Sunday, April 8, 2012
So, You're Moving to China: Personal Space
Dear Imaginary Person,
So far I've told you about some of the smells and sounds you'll encounter when you get here, and it's true that both of these sensory assaults can take some getting used to. You can rest easy, though, in the sure knowledge that you will get used to them. There is something else that I should tell you about, and it's something that you may never get used to. Knowing about it ahead of time might prepare you to better cope with it, though, so here it goes; Chinese people stand really close to you.
You might think I'm having a laugh, or making a bigger deal than I should about something that doesn't really matter very much, but I'm as serious as a heart attack about this. People here stand entirely too close to you, close enough that you can smell what they had for breakfast three days ago, and it will drive you batty. Your idea of personal space is tied directly into the part of your brain that decides whether to run away from someone or tear out their throat, and different cultures have a different idea of what constitutes that space. Canadian personal space is more or less as far as you can reach without stretching; if I can easily put both of my hands on you, you are in my personal space, and I am in yours. Chinese personal space seems to extend to the end of the eyelashes, or occasionally to the end of the nose.
This plays out in a number of ways in daily life here. When lining up for things (if you can get people to line up), you will step up to the back of the line a comfortable distance from the person in front of you. One of two things will then happen. Some people will assume that if you are standing that far away from the next person you aren't actually in the line and they will push in front of you. They may well actually push you; remember - eyelashes. Some people will realise you are also in line and will step up behind you. You will feel their breath on the back of your neck. They will make glancing contact with your clothing. You will be convinced that they are trying to pick your pocket (they might actually be trying to pick your pocket - that happens a lot). This only happens when there is a queue though, so don't worry over much as it is next to impossible to get Chinese people to line up for anything.
The more common way you might experience this is with friends and co-workers. I can recall several occasions when I was walking down the street with a friend and I had to tell him that if he continued to walk that close to me I would have no choice but to punch him in the head. He was a close friend - we shared an apartment for a couple of years - but he was walking with his arm in almost constant contact with my arm and every time I widened the space between us he immediately closed it. The sidewalk was otherwise empty, so there was no reason for such close proximity aside from his idea of personal space differing so drastically from mine.
This is another one of those differences where Chinese folks will tell you it's because there are too many people in China. The thing is, outside of the bigger cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen the population density isn't any higher than in many western cities (where people don't crowd each other unless there is no other choice whatsoever). Here they crowd each other even in otherwise empty spaces. Habits are funny things, unless they are other people's habits.