Why do asian girls love to hold each other's hands?
September 7, 2011 3:54 AM   Subscribe

So many young Asian girls holding hands. Why?

I work near China town in Sydney, and close to where many students from China and other east asian countries study. Walking around the streets, it is very common for teen asian girls to be arm in arm. It is much more prevalent than for similar age western girls, to the point where it is rare to see asian teenage girls not holding hands if they are in a group or pairs.
It is also clear this is not a romantic thing.
I've asked a few of my Asian friends if there is any reason, but they are older, and were just speculating.
So assuage my curiosity, is there a reason for all this hand holding besides just general joy/camaraderie/BFF-style happiness? And why is it more common with asian girls?
posted by bystander to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Culture is a sufficient explanation, surely. You might as easily ask why non-Asian girls, or older Asian women, don't hold hands. Do they secretly hate each other? It's the particular culture of this group of young Asian kids.

In Pakistan men hold hands a lot. This is frequently remarked upon by our rare Western visitors and our 'burgers' (urban Westernised youth). It doesn't mean anything other than this is how people interact in Pakistan. A contributing factor is that men and women do not hold hands publically in Pakistan, but this is not a 'reason'.
posted by tavegyl at 4:06 AM on September 7, 2011 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Public display of affection is a highly cultural thing, down to the smallest detail.
posted by elgilito at 4:24 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Why do people of the same sex hug?

It's clear it's not a romantic thing...

Just like tavegyl says, people in different cultures display different modes of affection.

I live in China, and here, girls who are just friends hold hands, but hug each other much less frequently. Hugging between friends is relatively rare but younger people will hold hands or put hands on shoulders, etc.

For most Chinese people, hugging is a romantic gesture so Chinese people may wonder why Westerners hug so often. Once I hugged an American male friend of mine while living in China, and it got around town that I had a "new boyfriend".
posted by bearette at 4:27 AM on September 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Very interesting topic... never thought about it really. I do see a lot of young girls walk hand in hand over here in Belgium as well, but I'm certain boys would never do so, nor would adults. I'm certain if they would do so we would all believe they have a relationship. As for myself I always hold the hand of my wife when we walk around, but never thought about it as an act of cultural identity.
posted by TolkienLibrary at 4:37 AM on September 7, 2011

Additional to Asian girls holding hands, I have noticed a lot of Asian guys walking down the street with their arms across each other shoulders when I was over there. For the girls I think its so they can hold on to each other incase someone tries to snatch one of them off the street. But for the guys I usually see it late at night and they are walking down the street stupid drunk (which is very common). So I think they are just holding each other from falling. So in either case, its for mutual assistance.
posted by udon at 4:57 AM on September 7, 2011

If you ever been to Chinatown in the USA, you probably seen how crowded it can be, so imagine how the regular streets of China is. Very easy to lose people from your group. So hand holding is a good idea. I'm Asian American and going to casinos with my asian friends can be very similar. I lost an asian friend and I swear there with 20 guys that looked just like him there, and with most casinos being mazes, it took me a couple hours to find him.
posted by udon at 5:03 AM on September 7, 2011

as a white girl who grew up in southern US white neighborhoods, my girl friends and i always held hands, walked arm in arm, etc. are you sure this isn't confirmation bias?
posted by nadawi at 5:17 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is something that's definitely spreading into western culture. It's very common now to see girls or boys in their teens holding hands, or walking with their arms around each other (or at least it's common in the UK city where I live). Twenty-five years ago, when I was that age, it's not something people would do at all. I think it's nice that kids today aren't as hung up about showing each other affection as we were.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:19 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have to disagree a bit with udon - I have a Chinese friend who holds my hand when she visits me in France. It's affectionate. I'm sure it can also serve as support in certain cases, but that's not so different from US culture (I've seen drunken people supporting each other around the shoulders and waist too).

Seconding all those who've said displays of affection are cultural. Here in France we touch cheeks and smooch the air, even between co-workers (though this does depend on the office). But hugging someone would be seen as intimate, not "just" friendly – it's not necessarily romantic, I hugged my French ex-in-laws, but certainly more than for acquaintances or friends.

Also seconding nadawi on preview. I was just going to add that French teenage friends hold hands a lot.
posted by fraula at 5:20 AM on September 7, 2011

It's just a cultural/fashion thing. Canadian girls walked arm-in-arm c1900, but don't anymore. I've noticed that Somali men also hold hands and walk with arms around each other's shoulders.

But it's just something that goes up and down in fashion. I went to two highschools and the first was a very huggy place, and the second not at all. Same basic cultural mix, same age - but different fashion.
posted by jb at 5:25 AM on September 7, 2011

I just returned from Korea, where it was explained to us that Koreans hold hands (girls-girls and boys-boys) because it is culturally taboo to show a lot of affection to the opposite sex. Therefore, the affection part of things comes from the same sex. I saw boys (11-14) holding hands, hugging each other, sitting in each others laps, and even kissing. Girls held hands, hugged and such, even the college girls.
posted by mrfuga0 at 5:33 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Canadian girls walked arm-in-arm c1900

It was totally the norm to do this, hold hands, and cuddle with your female friends in the US 1850-1900ish too.
posted by Miko at 5:53 AM on September 7, 2011

When I lived in Thailand this was just how you showed affection to friends of the same sex... at first I was a little startled when girlfriends would hold my hand or rest a hand on my thigh etc... but you get used to it.
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet at 6:37 AM on September 7, 2011

I've noticed that Somali men also hold hands and walk with arms around each other's shoulders.

I saw this in Tunisia as well.
posted by something something at 7:05 AM on September 7, 2011

Displays of affection are very cultural. Consider that people in most parts of the world do not fist bump, and while pretty much every small child in the US knows how to high-five, it's not particularly common elsewhere.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:23 AM on September 7, 2011

Same-sex affection and intimacy used to be much more acceptable in Western culture, as well. It used to be common for men to dance together, for example. I don't know if it's still at all acceptable in the military, but movies of the World War II era often show men, isolated on a ship or in a prison camp, entertaining themselves by dancing; only sometimes is there a sexual element introduced by a man mock-dressing-up as a woman. I'm trying to remember the film I just watched where two characters meet in a Continental pub where several old men are dancing arm in arm (as pairs!); I think it was contemporary. As late as the 1960s, even, this wasn't remarkable -- in The Persuaders! Tony Curtis and Roger Moore, both portrayed as swinging (in the old sense) heterosexuals cutting swathes through women, are depicted multiple times walking arm in arm down the public street as they discuss the cases (they are sort of private detectives) they are working on.

This does, however, disappear -- likely, I suspect, as a corollary to homophobia -- and you just don't see it anymore. I'd be hard pressed to think of a later example.
posted by dhartung at 7:28 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

i was watching the hbo/nfl films "hard knocks" the other day and there was lots of locker room men dancing together. it seems much like the navy ship example - a lot of men spending weeks together, devoid of female company. there's a lot of homophobia in sports, but there's also lots of ass slapping, hugging, cheek kissing, dancing, and other forms of affection.
posted by nadawi at 7:33 AM on September 7, 2011

Why would you not? Children the world over hold hands. We, meaning western culture, only decided in the last 100 years that hand holding was a display of romantic affection. It is not. (I still do!)
posted by DarlingBri at 7:34 AM on September 7, 2011

I've noticed that Somali men also hold hands and walk with arms around each other's shoulders.

I saw this in Tunisia as well.

Male friends holding hands is a thing throughout the Middle East. You may recall George W. Bush taking some flak for walking hand-in-hand with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. It's against the law in much of the Muslim world to walk down the street with an unrelated female person; consequently, the culture is more able to treat walking down the street as a non-romantic thing, no matter what style you do it in.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:37 AM on September 7, 2011

(And let's not forget those silly Europeans and their constant, indiscriminate cheek-kissing!)
posted by Sys Rq at 7:40 AM on September 7, 2011

I found the boy-boy handholding to be most widespread in Sri Lanka. It is awfully cute. Although I participated with a couple of friends who picked up my hand(s) at various times when we were out walking during my few months stay there, I remained very self-concious and essentially uncomfortable being on public show. The psycho *restrictions* of a western upbringing are tenacious, if nothing else.
posted by peacay at 7:47 AM on September 7, 2011

(And let's not forget those silly Europeans and their constant, indiscriminate cheek-kissing!)

Here in the Netherlands three times!!! starting on the right cheek...
posted by Pendragon at 8:13 AM on September 7, 2011

Best answer: This is going out of style in Korea, although I still saw my students do it. Slightly older women- in their 30s and 40s- seemed to think nothing of holding hands and the many old drunk men who stumble the streets of Seoul at night practically rely on it stay upright.

There was also a lot playful touching, boys fixing each other's hair, sitting in each other's laps that would get you a weird look in American culture.

So, yeah, I think it's a culture thing.
posted by GilloD at 8:30 AM on September 7, 2011

They hold hands when they hit our street of very tall people. There must be a sign somewhere a block ahead of us that says, "Thar be giants".
posted by Slackermagee at 11:50 AM on September 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers. And that's a great photo of the Somali soldiers. After wondering whether I was being silly even asking this, if the answer was just going to be 'duh, its just culture', I learned some interesting things.
posted by bystander at 1:39 PM on September 7, 2011

I've also noticed this in the US as well. Perhaps due to the French/Benelux influence, I and many other men I know kiss each other on the cheek twice in NYC. It's probably just an affectation, but maybe that's in part how these things transmit?
posted by digitalprimate at 6:04 PM on September 7, 2011

At work we have a cadre of developers from India who are temporarily helping us with a big project. I was gathered around a laptop screen with a few of them the other day and noticed that one of the guys who was standing leaned over to point at something on the screen and casually put his arm around the shoulder of the guy sitting in the chair in front of the computer and held onto his forearm. It was definitely something I'd never seen any America co-workers do.
posted by bendy at 8:03 PM on September 7, 2011

Go to Nepal and you'll see lots of grown men holding hands. It's a cultural thing! I think it's really sweet.
posted by custard heart at 12:21 PM on September 12, 2011

As someone who has spent half of my adult life in Asia, I have pondered this phenomena many times.

Yes USA, and other western countries have girl-girl hand holding, but not at the high frequency that China has.

Chinese female students from middle school to end of college hold hands more than any other cultural subset that I know of, and I think there are several reasons behind it.

Of course it's cultural, and of course we express our affection in different ways, but holding hands doesn't necessarily just mean "I like you".

I think Chinese girls are much more immature than your average western girl, they often leave home during middle or high school, to live in a dorm with many other girls, and have few adult role models and in my opinion are raised to feel very insecure, childish, and dependent.

Thus grow emotionally at a much slower rate, and are less confident than their western counterparts.

Thus, when two Chinese girls go anywhere together, they want to feel not alone, and more secure, so they hold hands with their friend.

I think it has much more to do with security than affection.

Holding hands with someone sends a deep message saying "you are not alone". Being alone is a situation that the average Chinese girl would very much not like to be in.
posted by Patrick Leo at 7:06 AM on October 4, 2011

I've lived in China for two years and observed this girl-girl (and guy-guy, which surprises me more) touching, and in addition to all the other good ideas people have mentioned, I would just say that people need/desire physical contact, it's an expression of affection, etc., and of course in their culture there's no stigma against it (like there is somewhat more in the US). The question, in other words, is not why do they, but why don't we?

In the US, mostly male-male contact is stigmatized. Even nowadays, the threat among teen boys of being labelled as gay or effeminate is very strong, and anything that smacks of that is punished socially, and avoided. I've been amazed to see teenage guys draped all over each other's shoulders here in China, especially (but not exclusively) after drinking. To be honest, I think the idea of homosexuality is so repressed here in China that the specter of it is not such a threat to manliness in the same way as it is in the US. Maybe in the US many decades ago, guys could touch each other in that way, be affectionate buddies, good friends, do more than the awkward manly back-slap hug. But, ironically, as open homosexuality has become more common and more acceptable, it has probably increased as a concern for teen boys to make sure everyone knows they're not "like that."

Girls face much less of that kind of pressure, but still the playful ways in which Chinese girls touch each other would often be looked on as immature or childish in the US. Also I would note that in terms of boy-girl relationships, physical contact is much less than in the US. In the first place, dating around is not the norm; many people expect to marry their first, or perhaps their second, boyfriend/girlfriend. People don't really date in high school, or at least not what we would consider dating by western standards, definitely in terms of physical contact. I know people who have been in dating relationships without ever even holding each other's hands. Most freshman college girls have never kissed a boy before. Some (most?) girls have parents who forbid them from dating, in order to focus on school, not just when they're in high school but in college too. In high school I'd be surprised if hardly anybody has dating relationships that their parents are aware of. Part of it is the traditional culture. Part of it is the romantic idealization of relationships, that your first boyfriend is going to be your prince and you'll live happily ever after, which is still much more prevalent here than in the more jaded US.

Part of it is also lack of opportunity to pursue such things. In both high school and college, school takes up a huge amount of your time. Not extracurricular activities, which are rare, but just school. Classes are held six or seven days a week, morning to night, and many people's free time is spent in the library studying. The university library self-study areas are packed, even on Friday and Saturday nights. It's not at all the same experience as being a "full time" college student in the US. Students in general don't have part-time jobs during the school year; their parents pay their expenses and they spend their time studying. There is much less drinking, and much much much less "partying. " In high school AND even in college, students live in segregated dorms, where guys are not allowed into girls' dorms even for a visit during the daytime, and there is a curfew at night. There are people around everywhere; in China it's very hard to find a private place to be. And even for unmarried young adults who are out of high school but not in college, or after college, they live at home with their parents. If you're going to get physical, park benches and the like are the only options. All of this is to say that this avenue of physical contact, expression of affection, that is a basic human need, is also largely shut off to Chinese teens. In the US, as physical contact between members of the same sex has declined, physical contact between members of opposite sexes has increased. Maybe there's a correlation there. Maybe young people in China touch their friends of the same sex more because they can't touch people of the opposite sex, (and maybe people in the US touch people of the opposite sex more because they can't get even innocent physical i-care-about-you affection from peers of their own sex).

As an aside, when I lived in Peru, I also noticed lots of touching there. More than in either the US or China. Lots of hugging; kisses on the cheek as greetings; daughters or sons walking arm in arm with their mothers; young men and women doing sexy Latin dancing with no further contact necessarily implied, etc. Presumably many places with Latin culture are similar. When you think about it, isn't that kind of freedom kind of nice, and kind of normal? The social prohibitions on it, whether Chinese-style or American-style, are the aberration.
posted by jef at 3:47 AM on October 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

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