Free Hugs, Open Hearts

“It’s our last together,” Sakinu said to the high school students gathered in a circle, “I’m sure you’ve made some good friends. Well, I’m going to give you ten seconds to hug five people. Group One, pick five people. Are you ready? Go!”

A group of kids raced around hugging friends as he counted down. I looked on in perplexity as Sakinu then said, “You guys are lame! I want you to give each other real hugs. Let me hug someone so you can see.” His two goddaughters stepped out from the line of camp leaders and he gave them each a big hug.

Now that he was pointing it out, I did notice that the kids hugged each other at arms length, basically giving each other little pats on the back. “Okay now,” he said after he had hugged his goddaughters, “Group two, are you ready?”

The hugging workshop went on all afternoon. The kids took turns hugging each other. Then the camp leaders hugged the kids. Sakinu kept extending the exercise, giving people another five seconds to hug one another. At the end, I found myself in a melee of hugging and weeping people. A scrawny teenage boy even turned to me and we hugged like old friends, though I had never once spoken to him.

Ready, set, hug.

Later, I learned that hugging is a big part of indigenous culture. And Tony Coolidge, a half-Atayal filmmaker told me today that hugging is also important to the Maori, whom anthropologists say are descended from the Taiwanese indigenous people but who have managed to maintain more of their culture. The Maori greet one another by hugging one another so closely that they can put their noses against each other and breathe each other’s breath.

With Han Chinese so culture predominant on Taiwan, Sakinu and many other indigenous people feel that the natives have lost their way of expression. That odd shouting names exercise that I witnessed two nights previously was his way of getting those kids to lose their Chinese timidity and speak with greater force. What was funny was that he was using a very Chinese sense of shame to get the kids to be more indigenous. By turning hugging into a game, he was trying to break the kids of the Chinese habit of not touching one another.

It made me think of my own family. I can actually only remember being held one time by my parents. I was groggy all that day and woke up in the hospital with tubes coming out of my arms. I must have passed out, since the next time I woke up, it was late and I was at home. I stumbled out of the bedroom and said to my parents, “I think I feel better.” Without a word in response, my father picked me up and carried me to bed. His action so astonished me that I realized I must have been seriously ill. I still don’t know why I was in the hospital that time. Chinese people not only don’t touch each other, they also don’t tell their kids anything. Not even I love you.

After the hugging exercise, the students went to pack up their things. I gave Sakinu a book of resistance art, Signs of Change, and we talked about some of the social movements in the book. Then we talked about his hugging exercise and I told him that a friend of mine had told me once that hugging was important because that’s when your heart is closest to another person’s. “And your heart is more open,” he added.

With Sakinu at the School for Hunters.

When the kids got back, we all went down the mountain for a graduation ceremony, which took place in a theater where aborigines demonstrated their music and dance to Taiwanese tourists.

I had seen rehearsals the previous evening for a lovely song and was prepared to record the camp leaders singing it, thinking maybe I could use the song as a segue-way into something else. It turned out that the song was sung while a white lily was placed in each student’s hat. The indigenous symbol of purity and the Taiwanese symbol of resistance.

After the ceremony, we all had one last meal together. Then I got on the bus to the Pingtung train station with fifty hyped-up kids.

Lily in their hats.

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