Southern Hugs and Southern Hemisphere Kisses Should Be Replaced (For Now) by
Thai Approach

Coronavirus may require a break from treasured customs

When I got home from New Orleans in November 2019, I raved to friends in the District of Columbia about Southern hugs.

I’d had the good luck to spend time with three wonderful women on my trip, all of whom I consider Southern, by their choice of where to live if not necessarily by birth. One was a college friend who looks exactly as she had during our days at Tulane University. Another is a fellow journalist who was back from exotic travels, full of life and stories. The third visit was with one of my favorite editors of all time, an Arkansan now living in Mississippi and writing about NASA.

Each one of these friends embraced me when we met, giving me a real hug.

In the northern parts of the United States, we can be succinct in this gesture. We do a rushed sweep of arms before we move onto chatting or whatever business may be at hand. But I treasured these Southern hugs, just as I loved it when folks in Buenos Aires kissed me goodbye during a 2018 trip to that city. That’s the way of the porteños, as the people of Buenos Aires are called.

In Buenos Aires, I signed up for four of what AirBnB calls experiences: two tours, a workshop and a meditative walk. The AirBnB experiences connect you with people who love their cities and cultures. The guides design their own programs.

At the end of a group tour of independent bookstores, the guide said goodbye to the participants with kisses on the cheek. Besos too capped my tour of downtown Art Nouveau buildings given by a fellow journalist. And there were besos at the end of a meditative walk, which included the very Argentine instruction to pause and savor the scent of grilled meat as we passed a restaurant. And besos ended a workshop held by a potter in her home, in which she told me about the tradition of mate and let me paint my own ceramic cup for drinking it.

In Rio de Janeiro in February 2020, I had a great chat with the hostess of our AirBnB after she gave me the keys to her flat. A professional singer, she had shelves full of interesting books and lovely art on the walls of her flat.

Before she left, she gave me a kiss on each cheek on leaving, telling me this way the way of the carioca, as Rio’s people are called. I later saw a cute ad around Rio making the same claim. To be truly carioca (carioca from the yolk, as the exact translation goes) you greet people with two kisses.

When I checked into that Rio AirBnB in early February, there were not yet any confirmed cases of coronavirus in Latin America.

As of March 12, there were about 149 cases reported for Brazil alone. Back at home in the United States, there were about 1,215 cases found so far, including about 175 in California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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California is home to a very dear friend who is undergoing chemotherapy. She has been much on my mind during the coronavirus crisis.

That’s why I think it’s time for us all to give up on beautiful gestures like Southern hugs and southern hemisphere kisses, at least for a good long while.

Maybe we should instead try to emulate a graceful Thai custom known as the wai.

Pronounced like why in English, it’s a gesture of greeting made with folded hands and a nod of the head. In Thailand, the wai involves different steps depending on the relationships between people. And one doesn’t give a wai to children, for example. We wouldn’t need to copy that kind of hierarchy in the United States. We are not a formal people. But we could switch to courteous bows with folded hands, kind of a wai lite.

I hope this photo does not seem disrespectful. This Ronald McDonald mannequin first struck me as the height of tacky when I saw it Bangkok in 2016. And then I decided to look at it in a new light. We have an American commercial icon attempting a respectful nod to Thailand. So I snapped this photo.

The Thai wai looks to me to be about the same as the namaste gesture used in yoga classes. It has the same sense of honoring and acknowledging another.

Let me know if that seems right to you to use the wai and namaste gestures as a way of celebrating these cultures and keeping safe. Or does it seems wrong, another case of cultural appropriation?

These are nervous times. So I’m closing with photos of peaceful places I visited on that 2016 trip to Thailand. Please feel to reach out to me if you have photos from your own travels in Thailand that I can add to this post.

Namaste.

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Buddha who is not afraid
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Buddha who is not afraid, Sukhothai.
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Sukhothai.
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Sukhothai
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Graceful lady seen near Chiang Mai.
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Wise advice for any time or place

Written by

Journalist fascinated by art, history, medicine, politics and food. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 50 nations. Knows FDA, Congress.

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