Hugs: Nature’s Friendliest Language and Medicine

McKenzie Paterson, 129 TCCS

Service has become a montage of awkward side hugs. And, look, I get it. Not everyone is down to hug someone they barely know; but after living in the same house, eating the same meals, and sharing the same laughs with a host family for more than a year, I still naively anticipate some level of increased intimacy. Alas, no dice. Just today as I was leaving my site for two weeks, it seemed like my host sister was game with the whole hugging thing, and then our cheeks ended up brushing a little too closely that we nearly kissed. KISSED. Like, I can’t even get the girl to give me a two armed hug and we almost kissed. Talk about speaking a different language.

Unfortunately, those miserable attempts and epic fails at hugging are often the closest thing I come to physical affection in my village. Between travels, I often go weeks without being touched by another human. Sometimes I put off folding my laundry and instead snuggle it as I fall asleep at night (I also detest putting clothes away, but that’s neither here nor there).

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Traditionally speaking, public displays of affection are considered inappropriate in Thailand. I’ve become so accustomed to not seeing couples being affectionate with one another that one day when I was in the car with my host family and saw my host father put his hand on my host mother’s lap I nearly gasped. They don’t even sleep in the same room. What is this tomfoolery?!

The taboo nature of PDA doesn’t stop beyond the public eye. Even familial affection, be it physical or verbal, isn’t common. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen my host mother give my host sisters hugs or tell them she loves them. I grew up in a culture, in a family, wherein it was commonplace to express your love toward someone in your life who means a great deal. I grew up with an abundant amount of “I love you mores” and kisses and snuggles. So to say it’s excruciatingly lonely here at times is a gross understatement because in this loneliness I speak a language no one else does at my site, the language of touch.

All of this clicked a few months ago when I was with fellow PCVs and a friend told me that she noticed I seem to draw a great amount of my energy from physical connection. It brought me back to my childhood when I would spent countless hours hopping (picture me as a kid – I probably was actually hopping) from my mom’s lap, to my dad’s, and then to my aunt’s so they would scratch my back until their hands got cramps (rinse and repeat). All I had to do was lift the back of my shirt and they knew. And, yes, at 26 years old, I fully expect my aunt to welcome me home with 27 months of retroactive back scratches.

And maybe this is why I will pay for three massages a day on vacation. Connecting through touch gives me feelings of overwhelming self-contentment and stillness. It grounds me and gives me an emotional lift, a sense of belonging, and security. I feel warmer and lighter. Needless to say, physical affection is a necessity of life for me, and more often than not I’m facing a crisis of skin hunger in Thailand.

Luckily and like always, my kiddos come to my rescue. They hug, oh boy do they hug. And when they do, they don’t let go.

Without fail, one of my P.1 students, Tod (he’s the little cutie above directly to my right with the mischievous gapped-tooth smile), will wrap his body around me when I arrive at school in the morning and proceed to do so as I waddle to my classroom until he falls off me. They* hug me when they’re sticky; when they’re sick; when they’re dirty; when I’m teaching another class. You name it. Another P.1 student, El (the nug in the bottom left throwing the peace sign), will run out of her class just to walk down the hall with me so she can wrap her fingers between mine. There’s no decorum for these kids when it comes to hugging and loving, and as much as I pretend to get annoyed, I really truly am never. I have found so much joy and comfort in their sticky, dirty, germy embraces.

My students fulfill a need so rarely met. Likewise, I give them love and affection that they too need for their life-long well-being. In a culture too often injurious to physical affection, I’m unequivocally grateful that I have my kiddos and they have me.

So here’s to hoping my gaggle of sticky, dirty, germy lovers never stop loving as freely and unapologetically as they do today, and that the rest of us embrace each and every gesture of love like we’re skin hungry.

* the entire class… simultaneously

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