Greeting people in Beijing isn’t, I have come to the conclusion, easy. You’d think a hello or a hug would suffice but no: in Beijing 2011, kissing seems to have become the default greeting between those with even a passing acquaintance.
There’s nothing wrong with social kissing of course, but the problem is that nobody seems to have worked out what the rules are. Case in point? My Swedish friends in Beijing kiss socially once, my Chinese friends kiss socially twice while Beijing’s determinedly chic Dutch contingent kiss thrice and the Americans (in my experience) seem to be big fans of air kissing and invariably greet me with a massive mwah mwah.
All of which illustrates that there doesn’t seem to be a generally agreed system of who kisses when and where (do you veer to the left side first or the right?) which can result in some seriously mixed up messages! For me, meeting up with someone I don’t know very well – and in Beijing where people tend to arrive and depart quicker than a camera shutter opens and closes, this happens a lot – has now become highly stressful. Will the person I am meeting kiss the way I do or do they have their own understood code of convention?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating the return of the traditional handshake but at least everyone knew that the perfect handshake should be neither too sweaty, too soft nor too hard and could practice getting the grip right at home. In the case of social kissing, there is no manual to follow so I thought I would have a go at defining what has become the definitive greeting among Beijingers (both laowai and locals) myself.
1. Don’t kiss strangers. If you don’t know someone, why in the world would you want to place your lips on their cheeks (or vice versa)? End of!
2. Unless the person you are kissing is your other half, don’t even think about kissing them on the lips.
3. Some members of the older generation (elderly aunts and the like) still do kiss on the lips. If you can come up with a way to put a stop to this, please let me know!
4. Sometimes less is more. One kiss is nice. Two is also nice but three is too OTT not to mention time consuming (sorry Dutchies!)
5. Air kissing gets the thumbs up. All that ‘mwah mwahing’ might come across as a tad pretentious but it’s also hygienic and saves us slobbering all over each other.
6. Calling all Beijing’s men folk: kissing is simply a social greeting so don’t chance your luck, ok?!
7. Let’s agree which direction we should veer first. As Beijingers drive on the right hand side of the road, I suggest that we should veer right (thereby offering the left cheek) first.
8. Finally, remember your manners by which I mean don’t duck out once kissing becomes inevitable. There is only one thing worse than lunging forward into a kiss and missing sides or entangling glasses –and that’s when the kissee backs off, leaving your ‘greeting’ with nowhere to land. You’re in Beijing where social kissing has become the standard form of greeting in polite society and as the saying goes, when in Rome….. The bottom line? Adhere to social niceties and be prepared to pucker up!