To sniff or not to sniff? — Public displays of affection gaining ground among Asian Americans, though some still squeamish

By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly

Photo by Nghi Pham

In the West, one common way to show affection is to kiss someone.

In many non-English speaking Western countries, such as European or Latin American countries, people kiss one another on the cheek to show friendship, to greet, or to congratulate.

In the East, however, such a gesture may seem indecent in public. In its stead is the sniff kiss.

The sniff

Tony Vongdara said that sniff kisses are probably the most common in the Lao community as a way of showing affection. 

He said the point of sniffing is not to actually smell the person, but to basically “kiss them with your nose.” In Lao, they call it “hom neh,” which literally means “Can I smell you?” Vongdara noted that sniff kisses were generally given to babies, younger children, or love companions.

“As I grew up and thinking back, I don’t think I really witnessed a lot of PDA (public displays of affection) in the Lao community, especially among the adults. I believe Lao people tend to be a little more private than a lot of cultures when it comes to personal emotions and displaying signs of affection,” he said.

“PDA to me is somewhat a sign of disrespect if you are among a group of friends or family. PDA puts others in an awkward position, which can easily be postponed until later at a private time,” he said.

Speaking of awkwardness, Sery Joo, who was born in South Korea and moved to the United States in 1994, was not used to PDA at first.

“It was very awkward for me to see PDA when I came to the States. … I found it very disturbing and uncomfortable if two people were kissing,” Joo said.

She thinks that PDA is more acceptable now in Korea than it was before. However, as in other Asian cultures, it is still considered rude and disrespectful to do so in front of an elder.

“I still feel very weird holding hands with my boyfriend in front of my parents,” she said.

PDA around family is a different story. Like Vongdara, Leslie Ramirez said that she grew up with her mom giving the kids sniff kisses. She added that “it was mostly because it is customary for Filipinos to kiss in that fashion and partially because she didn’t want to mess up her lipstick.”

Her grandmothers also kissed her and her siblings like that and continue to sniff kiss them today. She described it as a cheek to cheek touch, and then a sniff combined with a hug.

“I would say PDA isn’t exactly frowned upon or discouraged in my culture. If you love someone, you have a right or sometimes even a traditional or religious obligation to show your affection,” Ramirez said.

Nay, PDA

Amy Kumagai, who is Sansei, is against PDA because she thinks it makes others uncomfortable.

She said, “It’s cute when you can tell a couple is really into each other, but there are other ways to show that. No one wants to see a couple in an intense make out session and heavy petting. Save it for the bedroom!”

Compared to most Westerners, such as Europeans, Canadians, and  Americans, Asians are stricter when it comes to PDA, particularly in countries with strong ties to Confucianism or Hinduism. Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) states that a person who “does any obscene act in any public place … shall be punished with imprisonment … for a term which may extend to three months, or with a fine, or with both.” The law has been used to prosecute those who engage in PDA. Notably, in 2007, arrest warrants were issued for Hollywood actor Richard Gere after he publicly embraced and kissed Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Gere later apologized, and the case was eventually dropped.

In late 2009, Nanjing Forestry University in east China was the topic of heated debates online and on campus when it banned public kissing and cuddling on campus. Xinhua News Agency reported that the university employed about 100 student guards, identifiable by the red armbands they wore, to find PDA and squash instances of it.

The measure was meant to clamp down on “uncivil manners,” a school official told Xinhua.

“I don’t mind PDA in moderation. I think showing affection is a good thing, but I don’t like it when people are in close public spaces. It’s awkward, and in actuality, I think that the couple is just trying to show off… Too much PDA is childish,” said Paul Boupha, who is Chinese and Thai American.

Yea, PDA

Singaporean Eddie Goh thinks that his native country is perhaps the most ‘Westernized’ of all Asian countries. “With high exposure of Western ideals through media and large expat communities, today’s teens and young adults aspire to more open forms of expressing their affection in comparison to their Asian counterparts,” he said.

“I am open to PDA and participate in mild forms of PDA, though when I observe it overdone, it becomes inappropriate and gross and may offend others. Being in a public space means that you are responsible for your actions, and one must consider cultural and societal norms,” he said.

Although she feels that she is a completely Americanized Filipino, Jamie Vinoya still squirms under PDA at times. “Generally speaking, even to this day, I’ve kept PDA to a bare minimum around elders. It’s mainly just a sign of respect to not participate in PDA around elders. One sign of affection that seems OK in Filipino culture is the cheek kiss,” she added.

Relative to the rest of Asia, the Philippines are more socially liberal with kissing, due to the Spanish influence during colonization, from the 16th century through the 20th. In the Philippines, cheek kissing is called beso (the Spanish word for kiss), as in Latin America and Europe,

Ramirez described the cheek kiss as the type of affection one would show to a close friend or family member when greeting or saying goodbye.

“On a higher level, I’m definitely pro-PDA as long as it’s tactful and not overbearing. This would be like a hug, or holding hands, an arm around the shoulder, or a quick peck. But things like making out on a park bench or butt rubs in the grocery store line could probably wait until you’re in an enclosed space.”

Jennifer Nguyen said that her family is very much into PDA, something that is outside the norm for Vietnamese households.

She also added, “PDA towards your children or kids is OK, but don’t be making out with your boyfriend in front of the Vietnamese community.” ♦

Nina Huang can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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