By Raymond Zhou
Last Sunday night at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, among all the celebrations, Yao Ming was seen hugging a female athlete.
I blurted out: "China's online sleuths are going to flush out the identity of this woman, and she's going to create a big wave in China."
A big-time blogger happened to be near me, and he posted my remarks in his blog. Now, we all know that woman was Lauren Jackson, an Australian basketball player who is currently with the Seattle Storm of the WNBA and the Australian National Team, The Opals.
I don't know why I said what I said, but I guess I had a hunch about this kind of thing - the misinterpretation of cultural incidents. What appeared to be a token of friendliness between two acquaintances or friends has triggered a spate of tall tales.
Soon after the embrace in the Bird's Nest, reports emerged claiming that Lauren Jackson, or LJ, is much more than a friend of Yao's. Obviously she initiated the hug, and Yao reciprocated with slight hesitation. From this, the legion of Chinese Sherlock Holmes have concluded that LJ used to have a fling with Yao, but Yao, faithful to his wife, Ye Li, turned her down.
I don't know how much truth there is in that. But it doesn't seem to be corroborated by the people involved. That, however, doesn't prevent the hug from being the runaway fun story from an otherwise predictable sporting event.
If you don't believe what I've said, here's the final proof - a rewritten lyric set to the tune of the Beijing Olympics theme song:
Yao Ming: (helplessly) Me and Li / Heart to heart / Have got marriage license / Stop dreaming / Don't carry on / For I'll be faithful. / Go away, Lauren / Let go of my hand / You and me / Are impossible / Go find someone else.
LJ: (joyfully) Yao near me / And hugged me / Won't part with me. / Winds may blow / Blow them apart / And he'll hug me alone. / Come on, Big Yao / Give me your hand.
Chorus: Yao near me / And hugged me / Dazed over me / You love me / And hugged me / Now in dream of me.
An audio version is floating in cyberspace, with uncanny mimicry of the original singers Liu Huan and Sarah Brightman.
You may laugh at such a childish act of mischievousness. But actually it's not that simple. Chinese etiquette does not include hugging in public, and even though we've seen it countless times in movies most of us do not know when it is appropriate to hug, especially a non-family member of the opposite sex.
Two decades ago, I was seeing off a group of visitors at the airport after escorting them for weeks on a tour across China. The women hugged me one by one, or rather, the first woman hugged me, and then I started hugging the others. It happened that the last person in the group was an old gentleman. As soon as I opened my arms, one of the women hinted that I stop. I instantly realized what she meant, but I did not understand. I've seen movies from Eastern Europe in which adult men hugged each other. The nuances were just too complicated for a kid fresh out of college.
Today, hugging is quite common in China, especially among the young, but old mindsets die hard. Even if you conduct yourself properly, as Yao Ming and LJ did, people will misunderstand you, deliberately or not, because the same act has different connotations in different cultures.
Wait for a Yao-Ye-LJ melodrama like a soap opera fit for primetime. What netizens can cook up will be infinitely more colorful than anything on TV.
(China Daily 08/30/2008 page4)