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Nations & Customs
Chinese Privacy and Personal Space

 

With more than 1.3 billion people in a land mass just smaller than that of the continental United States, privacy and personal space in China are at a premium. Consequently, the Chinese have a very different perspective on what constitutes appropriate social distance between two people than we do, and, in fact, there is no precise translation in Chinese for the English word privacy.  This concept simply doesn¡¯t exist in the same way for most Chinese as it does for us. 

Throughout your stay in China, you will often be asked numerous questions that we, as Westerners, consider to be very personal and even privileged information, e.g., ¡隆茫What is your salary?¡隆脌, ¡隆茫How much did you earn in your hometown?¡隆脌, and ¡隆茫How old is your girlfriend?¡隆脌  Related, you will commonly hear unsolicited and often unflattering assessments about yourself such as ¡隆茫You are a little too fat,¡隆脌 ¡隆茫You look a little too old: you should shave off your beard¡隆脌 and ¡隆茫You should dress more warmly: it¡¯s getting colder now.¡隆脌   These types of ad hominem commentaries are actually not intended to be insulting or patronizing, but, rather, are proffered to indicate an interest in you as a person and in your well-being.

Chinese place an enormous amount of emphasis on protecting and nurturing those they are in close personal relationships with, namely family members and intimate friends. However, the polar opposite is true in regard to anyone outside the guanxi network, which partially explains why there is an absence of meaningful social welfare and charity organizations in China (and, in this particular regard, the Chinese are quite perplexed by Westerners as, from their perspective, we appear to treat complete strangers and those who are in desperate need far better than we do our own family and friends). Related, there is very little to no concern for public property and that which can be stolen will be. There is an expression in China that states you are not a real Chinese unless you have had four bicycles stolen from you.  Scott Seligman, cited above, offers the following observation of Arthur Henderson Smith who worked as a missionary in China for 54 years, from 1872 to 1926, and wrote prolifically about his experiences:

Dr. Arthur H. Smith saw this trend equally clearly in the imperial China of 1894.  ¡隆茫Not only do the Chinese feel no interest in that which belongs to the public,¡隆脌 he wrote in Chinese Characteristics, ¡隆茫but all such property, if unprotected and available, is a mark for theft.  Paving-stones are carried off for private use, and square rods of the brick facing to city walls gradually disappear¡­ .  It is a common observation among the Chinese that¡­ there is no one so imposed upon and cheated as the Emperor,¡隆脌 he added.

Despite their relative disregard for public property, the Chinese nevertheless value social harmony above all else, and believe that individual expression and personal freedom should be subjugated to the needs of the group as a whole.  In public, they tend to exercise Quaker-like restraint in regard to emotional expression, and do not see much merit in being direct or confrontational. Consequently, they will avoid getting involved in anything that isn¡¯t clearly their personal or family business. Related, while personal space and property are highly valued and cared for, community space or public areas¡ªincluding the streets and even the inside of apartment buildings, especially the stairwells¡ªare often filthy and typically strewn with debris.

One rainy, dreary, and cold spring afternoon, I had just taken a new foreign teacher to open up a mobile phone account. All of a sudden, we heard the screeching sound of breaks and turned our heads towards the street to witness a very close near-miss between a car and an oncoming truck. Apparently, a manhole cover had worked its way loose and, as each car had previously rolled over it in succession, it eventually dislodged itself completely uncovering a large hole in the middle of the street that was not easily discernable until the drivers were almost too close to do anything about it. Over the next few minutes, we observed several more such near-misses until this young colleague and I decided to take matters into our own hands. We left the building we had been watching this from, entered the street, stopped traffic, lifted up the manhole cover and returned it to its proper place. We returned to China Mobile to a round of applause, with an explicit observation from one of the store managers that no Chinese would have ever taken it upon himself to correct this problem as we two foreigners had just done.

 
   
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