One of the strangest things about Kathmandu and Nepali culture that I simply can’t wrap my head around has to do with public displays of affection. In Nepal, it isn’t appropriate to show affection toward one’s spouse or significant other in public places. Homosexuality is frowned upon. Heterosexuality is hidden. Men are openly affectionate with each other…physically.
When we walk down the street in Kathmandu, it isn’t unusual to see men holding hands. In fact, men will sit together on a stairwell, one man leaning back between the legs of another while the first strokes his “friend’s” hair. Men ride with each other on motorcycles, hugging each other closely and sometimes, touching each other in provocative ways. As we stroll along behind large groups of men, some of them holding hands like schoolchildren, I can’t help but wonder, whose hand would John hold if such things weren’t taboo in our culture?
I go through a list of straight-men-I-know in my mind (you know who you are) and try to picture any of them holding hands with another guy for platonic reasons. It’s just bizarre to me. Why are these public displays of affection necessary if there’s no sexual attraction motivating it? Isn’t sexual attraction the main reason why men and women and homosexual couples included hold hands and cuddle publicly in our culture? Aren’t public displays of affection a sort of foreplay or at least contextually a part of an ongoing and categorically sexual relationship among folks who are old enough to have one?
The idea of John holding hands with one of his guy-friends is hilarious and strange to me. I can’t even imagine John holding another man’s hand. It’s not because John doesn’t have male friends but because he doesn’t the need, the desire to run his fingers through another man’s hair. Where is the line in the sand between one man holding another man’s hips while riding on a moped and one man getting naked with another man for some fun between the sheets? Nepal just legalized homosexuality in 2007. Less than 8 years ago, homosexuality was punishable as a crime and men were sent to jail for up to 2 years for having sexual relations with other men. A lot of the lovey-dovey behaviors between men here is not gay, but just “friendly”. How does that work?
Since homosexuality has been legalized, it’s possible that some of the guy-on-guy touchy-feely stuff is actually evidence of a sexual relationship, but not all of it. Men have always touched each other a lot in Nepal according to what I’ve read, but not because they’re gay. This is the equation that keeps tripping me up. I get the idea of homosexuality and gay-ness. It’s the gray area, the transitional space between public displays of affection and private sexual behaviors that makes my mind spin. What’s really going on here? I ask myself.
I have some unconventional thoughts about men that are based on personal experience and although I may not have a conclusive thought yet on Men and Their Feelings and Their-Closeness-Needs, a part of my brain is dedicated to the task of figuring it out (probably because I’m a woman and thinking about shit like that is part of what we do). Every day, I see some new man-on-man behavior that does not make sense to me according to the Little Golden Book reality that I grew up with. After they hold hands and stroke each other’s cheeks, do they go home to their wives and make babies?
Years ago, when we operated a Halloween festival, I would always gear up for trouble when a big group of men arrived to go through our haunted houses. Inevitably, groups of men, without a female in their midst, were trouble. I was never once wrong about this fact. We always followed groups of men through the haunts and they were always a challenge. The biggest problem we had with groups of men was violence. In contrast, however, a group of men that included even one woman, would be far less likely to be aggressive. Most of what I did during our festival was simply watch people and try to predict what they were going to do. Women tended to quell the violence in a group of men before they had the chance to act on their crazy, often violent ideas.
Another male-dominated venue where I’ve had the chance to watch men be men is martial arts. Martial arts for men is not even the same sport as martial arts for women. Men are brutes while women are careful and precise. The brutish, testosterone-driven cage-fights that men do seem to be motivated, in some part, by the need to be “close” to other men. In our culture, while females organize slumber parties and brush each other’s hair, men organize yard fights to beat each other up. These two activities seem to achieve the same goal: closeness. And in both cases, there is no mistaking the closeness behaviors for sexual behaviors. Brushing another person’s hair or elbowing someone in the stomach is not considered “sexual” behavior in our culture.
But martial arts like Brazilian Jui Jitsu have a distinctly “gay” appearance to them, at least from a female perspective. Jui Jitsu and even boys’ wrestling in public schools seem to have ulterior motives. Although I don’t think that Jui Jitsu practitioners or wrestlers are gay, I do have to admit that when I see men enthusiastically locking themselves together in Kama Sutra-like positions, in the name of “fighting”, I tend to believe that this is how they’re satisfying their Closeness Needs. I don’t think it’s wrong or bad. On the contrary, I think it’s necessary. And watching the straight men here in Nepal giving each other butterfly kisses seems to solidify that view.
Men in the United States may revolt against this train of thought. God forbid that men should have Closeness Needs and God forbid that something as sacred as aggression and violence be dubbed an emotional cry for affection. But I believe that men perhaps have more of a need to be touched than women, or perhaps that they just aren’t touched as much as women are and so they try to find physical closeness through other means. Women, after all, spend nine months connected to other human beings during gestation and then an unspecified amount of time breast-feeding and carrying tiny human beings on our hips. We get plenty of physical closeness, but men seem to be very needy for it still.
Normally, when our family approaches a group of men, or even young adolescent boys on the street, anywhere in the world, we get ready to defend ourselves. Most of the time, on absolutely any continent, it’s dangerous to walk through a group of men especially if they’re loitering. They’re bored and they’re looking for trouble. But in Nepal, groups of men are docile. Big groups of men are everywhere and usually, within the group, there is at least one friendly “couple” (straight, of course) holding hands. Not one of these male groups has made fun of us, or tried to intimidate us in any way, even if we walk right through the midst of them. It’s strange and thought provoking.
Before we left for Nepal, I was reading a book called Raising Cain about the emotional life of boys. It’s one of the few books written on the topic of boys’ emotional development. In our culture, we tend to really worry about girls in public schools and how they feel, in part because boys tend to always be trying to steal the show in classrooms. But boys try to steal the show perhaps because they’re needy for something our culture doesn’t provide. Although I don’t think that Nepali men have found an answer to what ails the world, I do think that the idea of physical affection in its myriad forms is worth considering in terms of the violence in our own country.
Nepal Travel: Lydian vs. Bus (video)