Contrary to popular belief, the word “intimacy” is not solely used in the context of relationships; the dictionary defines intimacy as “close familiarity or friendship”, meaning that we can also use the term in the context of relationships, friendships, or a familial relationship.
With this said, do we have enough intimacy in our life? What is intimacy outside of the dictionary definition?
I started thinking about this a lot in the past week because it struck me that past the tender childhood years, we (as an Asian society) are not very intimate with our friends, family members, and lovers. Sometimes, there are moments where it seems like people try to overcompensate, causing both a bemused and a frustrated response within my psyche.
As a child of both the Eastern and Western world, I see the contrasts between parental styles. Western parents have no issue picking up their kids and putting them on their shoulders for many years; other Western parents continue to hug, kiss, and say “I love you” to each other and to their children (and this happens between siblings as well) right up until their dying days; these same parents also encourage their children to have open conversations about many things.
On the more conservative spectrum of parenting, Asian parents are often stern with their children, and rarely have I seen hugs/kisses or heard “I love you” being uttered by either children or parents.
These same children are the ones that I see on the street, or on the bus, or on the MRT. More often than not, I will see a young couple completely entangled with each other in one way or another. I’ll see a girl standing close and hugging her boyfriend on the train even though it isn’t crowded and they’re the only ones standing; I’ve seen a couple of girls just standing on the bus with their foreheads touching, their hands on each others’ waists, and just staring into each others’ eyes; I’ll see a guy looking at and kissing the girl that he’s with every couple of minutes (literally) and squeezing her, as if he’s afraid that if he lets her go or stops looking at her, she will evaporate into thin air.
Don’t get me wrong – I think all this is very sweet, but it makes me wonder if all this stems from our lack of physical intimacy as we are growing up because this sort of behavior is significantly less common in the Western countries I have lived in and/or visited. A part of me also wonders: is this overcompensation going to smother the other person? In a situation where you have someone with Western upbringing and someone with Eastern upbringing, will the Western person feel like the other person is too clingy/insecure/attention-starved?
As someone that grew up overseas, I always feel unsure about how to act around old friends or new ones, because I’m told that hugs are a very big deal here. There’s always that sort of awkward wave or nothing at all as you say goodbye. COME ON, EVERYONE, IT’S JUST A HUG! DON’T YOU KNOW THAT HUGS ARE GOOD FOR YOU?!
Everything I just mentioned is on the physical side of intimacy. On the emotional side, let’s seek some wisdom from the words of the (fictional) surgeon, Dr. Meredith Grey:
Intimacy is a four syllable word for, “Here’s my heart and soul, please grind them into hamburger, and enjoy.” It’s both desired, and feared. Difficult to live with, and impossible to live without.
In this context, Meredith is referring to romantic relationships, but this sort of emotional intimacy also applies to our friends and family. As someone with his fair share of baggage, I have to say that emotional intimacy is often more difficult to achieve with someone; having grown up in the US, physical intimacy has never been my issue, but I have always had high emotional barriers. It hasn’t been until the past couple of years that these barriers have lowered. What I’m trying to say is, I understand the Asian need to keep emotional intimacy to a minimum.
“Keeping things blocked from others is the easiest, because I don’t want to burden them with my issues”, or “I can deal with my own problems so I don’t need to tell anyone” are thoughts that seem to come up the most often in Asian culture. It is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, each party in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) can gain longer milage if they only share the “good stuff” with each other, but on the other hand, this also comes at the expense of not completely opening themselves to one another and hiding everything else, which could cause resentment. Essentially, emotional openness could be fantastic, or it could serve to cause friction and/or jealousy among lovers, friends, or family members.
Yes, emotional intimacy is vulnerability, but at the same time, emotional intimacy is the ability to speak freely and connect on a deeper level. Now, not being able to speak candidly with someone frustrates me so much – I want to know your opinion! I want to know why you are actually feeling like crap today even though you’re saying you’re fine. Then, I want to hug you, so deal with it. Emotional intimacy lets you feel closer and more connected to someone than, say, someone you just met at a networking event. By withholding this part of yourself, it is almost like saying that you value someone that you have known for 20 years as much as someone you have known for 20 minutes because they both are allowed to the exact same amount of information.
I’m not saying that we can change many of these things overnight because ultimately, it may be a cultural thing. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Asian parents love their kids less than Western parents do, or that couples here love each other less than couples elsewhere. I just think that we could give each other more trust and love, and we shouldn’t be afraid to show it.
Basically what I’m trying to say is: go ahead and tell your friend something beyond what you had for lunch. Tell your sister about that time that you got so drunk you couldn’t stand up or speak English properly. Hug somebody just because you haven’t seen them in three days. Tell someone you love them, because they may not know what they are missing in their lives.
Image from The Jewish Press