What Did You Say? Where are You Going? What are You Watching?
I’d known since the day we arrived that the privacy standards we enjoy in the States were not to be expected while living in China. A friend of a friend who had served in Beijing was giving me some insights about navigating the experience. I intellectualized it as the price of being a guest in this country.
Small and Bothersome
1) The front desk staff at our apartment function like concierges, they speak English and can be enlisted to accomplish mundane errands, like purchasing airline tickets, or scheduling deliveries. As I sought to wander farther and farther from home, I would explain where I needed to go, and (if I could find the place on the TripAdvisor app) show them the destination address and they would convey it to the cab driver. (I learned early on that although many skyscrapers, hotels and malls bear names in English, cab drivers do not know those names and do not speak English.) Besides conveying the address to the cab driver, they would often editorialize on the location, “Oh, that’s very far. How do you know this place?” And, I could be sure if Joe called and asked to be put through to our apartment they would happily tell him where I’d gone and how long since I’d left. They were even kind enough to tell my neighbor, who is a friend, where’d I gone one day.
The frequent greeting when I passed the desk and didn’t need assistance, was “Where are you going?” The question used to really, really, really annoy me before I learned from my teacher that the Mandarin equivalent “Ni qu nar (Phonetic: Knee-chew-nar)?” is a frequent greeting between Chinese friends. Even though I now understand the cultural basis, my American sensibilities still find it annoying and invasive. I have since learned to balance their helpful curiosity with my innate need for privacy. Now, no matter where I’m going, I say I’m going shopping.
2) Since the front desk staff almost always know where I am, why wouldn’t the host government? The WeChat app is very popular in China. People use it for everything from text messaging, bike rentals, to paying bills and calling a cab. When I arrived, several women I met and liked suggested it as the method for exchanging contact information. The terms and conditions for installing the app were staggeringly onerous. The download screen stated explicitly that I was giving the app extensive permissions related to the operation of the phone--not just the app. Holy intrusiveness! By accepting the terms and conditions, I was enabling it to close and or delete other apps, activate my microphone and GPS, delete contacts, and other wide-ranging and creepy actions (like activating the recording feature which happens often when I am on calls).
3) How many of us carelessly toss event tickets or business cards onto a credenza? Well as I’ve learned, if they are visible any service person who enters the apartment is likely to look at and comment on them. After picking up our high-speed train ticket stubs to Shanghai, one worker, asked what we thought of the city. His audacity—not just looking at but picking up and giving the tickets the once over—has since been replicated by our housekeeper and maintenance workers. Unlike in the States, the behavior is not seen as rude or invasive, nor do looks of incredulity or annoyance cause any shame.
4) BBC ran a documentary on Family Planning in China.(www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03t2mzp) I was surprised that BBC reporters had been allowed to interview families and former family planning officials. Four minutes into the program, I was hooked, and the TV faded to black. I switched to CNN, it was broadcasting. Clearly, the topic of family planning was not appropriate programming for the masses. I found it online and finished watching it. The government requires every Chinese woman of reproductive age to carry a small red book. A stamp is given for each quarterly gynecological check to ensure she is not pregnant, her IUD is in place, and she has no communicable disease. The overreach into such personal matters is inconceivable and intolerable to Westerners. So much for whining about a lack of privacy.
Even though my diplomatic passport avails me of protections and immunity, I’ll save these stories until I’m wheels up or I see you.
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