Four kisses and an embrace began every meeting with my grandparents. Four breaths, four mmms, four little sucks.
First, there were the two I gave, on each of my Amah’s cheeks, and then the two my Amah returned, on each of mine. I’ve often wondered where the tradition began. Growing up, I found that, unlike us, most of my Chinese friends did little kissing and hugging in their families. I love this part of my family tradition, perhaps in part because it was so unique. I felt it made my family special.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” size=””]Our flat, soft noses increased the number of orifices that came in contact with each cheek during each kiss. [/perfectpullquote]
There was a moment when I felt the skin of my cheek taken, and held, not only by a pursed mouth, but also by two nostrils, before popping off, like a plastic suction cup releasing from a window or mirror. Such an intimate lingering so close to the face of someone who always, in that moment, felt like a stranger.
For most of our lives, we were the only branch of our family living in the United States, while the rest of our clan lived primarily in the Philippines. We were able to see our extended family for only a couple weeks at a time every three to five years. I’ve fondly wondered to myself whether we might have created this time-consuming, four-kisses ritual to make up for all the lost time in between visits.
I was never close to my grandparents while they were still with us, but I still feel my Amah’s satin-soft, papery skin. I still feel the little prickles of my Angkong’s sparse beard, mixed with the cool of his impossibly smooth skin. I still smell the slight menthol of tiger balm, the bitterness of tiny black balls of medicine we’d eat when our tummies hurt, and the sweet smelling, dark brown ointment we soaked up with cotton balls and rubbed on our bruises. I can still feel the skin of their cheeks in my nostrils, like I was literally trying to breathe in as much of them as I could.
[bctt tweet=”I still feel my Amah’s satin-soft, papery skin. I still feel the little prickles of my Angkong’s sparse beard. #Family #Chinese ” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]
I’m grateful for these memories. Though lately, my nostrils are filled with the small sweetness of my children’s round faces. With my children, there is little ritual to our embraces. They don’t always last the same amount of time, there are no four kisses. Today’s kisses are both longer and shorter than those kisses were. Sometimes my son puts his nose very close to my lips and, when I give him a tiny kiss, he quickly flops away, giggling. Other times he rests his cheek against mine for so long that our faces, cool to the touch at first, stay connected until we’re both rosy and warm.
My daughter signs “I love you” with her hand and nods her head at me to do the same. Our two hands drift toward each other and our pointers and pinkies and thumbs fold down onto each other’s fists. “It’s my ‘I love you’ hugging your ‘I love you,’” she says.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” size=””]My daughter signs “I love you” with her hand and nods her head at me to do the same.[/perfectpullquote]
When my parents come to visit, or when we visit them, I can feel their desire for the kisses, the hugs, for my children to speak their names aloud. They were diligent in ensuring that my siblings and I did this when my grandparents came to visit. “Kiss your Amah, call your Angkong’s name,” they would say. I always did and I always would because, I thought, I must. It’s what a good girl does, and I wanted so much to be good.
[bctt tweet=”I always did and I always would because, I thought, I must. It’s what a good girl does. I wanted so much to be good” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]
But I never tell my children to hug anyone, to kiss anyone, not even me. Recently the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. advised the same. I know that it might feel painful to my parents. I can feel them waiting expectantly, maybe even asking themselves where they’ve gone wrong, wondering if they didn’t teach me well enough. Do I only imagine they feel this way? Or is it just my subconscious shame needling me?
[bctt tweet=”I never tell my children to hug anyone, to kiss anyone, not even me.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” size=””]I will never know when my grandmother felt affectionate toward me, and I will never know when I would have felt affectionate toward her. [/perfectpullquote]
As I wrote last month, obligatory kisses teach problematic messages about consent and bodily autonomy. But they’re also emotionally limited. They steal from genuine moments of affection and connection. I will never know when my grandmother felt affectionate toward me, and I will never know when I would have felt affectionate toward her. I never discovered what made me want to be close to her. I wonder if I would have wanted to breathe her in if I hadn’t been made to, if there was room for improvisation.
My daughter turned five last month—a whole hand. It was her least ambivalent birthday since she turned one. She approached the day with intense excitement. She told everyone who would listen that she would be five; my son did too. It was like he absorbed her excitement, he was proud of his big sister, and she was proud too.
On the big day, my mother said she wanted a photo with the birthday girl. I saw her love for my daughter in her request. She wanted to commemorate a beautiful moment, to bottle up some of the joy and power of the day. But the birthday girl, in her five-year-old splendor, basking in that joy and power, found it hard to sit for a moment, hard to pose. She seemed to be almost dancing, jittery, about to fly away. “Later, Amah,” she said over and over. “Not right now, Amah.”
I wanted to respect my daughter’s spirit; after all, many adults would scrunch their noses and shoo away a camera interrupting their joy and focus. But I also wanted to get my mom that photo. It was partly the little girl inside me wanting to be good, valuing obedience. But it was also my motherly desire to capture the moment, to freeze the two of them in the excitement of the day, to preserve something for posterity.
[bctt tweet=”It was my motherly desire to capture the moment, to freeze the two of them in the excitement of the day.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]
There are so many times when my daughter will say to me, “Take a picture, mama! Let’s send it to dada! Let’s share it with our friends!” Her birthday was not one of these times. We sat at the dinner table, a big brownie in front of my daughter, five candles lined up straight. Her eyes were big as she knelt on her chair, hovering over the little flames.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” size=””]Then, just as my daughter leaned in to blow out her candles, my mother pulled her in for a hug, saying…[/perfectpullquote]
“Happy birthday to yoooooooou!” we sang. Then, just as my daughter leaned in to blow out her candles, my mother pulled her in for a hug, saying, gently, “Let’s take a picture together before you blow out your….” The noise from my daughter’s throat was like the sound of an angry animal ten times her weight. Her hands, in tiny balls of anticipation, released, and with her wide-open palms she passionately pushed my mother away.
Instinctively, horrified and ashamed by her behavior, I growled my daughter’s name. I watched as the gaze of betrayal she’d directed toward her grandma shifted to me. My husband (a truly ideal co-parent) gracefully and confidently intervened: “We’re not going to be taking any pictures right now.” We watched our daughter blow out her candles. We cheered and clapped as culture required. And then we watched as she crumpled into her chair and cried.
“I just wanted to blow out my candles,” she said through tears. “I just wanted to blow out my candles without anyone grabbing me.”
[bctt tweet=”I had the gut reaction to scold her, but the underlying belief that she had done nothing wrong.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]
I feared that the whine in her voice, the incredulity in her eyes, the forcefulness of her hands, would be perceived as unacceptable, punishable behavior by my parents. I had the gut reaction to scold her, but the underlying belief that she had done nothing wrong. I was moved by her ability to articulate what she wanted and expected and her disappointment in what happened instead. I was so proud of my little girl.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” size=””]“I just wanted to blow out my candles without anyone grabbing me.”[/perfectpullquote]
The paradox is that all of these feelings coexist. I am grateful for the forced, four-kiss grandparent greetings of my childhood, while safeguarding my children’s right to choose what affection they give and receive. That I cherish the memory of my grandparents’ embraces, while I purposely refrain from molding similar memories for my children and their grandparents.
Sometimes I imagine I can feel my parents’ thoughts and visualize their disappointment. Do they silently see it as my failure that their granddaughter couldn’t do this simple thing, just to obey and take a photo? Do they feel disrespected? Do they disapprove?
[bctt tweet=”Sometimes I imagine I can feel my parents’ thoughts and visualize their disappointment.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]
In another world (an ideal one? I’m not sure yet), I would live my values without worrying about what other people think. But I am not there right now. I am committed to raising children who grow into adults who will genuinely express their love and affection, who authentically accept and reject physical touch. Am I confident that I am doing everything the right way? I cannot be.
We never took a picture of my daughter on her birthday, not with candles, not with my mom. But someday when I search back through the albums and can’t find that photo, I’ll recall that flicker in my heart the moment before she blew her five candles out, when my fear gave way to pride.