I’m something of an affectionate person. Smile at me, and I’ll smile back. Wave, and I’ll return the gesture. Give me a hug, and I’ll just about smother you with my exuberance. I tend to touch people on the arm when talking to them, and I have no problems squeezing into a crowded couch (or onto a friend’s lap for that matter) at parties. More often than not, my personal emails are filled with emoticons and exclamation marks, and depending on the recipient, my work emails are, too. I’m quick to tell someone that I think she’s the shiznit, am quicker to tell her that I love her, and for every snarky comment I make, I’ll rattle off three sincere compliments (I’m pretty sure that’s the ratio). I like to give little gifts to my friends just because, and I’ll leave smiley face-ridden notes in my husband’s car because it’s Tuesday. In other words, I’m terribly—perhaps irritatingly—expressive. Pretty much all the time.
I didn’t use to be, though. Or at least not as effusively so. For sure, I grew up in a rather non-stereotypical Asian family, and my parents have always been generous with their “I love you”s, hugs and pet names. But they also have their culturally archetypical attitudes, and they prize discretion as a virtue. So much so that by the time I left home for college, I couldn’t imagine telling someone that I adored him or her unless I knew exactly how said person felt about me. And was sure that the sentiment would be reciprocal. Likewise, I wasn’t about to tell someone that he or she was awesome just because the thought occurred to me at that moment. Part of the reason for my hesitation—and perhaps for my parents, too—stemmed from pride and the balance of power that emotional vulnerability can tilt against my favor. Another reason was the assumption that I’d have future opportunities to express how I felt, that some things were best saved for special occasions so that they were rendered more precious by their rarity. After all, how much do we treasure a grumbled “good job” from a jerk boss who never exalts his minions? And how much do we value the “you complete me” from a significant other who’s maddeningly stingy with his thoughts?
My attitude changed a few years ago. Doctors discovered a golf ball-sized tumor in my cousin’s brain. Surgery was risky, they said, but inaction was deadly. So they excised the bugger, leaving behind remnants so that they wouldn’t nick his gray matter. He was in his twenties. He survived, but he’s going to have to spend the rest of his life monitoring the tumor and have it removed again when it grows dangerously large. Which, if I am to believe the neurosurgeons, it will. And each operation will bring bated breaths and clenched fists for both him and his family members who won’t know if he’s being whisked into the OR for the last time. Three months later, one of my husband’s close friends found out that she had a tumor on the base of her brain stem. She went to the hospital. And died two days later. She was thirty-six. A month later, my husband’s grandmother passed away. So did my father-in-law’s best friend. For the next year, we started to believe that brain tumors were going to grip us all, that death was hungry and lurking for the unexpecting at every corner. With each announcement of yet another horrible disease and another passing, I heard so many regrets from family and friends, so many statements like, “I should have told him more often how much I loved him. I should have told him what a wonderful person he was.” The more I heard comments like these, the more I felt like I was watching an awful after school special with its sickeningly axiomatic message. And the angrier I became. What kind of bullshit was this, everyone having held back their feelings for who knows what reason? As for my own reticence, was the fear of appearing uncouth really preventing me from expressing how I felt about others? Was I so afraid that my expression might not be reciprocated? What occasion was “special” enough to warrant what we should be telling each other every day? And the answer I kept coming to was, “Who cares if you appear unladylike? Or if the person doesn’t reciprocate? If it means something to you, for God’s sake, just say it.” So I do. Almost as often as I think it.
I think about Clueless every now and then. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies (and a surprising source of life lessons). In it is a scene where Christian asks Cher whether he should keep the leather jacket he just bought. Her response, in all of its teenaged, California glory: “Carpe diem. You looked hot it!” I like that for so many reasons. More than anything, though, I love her attitude toward the seemingly trivial. Why worry if you’re going to end up looking like James Dean or Jason Priestly? Do it anyway. Say it. Express it. Carpe Diem, indeed.
Now, let me give you that hug. Because you, my friend—and if you’re reading this and made it all the way to the bottom, then you are my friend—are the shiznit.