The very public problem of privacy

By Ember Swift
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 10, 2013
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When I first came to have a Chinese extended family through my (now) husband, there were certainly a few things that threw me off culturally, though nothing jarred my Western sensibilities quite as distinctly as the Chinese perception of privacy.

[File photo]

For most traditionally-minded Chinese people, privacy is a foreign concept, especially the recently retired generation who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, during which all of one's activities and, frankly, intentions were monitored and assessed by community surveillance. Governmental control began with this small circle approach and it was effective, to say the least. My (now) mother and father-in-law, for example, are of the generation which learned that family matters are never private, that space is communal, and that desiring anything otherwise was tantamount to being counter revolutionary.

Fast forward 35 years and we have a foreigner (me) and a Chinese person (my husband) entangled in matrimony amidst opposing (and strangling) lines of thinking strung from two different sides of the planet. The concept which most frequently tugs at those lines is that of privacy.

Perception of space is one manifestation of this concept. When my husband's parents visited us for the first time in Beijing, they lived in our apartment for a week and insisted upon sleeping on the floor rather than in the guest bed. They also busied themselves with domestic chores like it was their duty or role. While I and my husband were at work, my mother-in-law sorted through our drawers and closets and organized our clothing, including folding each individual piece of my underwear. My father-in-law reorganized my bathroom toiletries while installing some glass shelves which he had decided we needed. When I came home, he held up a strange object and asked me to identify it, while remarking on his inability to read the foreign words on the box in which he had found it. It was a tampon.

My mortification about these and other space issues made absolutely no impression on my husband, who felt that his parents were acting like all parents do: They were nosy and invasive, possessively controlling of space and they had every right to be like this because "that's how parents are." I was left in the contradictory state of appreciating their kindness while eagerly awaiting their departure.

The notion of privacy also extends to information. During the five years in which I have lived in China, I have discovered that keeping secrets is not a Chinese practice. Perhaps stemming once again from the days of full community transparency, the idea that one's personal news is not to be passed on is as foreign here as those words on the box in the bathroom were to my father-in-law.

My husband and I have engaged a weekly "ayi" who comes to help us with our domestic cleaning needs. She was recommended through my community as she works in several of my friend's households as well. Without her, my husband and I would have many more arguments regarding household chores and maintenance, so I consider her a vital ingredient in our matrimonial peace.

When I was first aware that I was expecting a child, I shared our news with her the way one would share news with a family member. Within a few days of imparting this news to her, I learned that my community of friends all knew and I'd not yet had a chance to share the information with them personally. Little did I know she would not understand the importance of discreetly guarding this information. In Western culture, we are taught to respect a family's privacy and/or right to disseminate such personal data at their own pace.

I could not be angry with her, as I knew her intentions were honorable. It's simply those opposing lines of thinking again. She was happy for us, excited and congratulatory; she simply has no frame of reference for our way of thinking, and thus, no filter in her exchange of information to her other clients (my friends).

At such moments, all I can do is sigh. When we live under another cultural tapestry, perhaps it's this very crisscrossing of thinking that creates the most color and beauty. And by extension, perhaps it's these "没办法"(what can you do?!) moments which enable us to really experience the essence of cross-cultural awareness.

The Western understanding of privacy, as a concept, will forever be Western in this Eastern context, in the same way that, for as long as I live here, I will forever be a white face in this Asian world. Coming to this realization has helped me soften my expectations for personal space while I live in this cultural arena; or perhaps more distinctly, it's helped me to privately tend to my need for privacy without expecting my Chinese family or friends to "get it." For instance, I know now that if I'd rather not have my undergarments handled by my mother-in-law, I'd better have a tidy drawer before she arrives!

Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who lives in Beijing with her husband, a prominent Chinese musician. For more information about Ember Swift and her life and work, please visit:

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