The Cringe-Factor: Ways I am Socially Awkward Living Abroad

This is the first of many parts as I write honestly, not even with deprecation, just with honesty.

Vulnerability, if you will. I am socially awkward, but I try to cover that up with hopeless, er hopeful, smiles.


This smaller Lady Liberty stands (awkwardly) in Odaiba, Japan, not knowing whether to hug or bow.
At least her hands are busy.

The first of my awkwardness is this:

A. Hugging

I am in Japan, as you may know. This is the land of enthusiastic waves and bows. I have, I believe, mastered the head nod or more casual bow. I practically curtsy in my sleep. Bows are done in many an exchange, from thanks to apologies, to simply acknowledging with respect an elder or someone who is your senior. It is wordless and conveys a wealth of meaning. I can also turn into a waving machine at train-sendoffs. (Very Japanese, you know). I wave, wave, wave until everybody is really gone. Then I look back, smile, and wave some more, for good measure. I have all this down; no problems there.

However, when I get closer with someone, I want to hug! That American thing in me rises up and it wants a hug! I’m not so touchy-feely, really. I’ll never be one of those grown women walking around, touching her best friend’s hand or holding it. I hold my children’s’ hands and my husbands. That’s enough–but if a friend or “more than acquaintance” and I are parting, I need to hug!

Fine, right? Maybe? Thing is, if they are Japanese, my hug is absolutely awkward, not met, or I am just doing some weird dance where I am wondering what to do. I am suddenly a geeky twelve year old on a first date, with a girl. Eew. And the last five minutes of our coffee time, or lunch date, or meeting, or whatever, is spent with me wondering, “What will I do?” Ugh. You can see how gross and energy-consuming such a lifestyle is.


What’s on the other side of the shoji? To hug or shake? I choose screen number two!

I have countered this social floundering by going the other way. Turning off the warm and giving only handshakes or pats on the shoulder. Not me, either! You don’t pat the arm of a true friend, do you?! No, way! A hug firms-up all you’ve discussed, all you shared in words and in thoughts. It leaves you feeling the warmth of your very friendship, having that connection. I am obviously not ready to cut this part off from me. I am desperate for a Dear Abby post to get this all sorted out. Or better yet, bug me! I’ll wear wires or a thingy in my ear. Give me access to some lovely, sparkly socialite who moves effortlessly, gracefully through Japanese Chanel-wearing circles, to intelligent Brits and Americans, Aussies and Germans. Give me the code, people! Give me social-Siri! Or Siri-san!

The most awkward exchange to date is this, still seared in that part of my brain that cringes with each awkward memory:

I recently met up with a colleague/cool boss. Socially, it is already tricky, as he is my boss of sorts, but he’s young. Has traveled the globe. Isn’t Japanese. I figured (wrongly) that a quick pseudo/European kiss on the cheek was somehow appropriate! What the hell! Freaking terrible, can’t take that back. Why, o why, can’t I err on the cooler side of things?! Be aloof for once in my life, or merely professional, instead of all tweeny-dramatic to sensitive flower-rainbow-girl where I have to be touchy-feely, acknowledging everyone’s inner child, or something. Please, Melissa, can’t you just be city-cool, wear cashmere, excellent leather boots, a messy chignon, and stride off into the subway-sunset with an air of sophistication? Learn this already, girl.

It’s easy to remember such an event with a bit of mortification.


Hubby’s cool. I’m the dork.

Exhale, deep breath.

So this morning I witnessed my own daughter be socially awkward with her friend, too. Maybe this is just what two and three year olds do. Maybe, socially, I am but a toddler.

She wanted to chat with her long-time friend, who was working in the sandbox. This was just after we arrived at the school’s playground and before going into the genkan (or foyer with shoe-cubbies).

Well, he tried to go in for a hug and nearly scratched her cornea. Her cornea didn’t like being mauled, so she backed away. He was still trying to hug her. When she wrestled through her feelings and then wanted to hug too, she got too close to his eye and there they were bits of sand, fingernails, hugs all awry and…floundering, with the teacher working her pre-school magic to help them along. I couldn’t do so much but think how I, too, am a bit of mess. I am that kid standing in the sandbox, wondering who to hug, who to handshake, who to give a friendly nod.


Living abroad only pronounces any awkwardness that was already there, with more rules, more misappropriations, more wonderings of who to squeeze and who to kiss twice or three times on the cheek. See, it is all up in the air. A foreigner who has lived here for a while may not be a hugger. Or, they may be more than happy to get back to their roots and go in for a hug. Or handshake. Or high five. I dunno. A Japanese person married to a foreigner may have adopted certain social habits. Or not. Dunno!

Maybe they have another spot in my daughter’s class. Or étiquette school. Or maybe I can just keep my hands busy. Hold stuff and just smile.

9 thoughts on “The Cringe-Factor: Ways I am Socially Awkward Living Abroad

  1. That was awesome! I’ve totally fallen out of the hugging habit, and always get a bit put off when I go home and everyone’s trying to hug me…then I remember that I really like it, catch on, get in the groove, just in time to catch the plane home, spend the first week hugging everyone around me, then fall out of habit again 😦
    Can I snag it for our KA Page?

  2. Love this post, Melissa! I’ve been there, too… To hug or not to hug… When to stop calling someone with “san”… Whether to use keigo or not… Yeah, the list goes on and on, doesn’t it? I’m a hugger myself, and since I look Japanese (er, AM Japanese, I should probably say) I think I catch people off guard. I’ve learned my lesson though, and I’ve been sticking to the safest policy–wave and bow. Sad, but definitely the least awkward here, I think. Although I still attempt to go in for a hug once I get to know someone well 😉

  3. Mel!!!! You are so wonderful! And your writing is awesome, so honest and poignant and descriptive. It feels like I’m just listening to you chat in the same room… Is it weird that even though I’m not in a foreign country I too feel that awkwardness as well? Around fellow Americans ? I miss you tons and lots of love to you and your lovelies! P.s. I can’t believe Jude is already a toddler! Time flies!

    • Oh, sweet Sam. Thank you for reading & for taking time out to respond! What kindness & love, too! Ooh, I am intrigued about what you mean about you feeling that awkwardness, as well. DO you mean that by reading my thoughts, you feel as if you are present? Or do you get those similar feelings in your own life? Do tell more, Sam!

      Lots and lots of love.

  4. Pingback: Awkward Lady Living Abroad 2: SHOES in the House | Melibelle in Tokyo

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