When you move to a new country, one of the first pieces of pragmatic advice you are given is to be open.
“Be open to the culture.” “Be open to having new experiences.” “Be open to trying different modes of dress.” “So what if the pizza crust is super thin and you like double-stuffed with cheese? Be OPEN!”
These are the reasons why the Travel Channel and similar platforms are such a big hit, right? We viewers get to sit in front of our television sets and imagine that we are participating in the same or similar levels of cultural immersion as the host. We grimace along with Andrew Zimmern as he takes those first furtive bites of caramel covered cockroach and hold our breaths as Dhani takes on the world in one daring feat after another. From the comfort of our sofas and bedsprings, we get to embody the experiences of our television guide. Raise your hand if you’ve ever watched a host canoeing down a winding river, casually pointing out the wonder all around him/her and thought to yourself, “What an easy job. I can do that!” Because you’re “open”, right? Only OPEN people can travel the world and truly appreciate its splendor.
Humph. Come back and tell us all about how ‘accessible’ your heart is when you run into a custom that honest-to-God-hand-to-heard leaves you frozen in your tracks. In this case, I’m talking about something as common – yet controversial – as a kiss.
Kissing is a huge deal. Kissing has implications. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Seal was assaulted by rose kisses and wrote Top 40 song about the occurrence. Your momma probably told you that kissing boys will get you pregnant. (You went ahead and did it anyway, didn’t you? Fast tail…)
In many cultures, Kissing is also a normal way to show affection. However, as customs have evolved (as has our understanding of germ and disease transmission), so has the act of kissing. Contact kisses are now reserved for people with whom we are in physical relationships, or Grandma. Everyone else gets a kiss simulation. We blow each other a kiss goodbye and greet each other with air kisses on either cheek, replete with those ridiculous smooching sounds. Whereas documented as very common a century and more ago, no one in modern society participates in a flesh-to-flesh kissing anymore. Our homophobia is so entrenched that any physical contact with the same sex is unconsciously screened through that lens and ends up dictating our behavior.
For example, 60 years ago, it was not uncommon for two African men to walk hand-in-hand as an expression of friendship and a testament to their strong bonds of brotherly affection. Today, two Black men strolling through the city with hands clasped would be publicly denounced as a gay (and therefore, lewd) act and depending on what part of the world they may find themselves in, be assaulted (or jailed) for allegedly participating in a same-sex relationship. We now touch each other so little as friends that many of our physical interactions are interpreted through the lens of sex and sexuality, rather than genuine fondness or affection.
And that’s why when the clerk at the mall in George tried to kiss me in the mouth, I freaked out and nearly bolted out of her embrace.
She was a woman I’d met 3 years ago when we spent two weeks of our summer vacation in South Africa. Marshall and I visited a leather goods store and she was one of the women who attended to us. We developed a fast rapport, found each other on Facebook and have maintained an e-friendship since. When she learned we were coming back to South Africa, she insisted that we come visit her in the shop, which I was more than happy to do. On the appointed day I walked into her store, all smiles. I’m not squeamish about physical contact, so I threw open my arms for a big hug, which she walked into willingly.
And then, that’s when it happened.
She turned her face towards mine, puckered up and kissed me close to my lips. “Close to” because I computed that the angle she was coming in from would put her mouth directly over mine and reacted by tilting my face slightly to the left.
She seemed hurt, and I appeared clearly bewildered.
So many thoughts raced through my head. Was she gay? Did she think I was gay? Did she misinterpret something on my Facebook page as an invitation to a sexual relationship? Had I led her on in some weird way? Was she going to try to take me from my husband???
My internal inquisition eventually stopped because she had begun to ask Marshall and I about how America, the kids and how long we were in the country for. We chatted for a bit until her store began to fill up with customers needing her attention.
“See you on Facebook, Malaka!” she called.
“Okay!” I responded, my voice an octave higher than it ought to have been. I was still a bit shaken.
The experience adhered so strongly to my psyche that I was compelled to begin to observe women in my new community. What I discovered shocked me. South African women – at least those in this part of the country – routinely kiss each other in the mouth. They kiss each other before they will hug one other. I’ve chiefly seen this among Black and Colored women. White women usually kiss each other the European way, with cheek-to-cheek contact and faux kissy noises. Women of color go straight for the pie hole. I breathed a sigh of relief. My girl wasn’t trying to get into my panties. She was just saying that she considered me a sister and she missed me.
The next time I saw her, I was ready. As we prepared to part each other’s presence, I opened myself wide for her hug and puckered up. We met each other’s lips head on briefly and then broke contact. She smiled and I smiled back.
“Don’t you want to give my husband a kiss?” I asked mischievously.
She seemed scandalized by the suggestion. He just rolled his eyes.
“Hei, Malaka! No!” she gasped before descending into a brief tirade in Afrikaans. “You must kiss your OWN husband!”
I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to come back to the States and start kissing everyone in the face. It’s something I’ll have to pray on. My spirit man says not to, but that flesh wants to see how many women throw dukes up in response.
Do you consider yourself an “open” person? If so, have you ever participated in or witnessed a custom that challenged you? It’s okay, if so. We all have our limits. 😉