Social Distancing Redux

By Ann Bennett Spence (Bian An)

My mother, who died 25 years ago, was Chinese. One of the things she taught me fromthe first was a variation on what we’re now calling socialdistancing: having and keeping one’sown personal space. Many have said that “Asians” are less huggy, less kissy, than westerners.That’s certainly been my own experience: distancing was deeply ingrained in me. In adulthood I had to learn, actively learn, how to interact with western closeness in social situations. A example: before my first marriage in the year that the president (Nixon)’s daughter was married, I studied the newscasts showing how she embraced each person coming down the receiving line, and it pains me to reveal that I sought to replicate this at my own wedding a month later. My mother stood in the receiving line at my wedding, strikingly regal in her red silk qipao dress, and she tolerated all the huggers as they came down the line and got into her space, because she defined this as a western occasion with western rituals, something she’d signed onto when she married my American father nearly 30 years earlier. But that didn’t meanshe enjoyed being hugged and kissed by all these guest

Thanks to my mother, the family I grew up in was Chinese in practice. There was psychological distance within the family, and physical distance, especially toward one’s elders. With our Chinese aunties and uncles, no hugs and especially no kisses. A deferential nod was preferred, often warm, loving even, but rarely involving a touch.

Now comes this COVID-19 pandemic, and I suddenly realize that all that distancing was protective. More obviously, so was my mother’s concern about handwashing. From earliest memory I was taught to wash my hands after touching almost anything, including public handrails, doorknobs, and especially money. Even petting my dog required that I wash my hands afterwards, which is probably why to this day I don’t touch dogs or cats – too much trouble to have to wash my hands afterwards.

My mother’s family survived in part because of a capacity to navigate contagion. China was subjected to a ferocious invasion by the Japanese army, lasting 14 years, with direct military attacks leading afterwards to starvation and mass contagion, throughout the whole period leading to well over 15 million deaths. Surviving the attacks was not enough: you had to survive the diseases that followed. My mother was born into a time of unending wars. Before the Japanese invasion were the warlord years, and before that the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. After the invasion came World War II, then the civil war. Her family knew how to survive, and what she’d learned she then passed along to her children. It was about surviving upheaval and contagion.

She would have said the COVID-19 precautions are simply being Chinese. She would have said that being Chinese is about surviving. She wouldn’t have considered social distancing to be anything unusual, only an exaggerated version of usual. Not hugging one’s elders unless invited, shows respect; and it’s protective of those who are older and more frail. And handwashing? All the time of course. And now westerners have learned these lessons, she would have said.