Jeannie Lin kicks of this week’s Month of Kisses with a great view into culture and the kiss!
I remember my first kiss. I think most people do.
I was in high school and my first boyfriend and I had been going steady for over a month. When I first agreed to be his girl, we hugged and I gave him a kiss on the cheek, but that was it. He never tried to kiss me.
Finally one night when he was taking me home, he brought it up, saying that we’ve only had that one little peck. He asked me if it would be okay if he kissed me. My heart was beating real fast and in my head I was saying, “Well, duh. I’ve been waiting for an entire month!” but all I said was yes.
He was really tall and lanky and I’m tiny and he leaned down and I had my first kiss right there on my front step. The whole affair was weird and awkward and really, really wonderful.
Imagine that time when a kiss meant everything. When it wasn’t a starter act, the first step. There was one point in your life when you’d never been kissed. (Or maybe that point is now?) Maybe you’re hoping to be kissed soon and hoping it will be someone special and you’ll remember it forever.
Think of all that anticipation building. And all that fear of what it will mean.
Now take that feeling and multiply it.
Since I write historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China, of course I had to research kissing in Chinese culture. At one time, when Westerners came into broader contact with Chinese culture in the 19th century, they noted that Chinese people were shocked by the sight of couples holding hands or kissing in public. This lead to the misconception that Chinese couples didn’t kiss at all and were sexually repressed.
Given the number of people who today (let alone two centuries ago) are uncomfortable with PDA, is that really a fair conclusion?
Hopefully that old stereotype of sexual repression is starting to fade, but we still see echoes of it in how Asians are portrayed in movies or television. Or how they’re NOT portrayed as three-dimensional people with real desires. Every culture has specific rituals and expectations around romance and courtship. In traditional Chinese culture, and especially back in imperial times, kissing was seen as a very private, very intimate act. As intimate as giving your body to another person.
In Chinese culture, girls can speak about their first kiss as intensely as we would expect to speak about losing our virginity. In fact, it’s common to say “I lost my first kiss.” (我失去了我的初吻)
During my research, I encountered a site about dating, courtship and relationships in China that wasn’t fetishized. While reading a post on LoveLoveChina about losing that first kiss, I came across some quotes that tried to express that feeling of deep intimacy. (http://www.lovelovechina.com/dating/chinese-girls-first-kiss/)
“He wanted to kiss me. I said that we have to wait until after marriage. At that time I didn’t know [about sex]. I was afraid I’d have a baby once I touch him. Every time he wanted to kiss me, I would move my head away.
I planned to let him kiss me on his birthday, but one evening I felt I wanted. We were sitting on the ground, his body leaning against my leg. Suddenly I felt that I want to kiss him very much, so I gave a kiss on his neck.”
“He tried to kiss me, but I instinctively moved back. He got angry and complained that I push him away.“So, tell me what I should do” – I replied. After hearing it, he immediately moved forward and gave me a kiss…
I almost fainted…
All the way back home I couldn’t stop thinking about it… The first kiss was wonderful.”
“At the beginning, I tried to hide and pushed him away. After we kissed, I suddenly felt that I gave all my life to him and he seemed to be responsible…
I clearly remember how scared I was…The feeling was as I am not virgin anymore.”
“First kiss should be beautiful and sweet. However, my first kiss was lost without any feeling of sweetness. It was robbed when I was crying [after I drank alcohol]. When I recall that kiss, I don’t feel any happiness.”
Some of the snarky comments on the post made me angry and sad. They criticized Chinese culture for its lack of sex education and called these girls naïve and stupid for thinking a kiss can make you pregnant. They made fun of women who were twenty years or older before having their first kiss.
Here’s the thing: learning about this nuance of Asian culture – about how precious and risky that first act of kissing can be – didn’t make me think of Chinese people as being repressed or backwards or other. It took a universal concept, the first kiss, and elevated it to something even more special.
I know that not EVERY woman in China has this feeling about kissing. China, like the US, like any culture is in a constant state of evolution, with a wide spectrum of attitudes about love and intimacy.
What these accounts did, in the extreme vulnerability of their emotions, is yield the language to describe a feeling that we’ve all felt, but have lost the ability to recapture as that moment becomes buried under time. As we see kiss after kiss on TV, selling gum, selling toothpaste, selling lip balm. As kisses become a joke and a gimmick and a throwaway. First base.
It reminded me of my own so brief time of innocence, when the sight of others kissing seemed a little scandalous, and the thought of giving away my first kiss meant everything. This is why romance and especially historical romance are so appealing to me in the way that the pages try to embody and elevate and celebrate that first kiss. For the brief space of those pages, I can return to the exhilarating age of innocence when I had never yet been kissed and a kiss meant everything.
A note from Bria:
I knew once I saw the characters for “I lost my first kiss” you’d all want to know exactly the same thing I did! How to write just “kiss” – so I shot Jeannie a note and she sent me back this lovely picture so it would be really clear.
Thanks again Jeannie Lin!
Jeannie Lin grew up fascinated with stories of Western epic fantasy and Eastern martial arts adventures. When her best friend introduced her to romance novels in middle school, the stage was set. Jeannie started writing her first romance while working as a high school science teacher in South Central Los Angeles. After four years of trying to break into publishing with an Asian-set historical, her 2009 Golden Heart Award-winning manuscript, Butterfly Swords, sold to Harlequin Mills & Boon. Her first three Tang Dynasty romances have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal and The Dragon and the Pearl was listed among Library Journal’s Best Romances of 2011.