June 18, 2004

I'm not a native Californian. Up until the age of 18 I lived in the midwest. But as my sister used to tell me, once you've lived in San Francisco for 7 years, you can start calling yourself a native. And judging by a recent grocery receipt, I've clearly made the change. I came home from Trader Joe's and realized I'd bought baked tofu, plantain chips, organic orange juice, soy tomatillo enchiladas, environmentally friendly laundry detergent, and cornmeal crust pizza.

I've become almost a caracature of a San Franciscan. Add the fact that I vote extremely left-wing, I go to art films nearly every week, I walk on the beach every morning, I carry a jacket with me even in the middle of summer, and I recycle absolutely everything and I think I might qualify for native status.

But there's just one little thing that still separates me. It's the hugging.

As a Midwesterner, I always embraced (no pun intended) the stereotype of our stoicism. There wasn't a lot of touching in my life growing up and the time for affection was clearly prescribed. As a kid my parents would kiss me goodnight. Growing up we hugged relatives when we arrived for a visit and when we left at the end of a visit. I don't think I ever hugged my friends except maybe at graduation. And once I hit the teen years, my parents kept a safe distance due to what my mother kindly called my "prickliness". None of this was unusual in Iowa. We're not a touchy-feely people.

When I first arrived in California it became clear to me that there were very different rules for hugging here. My sister took me to see some friends of hers who lived in Santa Cruz. I'd never met them or spoken to them before but as soon as I arrived they hugged me. I may have been too startled to even raise my arms. After a couple of days staying with them, as I left one of them asked if it was ok that she hugged me now, since I knew them. It was clear to me that they didn't understand me anymore than I understood them.

Over the years it got easier. I still wasn't an initiater, but I was better at taking the hug and reciprocating when appropriate. Some of the rules were easy.

When you see a friend whom you haven't seen for a little while, you hug. When you leave that same friend, you hug. When you have a party, you hug your guests when they arrive, assuming you know them. You usually hug when they leave (usually with ardor increased by alcohol). Likewise, when you go to a party you hug your host. You don't have to hug the other guests, but often it's expected if you haven't seen them for awhile.

When it's someone's birthday, you hug them. When it's your birthday, people hug you. If you arrive at someone's birthday dinner and you've hugged them, if there are other people at the table you know, you hug them. Suffice to say at this point, there's a whole lotta hugging going on.

However, despite getting acquainted with most of the rules, I still miss sometimes. There are gray areas that aren't covered and can create some awkwardness. For instance--I've become good friends with some people from work. We go out to movies and dinner together. Susan I see every day at work. John Paul I talk to and email with often but only see when we go out after work.

One night the three of us went to dinner and a movie with a fourth, a friend of Susan's who the other two of us didn't know. At the end of the night I hugged John Paul, who I hadn't seen for a couple of weeks. I shook hands with the fellow I didn't really know. But I didn't know what to do about Susan.

Susan is a fellow Midwesterner. However, she's been in San Francisco longer than I have. She seems to have some of the awkwardness with the hugging that I do but does seem to be a bit better at it. She made the move to hug but I wasn't prepared, then I made the move to hug but she was off-center; it was a very awkward moment. Ultimately we hugged, but I felt horribly embarrassed. I didn't quite get this rule. You see someone at work every day. When you leave work at the end of the day, you don't hug each other. But suddenly because you're in a social situation, the hugging is appropriate. It seems odd to me. But then so did all the hugging at the beginning. So I gave up.

My new rule is to hug everyone. Only if it's a person of the opposite sex who you hardly know should you not hug. This is what I've determined. For instance, when I went out the other night for my friend Angie's birthday it was me, her, her girlfriend, and a friend of theirs. I'd met their friend once before. After sharing a lovely Joan Jett concert experience, we said good-bye at their car. I gave Angie a good long birthday hug. I gave her girlfriend a hug, as I have many times before. And I gave their friend a hug. I hardly knew her and I wasn't drunk. But it was the appropriate thing to do. She appropriately hugged me as well. I finally feel like I get this thing.

To hug or not to hug is no longer a question. So maybe I am finally a native. I give up, give in, and give up the hugs. And despite my Midwestern stoicism, which still exists deep down and expresses itself in the slight hesitation I still often have just before I open my arms, I even sort of like the hugging. Ok, there it is. Crown me. I'm a native.

Posted by Alyssa at 07:41 AM
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