Friday, February 13, 2009

Thinking about privacy and personal space again...

Privacy in China is mental rather than physical. You make yourself unaware of who’s right next to you, whether it’s someone shelling beans or having an argument or brushing his teeth in his underwear....This insightful comment was made by Emily Prager, a longtime New York resident who decided to make Shanghai her new home. Her first person account of the move was featured in the New York Times in July 2007. ( It was just about the time that Josh and I found out about the possibility of our upcoming move.

I recently revisited the article after finding it in my e-mail inbox. The quote explains many things that I've seen here. Whether it was the man urinating in the bush in a busy neighborhood, and along the same lines, the numerous children using floors in supermarkets or trash bins to do their thing, the way people pick their nose and clean their ears in public with their long pinky nails (mostly men), or conduct themselves in gym locker room. (I'll save those details for a feature post in the works.)

The same goes for personal space. It's all inside your head. That's why there aren't any excuse me's or apologies if someone bumps into you - even if it could have been avoided. It's why I practically got pushed over going through a clothing rack because the women next to me was going at a faster pace.

It's truly an ingenious coping mechanism - a way to make daily life more tolerable -when you live in such close quarters and deal with what appears to be an endless sea of people. From an outsider's perspective, these things can be puzzling and frustatrating at times.

These observations are more than a simple case of bad manners though. They represent a stark reality that exists for residents. Many say years of poverty and isolation created these behaviors. Bottom line is that it's important to understand why people act the way they do. Unfortunately, it doesn't always make it easier to deal with. More importantly, you hope that the conditions that people live in here will improve...and then perhaps, their manners.

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