People all over the world have a different understanding of personal space; British personal space tends to extend wider than it does for an Indian person for example. Our ideas about personal space are engrained in us early on and it can be disconcerting when we move to a new society where they’re different. Viet Nam is one of those places where personal space is a little bit smaller than the cultures I grew up in, so I took me some time to adjust. I remember having a conversation with a person that started in the middle of the room and was shocked when I suddenly found myself backed up against a table in the corner. Over the course of the long conversation, I had inadvertently shuffled away from them and they, wanting to maintain chatting distance, followed me.
Vietnamese culture also more open to the concept of ‘friendly skinship,’ the idea that the closer you are to a person, the more you’ll touch them and touch reinforces the relationship.
This skinship doesn’t cross genders; women will only walk arm in arm with other women and men will only sit pressed up against each other. I’ll often see young men and boys sitting on each other’s laps if there aren’t enough chairs to go around, girls will do the same. There is nothing sexual about all this touching, just sociable.
I’m not going to lie, it took me a little to get used to sitting with female Vietnamese friends and having them hold or rub my arm for most of the conversation. This is just a way of being companionable and shouldn’t be worried about.
Like most things, it only feels weird the first couple of times and I have to say that all the touching really does work. You do feel emotionally closer to the people that physically embrace you.
This isn’t to say that all touching occurs in a friendly, established relationship… I’ve definitely been felt up by complete strangers more in a year in Viet Nam than a full decade living in other countries. And all the perpetrators were women. Someone squeezed behind me in a small shop and patted my bottom the whole way past and then went back again. I’m on the transfer bus at an airport and the woman next to me is going in for a quick snuggle with a bit of side boob squeezing… while her friend took pictures. I put a stop to this pretty quickly, but often these tussles happen quickly like a hit and run and you’re left to replay it in your mind.
I think most of these encounters have a foundation in curiosity; my body is different from most the women around me and the desire to know what it feels like might be too strong to resist. At least this is how I chose to see it and I can live with that.