Sunday, June 04, 2006


Almost nobody knows how to shake hands in Asia. You can see it on the news, when the leaders of China and Vietnam meet and greet for official photos. In Japan and Cambodia, if you hold out your hand, and the other person holds out their hand, what you will receive in return is a limp, wishy-washy sponge. The way that you feel when you set down your rod and try to untangle the fish you just pulled from the lake -- the thing just sits there, flopping around a little, sometimes squirming. For some strange reason, this used to offend me. Then someone in Japan told me politely that I had absolutely no fucking clue how to bow, properly, with the adequate amount of respect, and I realized that shaking hands, bowing, kissing strangers on the cheek, are all ways that we acknowledge the validity and worth of the other person, and if we do it wrong, or wimpishly, we're offending them, and disgracing ourselves.

As a kid, I used to extend my left-hand whenever a grown-up-type-person would ever attempt to shake hands with me; being a lefty, this felt the most natural to me. I had to be taught that no, you can't use your left hand to shake hands. Why not? Well, you just can't. Grown-ups make the rules, and those are the rules, so just use your right hand, because that's the way the world works. (Lefties learn early on that it's a righty world, and we backward brothers-in-arms have to make do with pencil sharpeners, gear shits, video-game joysticks and scissors designed for our more numerous brethren. Sometimes the righty world will throw us a bone: "Oooooh, we get green scissors, how kind of you!" A kind of ambulatory apartheid, I say.) The only time I could shake hands lefty-style, legally, was in Cub scouts. God knows why, and He ain't telling.

I've always found shaking hands an oddly intimate act. It doesn't compare with kissing or hugging or heavy petting, but still: you're taking a stranger's hand, and you're feeling their fingers, and grasping their palms. You care connecting, flesh-to-flesh.

That connection is key, especially among equals, especially among rivals. As a moderately successful high-school runner, it was tradition to shake hands with my main rivals before the race, and often after, too. Andy Bosak used to grip my hand hard, Chuck Norris style, letting the pain linger, avoiding my eyes. Was he trying to intimidate me? I knew he had strong hands, but did he think I thought he was going to run the race on his palms? Tom Villum would give a quick, firm perfunctory shake, his mind already on the race, between the lanes. Afterwards, win or lose, we would shake hands, mutter "good race", feeling each other's slick sweat mingle, the icky aftereffects of our desire to punish the other. Sometimes the dude who came sixth or seventh or fiftieth would come up to shake my hand, which always made me feel rather strange, even uncomfortable, like getting a big kiss from a relative you didn't really know. He wanted to shake my hand because I had won a race, and yet if he had seen me at school, my blue-framed Robocop-glasses tucked tight on my face, my nose buried in a book, would he have longed to swap palms? As a runner I was worthy of a handshake, but what about as a reader? Shaking hands is for complete strangers and intimates; everyone in-between those two states made me question their motives. Old insecurities rose to the surface, I suppose. And yet, deep down, in that place within ourselves where all the good stuff rests and resides, I always appreciated having my hand shaken by other runners, no matter what their place in the race. They were thanking me for helping to push them. You don't go around the hallways at school shaking hands every day for a chemistry test well done, but on the track, when the gun went off, we were all engaging in something ritual and primal and expansive. I realized that to question their motives was egotistical and petty on my part, even asinine. We were all in the thing together. Gestures of goodwill enabled us to endure.

I sometimes would tell my students in Japan: Be firm when shaking hands. Grip tight, but not too tight. (There's only one Chuck Norris, after all.) Move your hand up and down two, three times. Look the other person in the eye. Gently release. Do it when first meeting someone, and then again when parting.

I would have liked to have said to them: Shaking hands is intimate, almost holy. You are connecting with another person. We spend so much time in our own heads, but shaking hands is a way to actually reach out to someone, if only for a moment. You are recognizing their place on this earth. That's important. For some reason, it matters.

But I stuck with the basics. The basics are hard enough.

And then I would sit down, and sigh, and ask: "Okay, so, one more time. Exactly how am I supposed to bow?"

1 comment:

roselle said...

well when i first started reading the post i was going to comment about how the scouts and guides shake with their left hands but you clearly have experienced that - the reasoning behind this (and let this identify me as a lifelong girl guide geek ;)) is that when you shake with your left hand, your right hand is free to make the scout/guide sign of honour...a sign of good will that the other doesn't mean harm! (a round about right-ist attitude if you think about it no?!)

a firm handshake is one of the best feelings in the world. and for me (miss little hands), there's nothing sexier than a strong male palm engulfing my own!

i love those people who don't know when to let go though!!!
(boy this comment has turned epic!)