and children only” sort of lifestyle, frantically running children to and from music lessons and swim classes with all the other moms, my interactions with men have dwindled to almost nothing. Sure, some dads drop off in the mornings, but they do not linger or get involved the way the moms do. As everyone is married and many on our side of town are Asian or Arab, men and women tend to be especially proper, talk little, and do not touch. It seems quite natural, and I only notice when I step outside of it.

For example, I have to say, I love that European two cheek kiss thing, even though I know that that will never happen in my Chinese American community. My Italian friend Vincenzo was so surprised and pleased the first time I kissed his second cheek, he had already grown used to (the loss of) Americans only kissing one cheek. He smiled, “You do like the Italian way.” Of course. I do it for him.

So although I reassure my four-year-old that one kiss on the cheek from an 80-year-old Chinese artist draped with leis means nothing, especially as we leave the house and he warns me to be careful in case someone else tries to kiss me again, I am also secretly delighted to be crossing cultures and encountering different ways of enjoying something so simple as a kiss.

An earlier version of this essay was originally published at

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media Ethnoblog,,, and She team-teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law at the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at, her blogs at and, and she can be reached at



  • Thomas Chen

    July 23, 2012 at 2:40 am

    Dear Grances:
    Thank you for the cross-cultural t observation.
    One of my badminton friends is 72 and young. He raised a daughter all by himself . She is 19 and read all kindss of books.
    He makes sure they say I love you at the end of conversation, on the phone and off the phone. They hug when they part. He felt tthat each time could be the last time he said I love you.
    The art of hugging is to hug with a loving heart without touching the chest to avoid misunderstanding. Simple and lovely. You son will come around after a while. We are all buggers now.