The non-demonstrative relationship he had with his father seemed normal, until he observed the easy intimacy between men in another country.
I never hugged my father when he was alive. Not as an adult anyway.
When I was a child, he would summon me to the couch where he slept at night, before he drifted off to sleep. Come hither son, he would say tenderly in his rendition of Old English, which was the signal for me to approach and kiss him on the cheek. I never looked forward to it because of the bristle of his beard—kissing him was like scraping my cheeks with sandpaper. When I got older, the good-night kisses ceased. I guess you could say I grew out of it. Years later, as an adult, when I greeted him or said farewell, I customarily shook his hand. It was a commanding grip we gave each other. Meanwhile, he would look at me with the same paternal gaze of those long ago days when I was a boy, but he would also make a show of giving me a once-over, as if gauging whether I had yet to become a man. It was his way of preserving the dignity of the father in his relations with the son. It also served to reinforce the bond of love between us.
I loved my father more than anyone I have ever known. But as I grew into a man, I had a difficult time directly saying ‘I love you’ to him or showing him physical affection that went beyond a solid handshake. That doesn’t mean we were aloof from each other. I talked with him every Sunday. He shared with me dozens of intimate stories about himself. He made me laugh with his eccentric dark humor. And our physical interaction was rife with subtle cues of warmth and tenderness, like the glint in his eyes when he gave me the once-over, or the way he grinned at me like a proud father granting his approval. And whenever I came to visit him, we greeted each other with that good solid handshake that, in the ways our hands melted together, conveyed the love between father and son.
I may have regarded open displays of affection as an invasion of personal space, or simply too mawkish for my taste, but there was still a profound understanding of love between me and my father. Every man discovers his own way of expressing intimacy and affection with family and friends. I do not presume to speak for the typical American male, or even the typical male from Providence, RI, where I grew up. America, or perhaps any country, is too diverse a society to make assumptions about how any particular man out of millions of men goes about, or should go about, relating to each other.
In my own experience, I have been hugged by other men, engaged in all styles of ‘bro’ handshakes, observed the old chest thump between football and basketball teammates after a score, and watched as thousands of men find their own idiosyncratic ways to express sentiments of friendship, love, admiration, celebration, and gratefulness. Yet in spite of this diversity of experience, it has invariably been my default inclination to guard my personal space and shy away from too physical a display of affection when it comes to relations with men. This default woodenness is ironically more innate and customary in relations with those with whom I am closest, in large part because those with whom I am closest have come to understand and accept my natural disposition of stoic reserve.
Male interaction, and more specifically, the male greeting, whether between father and son or between friends or family members, has been on my mind since I recently returned from a vacation in Istanbul, Turkey. There is much to do and see in that grand historic city where East meets West. There is the Hagia Sofia, among the oldest cathedrals in the world (if not the oldest), and the largest cathedral in the world until the sixteenth-century. The Sultan Ahmet, or Blue, Mosque. The Grand Bazaar. Doners and Turkish delights.
Falling asleep as jet lag finally catches up to you just when you are attending a performance of the Whirling Dervishes and you try to keep your eyes open as they twirl and twirl and twirl around in a circle for ten minute stretches without getting dizzy while their eyes remain closed and they enter into the serene mystical experience of a Sufi ritual. There are cruises on the Bosporus, palaces to admire, and a highly-effective tram system that made me realize once again just how bad the Metro is in Washington, D.C. (where I live). And then there is the way people live: accents, gestures, the prevalence of burkas and hijabs on women (at least relative to an American or Western European city), the remarkable tolerance for stray cats and dogs that lounge about in cafes and restaurants, and, finally, the physical tenderness and affection that characterizes a typical greeting between male friends.
I only was there for five days, not enough time to acquire an accurate sense of how many different ways men greet each other in Istanbul (or in Turkey as a whole). I was informed by a tour guide that there are ninety-something different ethnic groups in Turkey (I could not independently verify his claim), so presumably male greetings vary in form and content just as they do in America or even in my home town of Providence, RI. But from another tour guide I learned that, among Turkish men, it is fairly common for sufficiently intimate male friends to greet each other in public with a kiss on each cheek, and even to walk arm in arm down a public street.
It was not as if Burak, my tour guide, introduced this facet of life among Turkish males in the middle of one of his lectures, as if it were one more line item in a litany of factoids, or to prepare me for supposedly unwelcome aspects of Turkish culture. I learned by happenstance. I was on a food-and-culture tour. Burat was guiding my girlfriend and me as we meandered down Istiklal Avenue, a wide thoroughfare that snakes through a corridor of ice cream shops, doner vendors, multi-story retail shops and a busy crowd of pedestrians assembled on either side of a tram line.
As we meandered along, stopping at an doner vendor and then an ice cream shop, a clique of Turkish men suddenly spotted Burat and flagged him down to say hello. Burat recognized them as well. In America, this mutual recognizance in the pulse of a crowd would be followed by handshakes and perhaps even one of those hugs where you gently bump chests and maybe give a pat on the back. In short, a stiff hug. (This is, of course, a generalization; surely there are many instances of cozy hugs.) But we were in Istanbul.
Burat shook hands with each man in the group, and then inched in close so that each side of his cheeks touched each side of the cheeks of his friends, puckering the lips with each touch of the cheek as if to mimic the sound of a kiss. It was done in a way that I would say as a Westerner was effeminate. I wrote it off as being merely cultural, but I could not resist asking Burat about it. He replied with a start, as if acknowledging its anomalous appearance to an American, and said that it was the norm in Turkey for men who are good friends to greet each other as intimates with a kiss on each cheek.
‘We’re not gay,’ he added with a smile.
‘No, no, I wasn’t assuming that,’ I hastened to say, sheepishly.
It merely caught my attention, and I told him as much. He reckoned that it was not common in America or some other countries, mentioning Germany as one country where people strictly guard their personal space. But in Turkey, he explained, men show their personal affection for friends without inhibition. A little later on the tour, as I pointed out men walking pensively with arms hooked around their elbow, he added that you often see men walk arm in arm when they are friends who want to engage in conversation while en route together. Sometimes one man would take hold of the elbow with his hand, almost like a Fed in the U.S. might take hold of a suspect during a perp walk, and then speak into his friend’s ear, or simply continue to converse while staring straight ahead as he continued to trot along with his friend. Occasionally a guffaw would ensue.
On other occasions, I saw men cup the shoulder of another man with the palm of his hand while smiling or otherwise expressing a sentiment of goodwill in the course of conversation. The men of Turkey, at least from what I saw in Istanbul, had no qualms at all about expressing intimacy with male friends with such uninhibited displays of affection.
I saw cheek kisses among males who appeared to be close friends, but I even once observed the cheek kiss between a hotel guest and a hotel concierge. In addition to the cheek kiss, I saw men grip another man’s shoulder with a grand smile as if he were addressing his own father. One time I saw two men in blazers and white collared shirts on tour walking arm in arm, a highly unusual sight (for me) considering that they reminded me of conservative Jewish students. Sometimes one man would close in on another male and with his hand grab hold of another man’s elbow, like the Fed perp walk, and whisper or talk in his ear.
The one time the arm hook struck me as ‘normal’ was when I saw men who appeared to me to be father and son, or grandfather and grandson, arms hooked around the elbow walking along in an easy shuffle, as if the younger man was offering himself as a crutch for a feeble elder man.
Except in the last instance, never in my life would I have walked arm in arm with my father down a street. I was born and raised in the heart of industrialized New England. Two cities to be exact: Providence and Pawtucket (where the first commercially successful mill in America was built) in Rhode Island. There are many aspects of life in this area of the world I have dwelled upon in my leisure time, and one such aspect is the legacy of the Puritans. Among the cultural norms that is, if not universal, ubiquitous, is the old Yankee reservedness in social relations—the reticence between marginal acquaintances, the arms-length coolness observed between men in public. Displays of public affection are not widely practiced.
This is, of course, a generalization, and it is wise to approach with some degree of trepidation a generalization about the many millions of men who live in the states and cities of New England. This reluctance is even more well-advised in extending the social commentary to all the men in America.
But I don’t think I will find a great deal of disagreement that, in America, or especially in New England, it is not a common occurrence to see men walking arm in arm in public. That’s not to say it never happens. It is simply uncommon, and perhaps would be looked upon, if not as an anomaly, at least as a singularity. That’s not at all to say that American males are unanimous in their aversion to open displays of public affection. Even in New England, the demographic is diverse and by no means reflects the Puritan/WASP homogeneity of old. People of many cultures have immigrated to Providence (and America) over many generations, and the immigration of people inevitably introduces new cultural practices and norms.
Even within ethnic communities there is diversity among individuals. I remember observing in my childhood that Italian and Hispanic communities in Providence tended to show relatively more alacrity for outward, public, and more sentimental, emotional expressions of affection than I was used to, even if I also observed Italian and Hispanic individuals who were quiet and reserved. It was not unlike Turkish society. I found it more than coincidental when I read in a tour booklet about Istanbul that Turkish soap operas have become popular in Latin America, one reason being given that Turkish and Latin societies are more open with their emotions.
Nevertheless, I can say definitively as a son of Providence, RI that when it comes to male greetings in New England, men don’t kiss each other on the cheeks, and when it comes to male interaction, they don’t hold each other’s arms while walking in public. I will probably never grow out of this cultural predisposition, but in the spirit of the old saying ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ I found myself being encouraged to give Burat a kiss on both cheeks when we departed at the end of the tour. But it was only as a sampling of cultural practices, in the same way I sampled Turkish delights in stores all around the city. Just as I have returned to the United States with no intention of changing my diet, I do not see myself attempting to set a new norm in male greetings in America.
Yet, I have found in my travels that a trip to a foreign country and observing cultural differences makes me more aware of my own assumptions about social graces and norms. I am someone who would associate burkas with female oppression, yet seeing it live as a cultural norm I began to appreciate the element of modesty in it. I never hugged my father when he was alive, but seeing male greetings in Istanbul suddenly got me to thinking that maybe I should have hugged my father as an adult, maybe I should have had no qualms about giving him a kiss on the cheek like I did as a boy, and maybe I should have been more open with sentiments in a way that would have shown him more explicitly that I loved him.
Istanbul is a great city and one can surely write many books on its history and culture. One aspect of its culture that stood out for me was the male greeting and how it exposed differences in how men relate to each other in different cultures.
Male interaction inevitably reflects assumptions about what constitutes appropriate masculine behavior. One can grow quite comfortable with deeply embedded assumptions about what constitutes an appropriate interaction with another male.
The kissing between males I observed in Istanbul was not off-putting. It simply stood in contrast to my own cultural aversion to it, but I have to acknowledge my admiration for the ease with which men could share their affection for each other, either with a kiss on the cheeks or by sauntering along public streets arm in arm.
Maybe it would have made me a better son.
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