Perhaps the greatest privilege that accompanies frequent travel is the opportunity to embrace human difference. Viewed through a new cultural window, the tiniest nuances of human communication are amplified. Mothers use different tones with their children. Laughter and exclamations of surprise or delight happen at different pitches, in different registers. As the sun influences skin tone and texture from region to region, so too language shapes faces—in France, for example, where vowels float light and musical, mouths tighten ever so slightly at the corners, rounded in the center. Across the border in Germany, a relaxed face features softer lips; the glottal language requires that chins are pulled closer to the chest.
The beauty of exploratory travel is that the observation of differences serves to create awareness in the traveler of self. As pronounced as our dissimilarities might be, one realizes that there are truths that are universal. Eye contact is central to communication; the warmth of a genuine smile is comforting no matter the circumstance. By noticing that which differs, we find our sameness.
Across the globe, the physical ritual of hand-holding always represents physical intimacy, but the interpretation of meaning varies wildly. Typically reserved in the United States for those in romantic relationships, the ritual has different implications in the east. A blogger at the travel site Slice of Shanghai writes:
“In Shanghai, as in other parts of China, holding hands, walking arm in arm with happy giggles, touching each other on the arm, or shoulder rubbing in public is no indication of a person’s sexual orientation. Instead, it is only a sign of close friendship. Girls tend to do all of the above, especially when they walk or shop together. It’s also common to see mothers and grown-up daughters hold hands or link arms, too. Touching the other person is indicative of how close one feels towards the other. Walking together without holding hands, on the other hand, means these two people are not close. In this sense, the interpersonal space is an accurate measurement (literally) of how close a person feels towards the one next to her.”
Conversely, in the Middle East, hand-holding is a sign of camaraderie between men. In his 2001 book, The Body in Islamic Culture, social anthropologist Fuad Ishak Khuri writes, “Clutching hands are meant to reflect amity, devotion, and most important, equality in status.”
Here in the U.S., artist Paige Tighe will spend this spring exploring American culture’s interpretation of this particular brand of physical intimacy. Her newest project, Walk with ME, began at home in California, after Tighe became aware of her need for physical contact during a massage. “As this woman massaged my hand, all I wanted to do was hold her hand. Not out of romantic desire, but a desire for connection,” Tighe says. “I decided right then and there I was going to hold hands with as many people as I could.”
In the months following her revelation, Tighe scheduled regular 30-minute walks with friends and acquaintances. To document each walk, she took photos and wrote down observations from the time she’d spent with her walking partner. Tighe has been moved by the response. “I have to say in the 21 walks I have done so far what comes out are intimate moments sharing moments of our lives and giving encouragement,” she says.
Motivated by her experiences as an artist and curator, Tighe is expanding the reach of her project beginning on April 15th with a segmented walk from Massachusetts to Georgia. Journeying through several cities with people from all walks of life, Tighe plans to create an artists’ book of interpretations of lessons learned along the way. “The East Coast is a very different psychological vibe than Southern California,” she says. “In Los Angeles, pretty much anything goes, and no one questions it. I want to see what it is like to hand hold and walk in different levels of acceptance of women walking with women and hand holding with either gender in public in different environments.”
Walk with ME will make stops in several U.S. states, beginning in Boston and progressing to Washington, D.C.; Durham, North Carolina; Asheville, North Carolina; and finishing in Athens, Georgia. “I chose this route because these are places I have couches to crash on. This project is emotionally pretty demanding so I wanted to know I had an old friend to go rest with,” Tighe says.
The project is being funded by a successful Kickstarter initiative that is open through March 25. Though thrilled to have made her goal, Tighe says, “I am hoping to make [more] to pay my designer and feed myself.”
Support Walk with ME by visiting Paige Tighe’s Kickstarter page.
Learn more about Paige Tighe’s work as an artist, performer, and curator here.