by Samir Chopra
A couple of years ago, I participated in a radio discussion on ‘Male Intimacy,’ hosted by Natasha Mitchell on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s show Life Matters. Natasha had invited me on to offer the ‘alternative perspective’ of an immigrant who had lived in India, the US, and briefly, in Australia. (Audio is available; I go on at the 20 minute mark; the whole show is worth a listen.)
While on air, when speaking about the cross-cultural differences in male intimacy I had experienced in my three ‘homes,’ I noted that growing up in India meant being socialized in a domain of relationships with men where physical contact was relatively unproblematic: I put my arms around my male friends’ shoulders, did not rigorously negotiate inter-personal physical space, and demonstrated affection and companionship through a variety of physical gestures—including hugs. (Avuncular affection almost always took these forms.) As the time approached for my move to the US, I was warned—by those Indians who had preceded me and were now already resident in the US—to not expect such ‘intimate’ contact when I crossed the waters, to desist from such overt displays of friendship and affection in my relationships with American men. Those warnings spoke to a culture that set much store by the careful maintenance of a physical and emotional space between its male members; ‘keep your distance’ applied to many dimensions of social interactions. I took these warnings to heart. There was no reason to disbelieve them; moreover, I was keen to ‘fit in,’ to not ‘stick out,’ to not take the risk of being called a ‘homo’ or a ‘fag’—as seemed to be the fate of those who transgressed in this domain. This was the 1980s; America seemed—from a distance—to be suffering a national crisis of masculine insecurity. I suffered from my own variant of it.
So the manner of my relationships with men changed once I moved to the US; besides the obvious psychosocial distance pertaining to matters of familial and filial structure, and political and cultural tastes and inclinations, I found men in my new home structured and conducted their relationships and friendships with each other quite differently. American men were not physically demonstrative in their claims of friendship; they did not hug their male friends; they did not put arms around male friends; they carefully established the requisite physical space between themselves and their friends. Immigration induced many changes in the qualitative and quantitative nature of my personal and social relationships with men and women alike; the parameters of male relationships in my new home denied me a very particular—and much desired when missed—kind of emotional sustenance.